Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Other Partners Promote Holistic Early Childhood Development
The conviction that child health and family well-being are critical components of early childhood development is a central tenet of Educare Atlanta, a learning facility for children from six weeks of age through pre-kindergarten. Located in the Mechanicsville neighborhood of Atlanta alongside Paul Laurence Dunbar Elementary School at the Dunbar Learning Complex, Educare has joined with many partners to ensure that the children in their program are well prepared for elementary school. Educare’s program offers a holistic strategy for early childhood development that addresses preschoolers’ emotional, physical, and social health and the well-being of those children’s families. By contributing staff and expertise to the program, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA), one of the largest pediatric clinical care providers in the nation, is helping the children and their parents overcome health-related barriers to learning.
Creating an Integrated Early Childhood Development Program
When parents in Mechanicsville identified a lack of quality childcare facilities as a barrier to obtaining and retaining jobs, the Center for Working Families, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, United Way of Greater Atlanta, Sheltering Arms Early Education and Family Centers, and other organizations partnered to create an early childhood learning facility. The partners worked with Atlanta Public Schools to integrate an early childhood education program into the Dunbar Elementary School, which was then undergoing renovations, to create the Dunbar Learning Complex. Community residents participating in workgroups and design meetings for the complex expressed concerns about their children’s health, and a health scan of Mechanicsville and adjacent neighborhoods released during this time indicated a high incidence of health issues among area children. In response to community concern and the health scan findings, CHOA and state and local health departments joined the partnership to develop the Healthy Beginnings System of Care, which would be integrated into the program at the new early childhood education facility. The facility, now known as Educare Atlanta, opened in 2010 to educate and address the social, emotional, and physical health needs of up to 206 children and better prepare them for elementary school.
A Healthy Beginning for Children
“We know that if children are not healthy, then they may have more difficulties in learning,” notes Susan Bertonaschi, director of health promotion and healthy beginnings at United Way of Greater Atlanta, which manages the Healthy Beginnings System of Care at Educare Atlanta. Under the Healthy Beginnings System, Educare staff and partners assess the social, emotional, cognitive, verbal, and physical development of participating children and ensure that those children and their families are connected to quality health care. A key feature of the system is the health navigator, a registered nurse from CHOA. Unlike a traditional school nurse, the health navigator does not provide direct health care. Instead, the health navigator helps families obtain health insurance, develop a relationship with a primary care physician for preventative care and treatment, and find alternative medical practices if issues arise with a provider. In this way, the health navigator integrates health care into the school setting without providing a medical facility, says Dr. Yasmin Tyler-Hill, medical director for CHOA’s Hughes Spalding campus and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Morehouse School of Medicine (one of the medical schools associated with CHOA). Through the Healthy Beginnings System of Care, children at Educare Atlanta and their families receive continuity of care from their primary care physicians.
The health navigator also ensures that children receive developmental screenings and offers emotional support for families that are coping with difficult diagnoses. As an employee of CHOA, the health navigator can connect children requiring specialized care with an appropriate specialist at the nearby CHOA Hughes Spalding campus or to other specialists within the CHOA network.
Educating Two Generations
Because stressors such as homelessness, poverty, abuse, and food insecurity may have a negative effect on young children’s development, Educare Atlanta’s holistic strategy incorporates a two-generation approach to positive educational, health, and economic outcomes for the entire family. Under this approach, Educare Atlanta staff and partner organizations equip parents with the tools and skills they need to address the educational and social, behavioral, and physical health needs of their children. A health educator develops health education opportunities for parents, including monthly workshops. To ensure that the workshops are relevant, the health educator asks parents to identify health topics of interest to them and invites experts to speak on those topics. Bertonaschi notes that the most important part of the workshops is the question-and-answer session, when parents can talk directly to experts and support each other as they gain knowledge that empowers them to make sound healthcare decisions. Parents may also participate in various other programs and activities designed to help them become more engaged in their children’s education.
To encourage family stability and success, Educare Atlanta’s two-generation approach also provides parents with access to employment and social services. The families of children enrolled in Educare Atlanta are assigned individual family support specialists who serve as liaisons between the family and the school, help the family create an individualized plan for meeting goals, and connect the families to housing and financial assistance. To promote parents’ economic success, the Center for Working Families, which is located adjacent to the Dunbar Learning Complex, also offers pathway coaches who help parents obtain employment or advance their careers.
