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Maryland’s Early Ed ‘Judy Centers’ Offer a Holistic Approach—and It’s Working.

It’s a warm, sunny afternoon in northeast Baltimore City. The lower building at Moravia Park Elementary School is bustling with activity. A room of parents attend a cooking class with their children, dressed in white chef hats and aprons, to construct fruit kabobs and learn a new chicken recipe.


Walking through the center, little cubbies of bright backpacks line the hallway. Colorful bulletin boards announce upcoming events and services: a Mother’s Day tea, literacy club, parent workshops, mental health services, and English classes for the community’s significant population of refugee families.


Down the hall, a pre-K teacher circulates to help her students color and label parts of a face on a worksheet. In a separate nook, a small group of children play a game to practice sight words, like “the” and “one.” Further back, a classroom of kindergarteners sit quietly at the carpet, focused on the teacher as she models strategies for adding to ten.


This is one of Maryland’s 47 “Judy Centers” in action, providing full-day, full-year early care and education (ECE) for children ages 0-5 integrated with a range of wraparound services for families.


The centers are named in honor of the late Judith Hoyer, educator and ECE advocate whose husband, U.S. Congressman Steny Hoyer, supported state legislation in 2000 to fund the initiative, starting with 13 centers. Since then, the state has expanded Judy Centers through several funding streams, including federal grants, contributions from the Baltimore Community Foundation, and other local financing.


Located within or near low-income Title I schools, Judy Centers help to increase access to high-quality early learning for at-risk children, an investment that studies suggest can help break cycles of poverty. Baltimore City faces an enormous challenge along these lines: one out of every three school-aged children grows up poor, and a 2015 study from Harvard researchers found that Baltimore children had the lowest rates of upward mobility in the country.


Judy Centers are trying to address this problem at the root. They provide a central hub of supports as a holistic, whole-child approach for students and families. Maryland officials describe each center as a “one stop shop” of coordinated services from various social agencies, businesses, and organizations, all “offered under one roof.” These services can provide on-site healthcare, housing assistance, adult education, clothing, food pantries, and more. The physical location of centers also helps streamline the transition to the early elementary years to build on and sustain early gains.


The strategy is showing promising results. According to data analysis from the Baltimore Education Research Consortium, Baltimore City children have the highest odds of demonstrating “kindergarten readiness” if they attend a Judy Center pre-K as compared to any other ECE setting, such as Head Start, state pre-K, or private nursery schools. In the 2017-18 school year, Baltimore City Judy Centers outperformed the state’s overall average for children showing kindergarten readiness, 50 to 45 percent.


Now, the Judy Center model’s track record of success is attracting national attention. Last Tuesday, around thirty education leaders from across the country toured the city’s Judy Centers, arranged by the 2018 National Community Schools Forum held in Baltimore this past week.


“The purpose here is to make sure children are ready for school, and we do it whatever way possible,” Sarah Bollard, the citywide coordinator for Baltimore City’s 11 Judy Centers, told participants on the recent trip. She said the centers try to address “whatever ‘fill in the blank’ thing that could be preventing not just the child but the family and nuclear unit around them from thriving… Because when the whole family thrives, the child thrives.”


In this way, Judy Centers share the vision of the “community schools” movement in the K-12 years, one that is flourishing in Baltimore with the city recently receiving a national award for its work in this area. Most all of Baltimore’s ECE Judy Centers feed into a community school, where staff similarly leverage community partnerships to provide extra services not supported by school budgets.


Keshia Thornton, a mother of two four-year-old twins and an eight-year-old, said her family has benefited greatly from all that the Moravia Judy Center offers. “It’s really such a great support. I love it,” she said. “I notice the growth in my children, with their vocabulary and their fine motor skills… All the programs are very valuable to me.”


Through the parent workshops, Thornton found out ways to create everyday learning experiences for her children. At the first workshop she attended, the instructor passed out different objects and modeled a “sink or float” science activity. Later, at home, Thornton guided her children to make predictions during their bath time.


A strength of Judy Centers is their flexibility to respond to diverse community needs. For example, another Judy Center located at John Ruhrah Elementary/Middle School, a 10-minute drive south of Moravia Park, serves a student population that is nearly 80 percent Latino. Many family members are recently-arrived immigrants and face additional barriers to accessing health services.


The center partners with Johns Hopkins Centro SOL, an organization designed to serve Hispanic families, to provide on-site blood pressure checks, vision tests, and other check-ups. The center also contracts a full-time mental health consultant, a licensed social worker from Hopkins who meets with children to provide on-site therapy. Many are growing up in mixed-status immigrant families, typically where children are U.S. born citizens but other family members are undocumented, which research suggests can trigger toxic stress.


According to citywide coordinator Bollard, child care options from birth to age three are particularly scarce in the neighborhood surrounding John Ruhrah, a national trend for low-income, immigrant families. The Judy Center helps to fill that void, providing opportunities that advance young children’s academic development. Indeed, when it first opened in 2015, only 12 percent of John Ruhrah kindergarteners demonstrated school readiness at the start of the year. Within two years, that number rose dramatically to 61 percent.


“We support from when moms are pregnant...through to playgroups and eventually pre-K where they get ready for school,” Yancy Lopez, the family service coordinator at John Ruhrah’s Judy Center, told visitors last week. “It’s because we believe that parents are the first teachers.” 


Corrected at 2:43 p.m. on May 11, 2018: This post has been changed to correct the first name of U.S. Congressman Steny Hoyer.