Building Early Learning Communities: The Partners

By Connie K. Ho

The National Center for Education Statistics stated that, in 2016, 79% of young adults with a bachelor’s degree worked full-time, year-round, compared with 69% of young adult high school completes (those with only a high school diploma or an equivalency credential such as a GED certificate). Furthermore, for young adults ages 25-34 who worked full-time, year-round, higher educational attainment was associated with higher median earnings; this pattern was consistent from 2000 through 2016. With education empowerment of great need, PBS SoCal partners with a number of local nonprofits to extend the work that these organizations do to educate young minds, promote the value and opportunity of higher education, and inspire and motivate staff members.

Meet our partners:

David Benavides is currently the executive director of KidWorks—a community development nonprofit in Orange County—but he started at the organization as an intern over two decades ago. KidWorks operates neighborhood centers in four communities, and its services include a licensed preschool, after-school programs, college and career readiness and leadership development programs.

“We intentionally set up shop and serve communities that are quite under-resourced, underserved and we walk with children and their families from age four through high school and into college,” Benavides said. “We want to see little ones growing up in urban communities facing challenges—we want to be able to see them thrive academically and personally and that’s why we’re committed to it.”

KidWorks’ mission is to restore at-risk neighborhoods one life at a time and the organization’s philosophy is that where a child grows up should not determine their future.

“We move into neighborhoods where typically people might want to move out of because of the challenges: poverty, gangs, violence,” Benavides said.

The organization operates with four pillars in mind: arts in academics, character and leadership development, health and wellness, and college and career readiness. In the after-school program, students are assisted with homework or tutored on specific subjects. Older students are assisted with writing college essays and researching college scholarship and financial aid.

“We want to instill in our students from a very early age that college is for them – it is accessible and attainable for them,” Benavides said.

The nonprofit currently serves about 1,000 children, teens, and parents on a weekly basis.

Benavides and his staff face a number of challenges. He believes that there is much need, but not enough resources to support all the students and their families. Students worry about violence, poverty, overcrowding – despite these difficulties, the KidWorks staff aims to help students focus on their education and academics apart from family concerns or troubles.

“They have tremendous potential, tremendous gifts, tremendous talents,” Benavides said. “Yet when they are facing challenges at home, in their neighborhood sometimes those challenges can overshadow the possibilities that exist. So KidWorks has the privilege of coming alongside our children, our students, our families to draw out that potential, to support them, to speak words of affirmation of belief, to see them believe in themselves and to thrive. And I believe that that’s what makes all the difference – when somebody believes in a child, they begin to believe in themselves, and they aspire to then reach amazing goals and amazing dreams.”

Benavides said he appreciates the support provided by PBS SoCal.

PBS SoCal has provided a number of resources to KidWorks, including offering subject matter experts in fields to complement the current programs provided by the nonprofit. In particular, the group has been able to advocate for early childhood learning and provide parents the tools needed to better support their children.

“We have a spring break program for our elementary and junior high students – this last spring break, [PBS SoCal] provided the curriculum and the training for our STEM program and it was by far the most popular program that our students were able to experience because of how interactive and how fun yet educational it was.”

Benavides mentioned that the PBS SoCal support for parents extends from the classroom to the home.

“One of the fantastic resources that [PBS SoCal] provides for the parents of our preschoolers is access to online learning portals where they’re able to provide programs like phonics and other learning tools to be able to support at home what the students are learning in the classroom,” Benavides said.

Apart from supporting families, PBS SoCal has also provided professional development opportunities for KidWorks staff on how to teach students in a creative way.

“Our staff is able to learn new tools and bring those great tools and resources back to our students to enhance our students’ learning,” Benavides said. “The majority of the community were KidWorks service is Spanish speaking – the parents, in particular, tend to be monolingual Spanish speaking and having resources in their language so that they can support their child’s education is very critical.”