A Holistic and Individualized Approach
To identify child and family situations that are barriers to student success, Educare Atlanta’s multidisciplinary team, which is composed of the health navigator, family support specialists, education staff (including teachers and master teachers), and behavioral health specialists from the Fulton County Department of Health, meets twice a month. The health navigator and behavioral health specialists share health information that may be affecting a child’s educational performance. Education staff members also communicate any concerns to the health navigator, such as indications that a child may need glasses. Together, the team creates a holistic plan to address each child’s issues.
The colocation of Educare Atlanta with Dunbar Elementary School in the Dunbar Learning Complex allows staff from both organizations to coordinate their support of preschool children and their parents as they transition to elementary school. A team at Educare Atlanta takes pre-kindergarten children to visit the elementary school and provides monthly workshops for their parents to help them prepare for the transition. The curricula of Educare Atlanta and Dunbar Elementary are also aligned so that children will read proficiently by the end of third grade, which will help them stay in school longer, graduate from high school, enroll in postsecondary education, and go on to successful careers.
Because health is a critical component of child development, Educare Atlanta is using several measures to evaluate whether the program has been successful in encouraging families to pursue healthy choices, including whether children have received developmental screenings, have been immunized, have a primary care physician, and are enrolled in health insurance. The partners are also assessing whether staff are adequately equipping parents to address child and family needs. The data suggest that preschool children’s access to health care has improved in the four years since the program began. In the 2014–2015 school year, 97 percent of children had health insurance coverage, 97 percent of children had a primary care physician, and 96 percent of children were fully immunized. In addition, as the primary healthcare facility for children in the area, CHOA taps into its database of Atlanta children’s health conditions to help assess the effectiveness of Educare’s program.
Educare Atlanta’s educational outcomes are also displaying early signs of success. According to Leah Austin, Annie E. Casey’s senior associate for education achievement and two-generation strategies in Atlanta, evaluations of former Educare Atlanta participants now attending the elementary school show that those students are outperforming peers who did not attend Educare Atlanta. These positive trends have spurred discussions about extending the Dunbar Learning Complex model to other Atlanta public schools.
Dunbar Learning Complex. 2013. “A Comprehensive System of Care.” Accessed 14 October 2015; Dunbar Learning Complex. 2013. “History.” Accessed 14 October 2015; Interview with Dr. Yasmin Tyler-Hill, medical director at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Hughes Spalding campus and chair of the Department of Pediatrics, Morehouse School of Medicine, 4 November 2015; Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. 2015. “About Us.” Accessed 4 November 2015.×
Dunbar Learning Complex. 2013. “A Comprehensive System of Care.” Accessed 14 October 2015; Dunbar Learning Complex. 2013. “History.” Accessed 14 October 2015; Interview with Leah Austin, senior associate for education achievement and two-generation strategies at Annie E. Casey Foundation in Atlanta, 27 October 2015; Interview with Susan Bertonaschi, director of health promotion and healthy beginnings at United Way of Greater Atlanta, 27 October 2015; Dunbar Learning Complex. 2013. “Welcome To Educare Atlanta.” Accessed 14 October 2015; Dunbar Learning Complex. 2013. “At a Glance: Educare Atlanta.” Accessed 14 October 2015.×
Dunbar Learning Complex. 2013. “The Healthy Beginnings System of Care.” Accessed 26 October 2015; Interview with Susan Bertonaschi, 27 October 2015; Interview with Dr. Yasmin Tyler-Hill, 4 November 2015.×
Interview with Susan Bertonaschi, 27 October 2015; Interview with Dr. Yasmin Tyler-Hill, 4 November 2015.×
Interview with Susan Bertonaschi, 27 October 2015.×
Dunbar Learning Complex. 2013. “A Two-Generation Approach.” Accessed 14 October 2015; Dunbar Learning Complex. 2013. “Parent Engagement.” Accessed 14 October 2015; Interview with Leah Austin, senior associate for education achievement and two-generation strategies at Annie E. Casey Foundation in Atlanta, 27 October 2015.×
Dunbar Learning Complex. 2013. “The Healthy Beginnings System of Care.” Accessed 26 October 2015; Interview with Susan Bertonaschi, 27 October 2015.×
Interview with Susan Bertonaschi, 27 October 2015; Interview with Dr. Yasmin Tyler-Hill, 4 November 2015.×
Interview with Leah Austin, 27 October 2015.×