Sheena Sanders walked her 3-year-old son, Alijah, to his classroom and gave him an extra hug.
Then she asked his teacher, Stacy Kobza, about something that had puzzled her the day before.
“He came home singing ‘Brown Bear, Brown Bear, what do you see?’ ” Sanders said of Alijah. “I didn’t know what to say.”
Kobza explained that the class had read the book “Brown Bear,” learned the song and did an exercise related to the story about colors.
That’s the kind of parent-teacher interaction that educators had in mind when they created a new preschool program this year at Kellom Elementary, a high-poverty school north of downtown Omaha.
The $1.5 million pilot program, which also is at nearby Conestoga Magnet Elementary, is funded by the Omaha Public Schools and the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties.
It’s the first installment of the Learning Community’s broader push for expanded early childhood education — an effort that also includes a new $4.6 million building that will open next fall.
Parents and other caregivers are a big part of the program, because research has shown that young children benefit when their parents or other adults do things that support their cognitive development.
Such support is particularly important in high-poverty areas, where the stresses of daily life can undermine children’s development and leave them less prepared for school. Those cognitive deficits aren’t just in academic skills such as language but also in what researchers call “executive function” abilities: focus, working memory, decision-making and self-control, among others.
In areas such as north Omaha, where poverty and the resulting problems have existed for generations, parents sometimes lack those skills themselves, said Ted Stilwill, the Learning Community’s chief executive officer. That makes it harder for them to know how to help their children, he said.
Kris Carter, who represents Subcouncil 2 on the Learning Community Council, said responding to the problems of poverty in her district will take a comprehensive approach.
“We wanted to be able to reach the entire family, because it’s not just the child themselves that is being affected,” Carter said. “It’s the environment that the child lives in. It’s the parents. It’s so many other factors.”
The Learning Community strategy includes direct training of parents, based on recommendations from organizations such as Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child. The Harvard center says it’s more effective to demonstrate and coach parents than simply passing out information and expecting parents to learn it themselves.
“It’s very helpful for parents to see how someone else works with their children,” Stilwill said.
Parents can be shown, for example, the importance of interacting with their babies, he said. Not everyone realizes how imitating, reacting and talking is essential to stimulate infant brains, he said.
Conversely, Stilwill said, parents may not understand that the adrenaline rush produced by a constantly noisy environment may thwart a young child’s development.
“In multigenerational poverty, no one tells you that stuff,” he said. “It’s not taking over their responsibility. That would be pretty disrespectful. It’s acknowledging their responsibility and helping them meet it.”
One approach to directly engaging parents was seen earlier this year. Staff members from the new Kellom and Conestoga classrooms went door to door in the neighborhood, meeting parents and talking about signing up their children for the classes.
While the program also accepted 3- and 4-year-olds from other neighborhoods, especially if they had language needs or other special education issues, the goal was to enhance a sense of community by ensuring that many of the students were local.
Preschool teachers also visited their students’ homes last month, before classes started. And because the program requires parents to sign their children in and out each day, that gives them two chances each day to talk with teachers.
But that’s not all. The program also includes family support workers, hired by the Learning Community to help address family needs outside the classroom, steering parents toward social service resources and resolving problems.
Specific parent training efforts also are in the works. At first, the focus will be on families of the nearly 130 3- and 4-year-olds attending Kellom and Conestoga. Eventually the Learning Community intends to reach out to other neighborhood families not connected to the school classes.
The new building, which will open in about a year, will serve as a hub for the training programs and family support services. It also will include several classrooms for infants and toddlers and an observation area so parents and others can watch professional educators care for the children.
This year, however, the family support and parental training will use space at the two schools, just down the hall from the new preschool classrooms.
On a recent morning, Carl Tibbs, 41, delivered his 4-year-old daughter, Kennedy, to her classroom at Kellom.
Breakfast was being served: biscuits, chocolate milk and frozen apricots.
Before long, the children in one classroom were singing: “The wheels on the bus go ’round and ’round” and the “A-B-C” song.
Tibbs said he considers all-day preschool a privilege that will help prepare Kennedy for kindergarten.
“I think it will teach her how to interact with kids and give her a little more time for studying,” he said.
The larger goal, he said, is for Kennedy to do what he did not: go to college.
Tibbs graduated from Omaha Northwest High in 1990 and said he used to run with gangs, back when the neighborhood still had high-density public housing projects.
He now runs a mobile carwash service that serves automobile dealerships. His wife, Justina, teaches at King Science and Technology Magnet Center.
Carter, the Learning Community Council member, said improving education in high-poverty areas will determine whether the next generation’s workforce is competent and employable — something essential not only for area families, but also for the city and state.
“Most of them won’t have an opportunity to leave this state,” she said of low-income youths, “so they’re going to be here. So they’re the human capital for Nebraska.”