Sandra Barnes got out of a dead-end retail job and her children got the chance to attend an early childhood program through the Evanston Community Foundation's Two-Generation Learning Initiative. | Photo courtesy of Fred Hunter Credit: Photo courtesy of Fred Hunter

Sandra Barnes, a mother of six, was trapped in a dead-end retail job because she needed to provide for her family.

Barnes had earned her high school diploma and had become a Certified Nursing Assistant in 2002, but didn’t follow through with finding a job in that field. In 2011, she earned a certificate for medical billing and coding but found herself stuck career-wise.

“I felt lost,” says Barnes. “Going into the program, I didn’t have a really clear goal. I thought I might want to own my own medical billing company, but I would get sidetracked.”

Barnes had worked for a large retailer on and off since 1996 and had earned promotions, but wasn’t happy and wanted to leave. Fear of unemployment sent her back to the job.

“Not being able to get hired [somewhere else] made me think, ‘Oh my gosh, my family still has to eat, I think I have to go back,’ ” she says. Then, Barnes became part of the Evanston Community Foundation’s Two-Generation Learning Initiative, a pilot program launched earlier this year to provide educational, financial and career guidance for parents–plus high-quality early education for their children.

Now, Barnes is one of 13 women who recently graduated from the 13-week program, and says the counseling and resources it provided helped her solidify her career goals and examine her career from all angles–from desired salary to how much more education she may need to whether she’d want to work from home. Barnes is currently working an “externship” for a medical billing and coding company and hopes to be hired full-time.  

“I know there are things I have to do before I can own my own business,” Barnes says. “I have to learn how to operate budgets and manage staff, but at least now I’m not lost.”

The Two-Generation program is the product of a partnership between the Evanston Community Foundation, Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research, and Ascend at the Aspen Institute (which provided a $100,000 grant for it). 

The pilot is designed to give parents a setting to explore their education and career options, and give them tools and resources to achieve their career goals and become financially self-sufficient, says Artishia Hunter, the program’s director.

Children benefit from having access to preschool. Plus, education research has shown that higher parental income and educational attainment strongly correlate to school success and achievement. 

The Evanston Community Foundation worked with three early childhood learning centers–the Child Care Center of Evanston, the District 65 Early Childhood Programs and Family Center, and the Infant Welfare Society of Evanston–to gather a pool of potential participants.  

The women were required to have their high school diploma or GED, and have a child age 6 or younger receiving services from one of these programs. Hunter says the requirements allowed the program to recruit mothers who had basic levels of financial and career literacy and were invested in their children–both considered essential traits.

“These women really want to pursue and persist [in their education and careers], but they lack access to the services and information they need to do that,” says Hunter. “Giving them access to the early childhood programs, and then working with them to set goals and get some concrete steps in place for achieving them, is a two-sided approach that we think will be really effective.”

Participants met once a week as a group, usually at the Evanston Public Library, where Hunter led sessions on career exploration, finance management, finding and using support, and setting goals. Hunter also met individually with participants for one-on-one counseling.

An Evanston resident and mother of two, Hunter identifies with the women because she, too, has juggled raising a family while pursuing her education. She had her first child at 17, then went back to high school shortly thereafter. Eventually, she and her husband continued their educations while raising two children. Hunter was an Illinois Early Childhood Fellow from 2011-2013.

“I had two children by the time I entered undergrad, and I know this experience very well,” Hunter says. “Going back to school opened my eyes to a world that I hadn’t been privy to, and whether it’s going back for more education or solidifying a career path, I know how difficult that can be.” 

Perfecting a model 

Developmental psychologist Lindsay Chase-Lansdale and senior research scientist Teresa Eckrich Sommer are leading an Institute for Policy Research team that is studying the impact of two-generation initiatives and using the research to guide the Evanston program. The initial pilot is based on CareerAdvance, an experimental program in Tulsa, Oklahoma that gives low-income mothers access to good early childhood education for their children, coupled with life coaching, financial incentives, and job training in in-demand fields.

“There isn’t much research on the impact of these programs,” says Chase-Lansdale. “There is good theoretical and anecdotal evidence, but this opens up an exciting learning opportunity where we can analyze how beneficial these programs are for the children and parents alike.”

Chase-Lansdale says the team hopes to follow the participants over time–at least two to three years–to see how they fare compared to another group of parents who also had children in early-childhood education centers but did not participate in the program. 

“Our hypothesis is that as parents proceed more in their education or in their careers, their children’s expectations will be higher or more realistic, and the parents will be better equipped with knowledge on how to guide or mentor them,” says Chase-Lansdale. 

Another goal is to offer the program to two more groups of parents in fall 2014 and winter 2015, and follow-up with graduates after six months. 

Barnes and Hunter both say that the support the women provided for each other was a crucial component of the program. They shared resources and information, encouraged each other, and bonded over shared experiences.

 “We’re building these relationships too, helping us work toward our goals,” says Barnes. “You have someone calling you to ask how applications or courses are going, or telling you about something new they think would work for you. We’re all mothers, so we all can relate.”

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