Working Intentionally In An
Urban Setting

All Head Start programs face challenges particular to their locations. In New York City, the Puerto Rican Family Institute’s Brooklyn Head Start program’s challenge is serving multi-needs families in an increasingly high-cost neighborhood.

Part of a 50-year-old social service agency dedicated to improving the functioning of "diverse marginalized communities," the program supports four classrooms in the basement of a former YMCA building in the Williamsburg neighborhood—teeming quarters that reflect New York’s notoriously pressured real estate market. Williamsburg’s ethnic and socioeconomic mix is changing rapidly as new communities of Hasidic Jewish families and young artists move in. But for now, most of the Head Start program's 71 children come from Mexican and Central and South American families, including many recent arrivals to the city who are still undocumented immigrants and share multifamily living quarters.

It has taken CPLC—a statewide social and economic development corporation with offices throughout the region—more than 40 years to refine its holistic approach to service delivery in Arizona's "economically deprived communities." As Program Director Andrea Martinez explains, the agency emphasizes "a high level of respect and trust no matter what is going on." She refers to the state's often-contentious debate over immigration and the role of migrant labor.

"Always in Head Start programs, we worked to get children ready for school. Now we need to be more intentional about it."

Program Director Carmen Fontanez and Education Director Karen Spence divide their time between the Brooklyn site and one 14 miles away in the Bronx with 120 children. Classes are taught in English, but communication with family members is often conducted in Spanish. Fontanez and Spence work within guidelines and priorities of several public agencies including the New York City Department of Education—the largest school district in the nation with 1.1 million children—and the New York State Education Department.

One current task is to shape pre-kindergarten curriculum to learning expectations associated with the Common Core State Standards, a national initiative to define the knowledge and skills children should obtain within their K-12 education. New York is one of several states correlating the common core standards for math and literacy with the Head Start Child Development and Early Learning Framework (HSCDELF).

Fontanez and Spence and their eight classroom staff use two general approaches to function effectively within this complex and variable environment: they rigorously assess their children's learning and development, and they use the urban resources around them to create meaningful learning experiences.

Spence works with teachers to implement the assessment tool Teaching Strategies GOLD®. "Teachers input data during their planning time," Spence explains. "You have to be computer literate now." Recently promoted from a teaching post in the institute, Spence has learned in part through the GOLD® webinars how to aggregate the data into development areas and across age groups and categories such as dual-language learners and children with IEPs. In this way, she monitors the development of every student in the program and how children are progressing to meet specific school readiness objectives. Spence shares the findings with teachers every week and with families three times a year.

"Whatever you think of data, it can tell us a lot about what classrooms are doing and which need to do better," Spence explains. For example, if assessment data show a classroom "should pay more attention to literacy and language," Spence suggests activities that will encourage children's interest in books. One recent activity engaged children in organizing books in the classroom's corner nook. "We put all the books in a circle and asked the children to put them in different color-coded categories," Spence recalls. The color codes correspond to subject categories such as science (From Blossom to Fruit) and feelings (When Sophie Gets Angry, Really Really Angry). The tidy nook, Spence says, "makes the classroom much more appealing."

Parents are invited—in both English and Spanish—to participate in activities that connect classroom lessons with home routines. "Talk about the letter V today," advises one weekly activity sheet. Other sheets encourage parents to "Let your child choose which books to read at bedtime tonight," "Teach your child to say 'I love you' in sign language," and "Explain when the warmer weather will return and why."

Children are initiated early into programs offered by the recently renovated Williamsburg Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, which is located across the street. They participate in story time, musical presentations, and puppet shows. "And as soon as we can do it, we get them library cards," Spence reports.

Another activity to encourage literacy is Study Starters, the intense study of one topic that is encouraged by the Creative Curriculum for Preschool® tool. One recent topic was penguins, and the Brooklyn-based children enjoyed a field trip to the penguin exhibit in the Central Park Zoo.

The New York location provides other benefits. The program partners with Cornell University to conduct nutritional workshops. (The Brooklyn Head Start children participate in the "Eat Well, Play Hard" obesity prevention initiative developed by the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program.) Children receive dental screenings through a partnership with the New York University College of Dentistry.

All these assessments, activities, and partnerships are grounded in the fundamental goal of preparing children for school. And as Fontanez explains, this approach is not new to the Puerto Rican Family Institute.  "Always in Head Start programs, we worked to get children ready for school. Now we need to be more intentional about it."

(This profile is based on interviews conducted in December 2011.)

Last Reviewed: June 2014

Last Updated: August 28, 2014