Chicago Commons launches Family Hub program

(The Gate/Sonya Eldridge)

(The Gate/Sonya Eldridge)

At first glance, it might appear to be a typical school day outside on the playground at Chicago Commons Paolo Freire Center (PFC) in Back of the Yards. But what the students experience that day- anything from seeing a rainbow to touring a local elementary school- can potentially shape school lessons and projects.

“The kids really sort of author their own learning experience,” said Carolyn Branton, Chicago Commons manager of strategic partnerships and communications as she pointed to colorful panels on display in the hallway that documented all stages of a school project from concept to completion.

One day after it rained, Branton explained, the children saw a rainbow outside. When they returned to the school, the students said they wanted to make their own rainbow. With the guidance of their teacher, the children decided to cover blocks with construction paper to recreate their own rainbow, and from there, a new project was born. “It sort of weaves together science, literacy, art and all these things, but it was from an experience they didn’t know they would have when they came to play on the playground at school that day,” Branton said.

And while toddlers learn language and motor skills in Head Start, their parents (and grandparents) have the opportunity to take advantage of a wide array of adult education programming ranging from English as a Second Language to cooking classes and even job placement assistance. The longstanding social service agency that first opened as a settlement house in 1894 recently completed a pilot year of Family Hub- a consolidated, multigenerational initiative that launched this month.

Family Hub repackages two existing programs- early childhood education i.e. Head Start and adult education into one multigenerational family-centered program, explained Nilda Vargas, Network Site Director of Chicago Commons’ centers in Back of the Yards, Pilsen and West Humboldt Park. Chicago Commons early childhood education program is based on the Reggio Emilia approach which was founded in Reggio Emilia, Italy by Loris Malaguzzi after World War II.

The approach uses the surrounding environment to educate young minds through two-generation approach is designed to strengthen the entire family through individual goal setting and training. A parent enrolled in the English as a Second Language Program can make it a goal to learn how to read a children’s book aloud for their child at home, or even to students in the classroom at the center.

On a weekly basis, parents and teachers meet to review the child’s progress and interests to ensure school lessons are challenging enough and aiding in the socialemotional and intellectual development of the child. “They talk about what questions they are going to ask- so that the children can have a different view of the world,” Vargas said. “What can we add to the environment so that the children can see and [even though] maybe they are not verbalizing [yet] – but internally, their thought process is one area we want to develop with children- for them to think, for them to talk, for them to dialogue with one another so everyone is involved.”

Commons teachers have regular lesson plans, but they also use what is called an ‘emergent’ curriculum, which allows for curriculum development based on the interests and passions of students at a certain point in time. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, an emergent curriculum is “co-constructed by the children and the adults and the environment itself. To develop curriculum in depth, adults must notice children’s questions and invent ways to extend them, document what happens, and invent more questions.”

Rodrigo Paredes, senior manager of family engagement said the Family Hub program’s two-generation approach is designed to strengthen the entire family through individual goal setting and training. A parent enrolled in the English as a Second Language Program can make it a goal to learn how to read a children’s book aloud for their child at home, or even to students in the classroom at the center.

“We’re trying to avoid the classic relationship between the school and the parents, where it’s just one or the other,” Paredes said. Commons also hosts ‘Family Nights’ to bring children and parents together to do one activity that is not only curriculum-related, but engaging and interesting for all involved.

“This allows the family to reclaim time together, to [strengthen] their bond,” Paredes said. “The kid can see the mother, father and grandma doing art together, which probably doesn’t happen at home because most of our parents have two jobs.”

Spending ample amounts of quality family time together is becoming more of a thing of the past, according to a November 2015 report by the Pew Research Center. In about 46 percent of two-parent households, both mother and father now work full-time. Around 40 percent of full-time working mothers say they don’t spend enough time with their children. More than half of working fathers echo this sentiment further reinforcing the need for a two-generation approach to programs.

Family Hub case managers work directly with parents to set goals for the entire family. The program is specifically tailored to meet the needs and goals of the whole familychildren and parents. “It’s respondent to the needs of the parents in that moment, in that month, in that time,” Paredes said.

At the end of the day, the program seeks to create stability for families who are often times on the move, working multiple jobs and encountering violence in their communities regularly, he explained. “We know that our families are looking for stability, but it’s hard, so we try to support them,” Paredes said. After losing their daughter to domestic violence two and half years ago, Maria and Alfonso Pulido took custody of their four grandchildren and kept them enrolled in Head Start at PFC. Maria also participates in the ESL program, which has helped her communicate with her grandchildren while also helping her overcome her shyness.

“When [my 6-year old grandson] went to school for kindergarten, he was knowledgeable on many things, therefore it was relatively easy for him to learn more stuff since he already knew letters and numbers,” Pulido said. When his grandson transitioned to kindergarten it was much easier for him to learn to read, added Pulido. He also described how his five-year-old daughter could count to 50 under a half-minute because of the education she received at PFC.

The Pulidos also explained how as the children coped with the loss of their mother, Commons provided family counseling to help the entire family deal with their grief. The Commons’ Head Start program has had such an impact on Pulido’s grandchildren that they still ask to go back to their school to see their teachers and friends.

“The programs [Commons] offers are quite advanced and are at the forefront of what the community needs. It’s a great help to kick start their education. Here they help kids focus towards a goal. When my kids came out they were talking about being doctors, policemen and teachers.”