Pacific Asian Consortium in Employment (PACE)

Myriah Ogas is assistant director of education for PACE, which supports low-income communities in the areas of education business development. Her organization serves families across Los Angeles in the South Bay area, assisting thousands of children every year through programs like Head Start which provides comprehensive early childhood education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children and their families. PACE first started in 1980 with the mission to build up the whole community to reach economic stability.

One PACE program includes home visits, where parents learn the skills needed to support their children’s success in school as well as later in life. They also focus on developing students’ social-emotional well-being, language, and literacy and cognitive development.

As a federally funded program, PACE faces its share of challenges, and partnering with organizations like PBS SoCal helps support the work PACE does.

“One of the challenges that we have is limited resources,” said Ogas, who mentioned that PBS SoCal assisted with the technology component of their program. “We were able to have tablets in all of our classrooms – now the children and the parents are very excited about the technology that we use.”

PBS SoCal also hosted outreach events, including parent workshops to introduce various apps to the families and organizing training sessions for teachers.

“We’ve been able to send some of our teachers and our other education coaches to different events that PBS SoCal hosts and then they’re able to bring back those skills and strategies,” Ogas said. “They bring back different ideas and we end up actually ordering new materials so that we can implement some of the strategies that we learned at the workshops.”

With PBS SoCal on-site, more parents attend events, tripling the attendance at meetings.

“We’ve been really fortunate to have [PBS SoCal] come to our back-to-school readiness events,” Ogas said. “[Parents] can learn how to integrate technology into their daily lives at home and also teaches them how to navigate and use the [PBS SoCal] websites and the various apps that they have available for families. The resources that we’re able to provide to parents and families definitely helps with the parent engagement as well as school readiness – it is something that our families don’t always have access to.”

With the support of PBS SoCal, Ogas believes that educational empowerment is achievable for her students.

“My hopes and my dreams for kids in early learning anywhere is that they’re able to go on and be successful and have the opportunities no matter where they’re from.”

The D.A.D. Project

The D.A.D. Project is a special place for fathers. Launched in 2016, the group organizes a multitude of activities including a preschool, college fair, literacy events, spa days for mother appreciation, among others. One of its largest events is PBS STEAM night, where fathers and their kids explore science, technology, engineering, and math concepts through activities where fathers build rocket models with their kids.

“We’ve been blessed that [PBS SoCal] provides all of the materials,” Donald Williams III of the DAD Project said. “Understanding what hypothesis is or understanding critical thinking is a big component of what we try to do. Everybody recognizes PBS so it has been a great tool for us not only just for recruitment but also getting our mission across as far as getting more fathers involved with their kids.”

Williams cites collaborations as a key factor in their success; in the past, they’ve partnered with other groups like running clubs for school supply drives and associations like the Girl Scouts for donations.

“We’re fortunate to collaborate with [PBS SoCal],” Williams said. “We take all that stuff and bring it back to our families and to our centers.”

Members of the D.A.D. Project also visited the PBS SoCal station where they learned about some of the online resources offered.

“It was a very valuable experience and we learned something different that we can bring back to our parents,” Williams said.

The D.A.D. Project believes in the power of play for children.

“That’s the most critical aspect in our program is coming into the classroom, learning those fine motor skills, those social-emotional skills, being able to communicate,” Williams said.

One of the goals for the organization is to get kids reading more and doing interactive activities.

“It just creates a really fun learning atmosphere,” Williams said. “I think since we provide a safe space for fathers to come and learn.”

They also aim to provide unique opportunities for families including using technology like tablets.

“It’ll be a great tool for them to play electronically then see how those skills transfer,” said Williams, who noted the importance of developing critical thinking skills.

With all of this in mind, Williams has great hopes for early learning in Southern California.

“We understand the value and the support from the fathers and how important that is for the children,” said Williams, who cited statistics that state that close to 40% of kids in their service area are reading at a low-grade level. “I think that we can change some of those statistics and most importantly change some of the culture in the educational system by getting parents more involved and having the fathers more excited about supporting their kids’ education.”