HARLEM—As Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio focuses on early childhood learning as one of his administration's top priorities, the Children's Museum of Manhattan has partnered with Union Settlement and the New York City Housing Authority to create an early childhood "hub" at Johnson Houses in East Harlem that they feel can be a citywide and national model for leveling the playing field for low-income children.
Using the "EatPlayGrow" curriculum developed with the National Institutes of Health and tested at the Children's Museum of Manhattan, the focus is on early childhood literacy and health for the Union Johnson Early Learning Center and Head Start facility on 113th Street and Lexington Avenue.
"By the age of 4, even before Head Start, 80 percent of a child's brain is developed," said Andrew Ackerman, executive director of the Children's Museum of Manhattan. "There is no better investment than early childhood education."
Kids squealed as they fed Alphie the dragon, an interactive toy, with letters and shouted out the names of healthy food that started with each letter, such as watermelon for the letter "W."
There's a replica of the NYC Green Carts that sell fruits and vegetables on the street in the children's classroom to encourage healthy eating while the block building area focuses on exploring math concepts. A teacher used clay to help students mold different types of healthy food.
Outgoing NYCHA chairman John Rhea said the curriculum is the type they had in mind when they opened the newly built center.
"A program like this costs thousands of dollars at a for-profit school but its critical that low-income children have access," said Rhea who added that the program would help close the "achievement gap that we know is too prevalent in low-income communities."
Studies show that by the time kids enter kindergarten, an achievement gap can already exist. Kids from higher income families score better on cognitive tests than children from lower-income families. White children score higher on reading tests than both black and Latino students. More troubling is that this racial and economic achievement gap persists even as students get older.
"I see this as simply helping to level the playing field," said Laurie Tisch, president of the Illumination Fund, one of the children's museum's biggest funders. "If my kids can have it why can't kids who are in a different zip code?"
The program also doesn't just focus on kids. Parents, educators, care givers and public housing staff will also receive training from staff at the children's museum. The development of the initiative will also be studied as NYCHA and its partners develop plans to replicate the early childhood hub in public housing developments across the city.
David Nocenti, executive director of Union Settlement said kids of all incomes can have quality early childhood learning but it's going to take collaboration.
"We can't do this on our own because we don't have the capacity or the funding," said Nocenti. "Everything is better when done in collaboration."