A cardboard box turned make believe boat fills Jesse Gandy’s living room. Books and educational toys line every shelf. A pet bullfrog croaks from a terrarium in the dining room. Gandy’s second grade daughter, Austin, recites the staples of a frog diet, and how they use even their eye muscles to swallow insects whole. But it’s Taj, Gandy’s three-year-old son, who lights up when he hears his mom talking about ReadySteps.
“My school!” he says. “I dress up in goggles, like a construction worker!” he blurts out with a mouth filled with animal crackers, pantomiming goggles on his eyes.
The Gandy family moved to Charlottesville from Texas two years ago to work for the International Rescue Committee (IRC). As a family with young kids, they found it hard to build a community as tight as what they had left in Texas. They needed a proverbial village to help them raise their children far away from family. Walking through the halls of the IRC, Gandy saw a poster for ReadySteps.
Now, every Monday and Friday morning at 10 a.m., Jesse and Taj walk the few blocks from their home to the community center at the Greenstone on Fifth housing development for their ReadySteps group. When they arrive, tables in the community center each have a different activity. There is a table of magna-tiles to support color identification and conceptual building skills. Another table filled with squishy moon sand gives kids a unique tactile experience. On the floor is a soft tile floor mat for infants to practice crawling.
A TYPICAL READYSTEPS GROUP
Most of the other families walking in the door of the community center don’t look like the Gandy family, who is white. There is a woman in a colorful African Kente cloth dress carrying a baby on one hip and a toddler on the other. One petite woman walks in speaking in the quick clip of an Asian language. Her daughter gravitates to the moon sand table to roll out long snakes with her little toddler hands.
“I was glad it was a diverse group of people from all incomes,” said Gandy. “We’ve met a lot of neighbors, and we get together with those people outside of group for play dates. I built a community here far quicker by having ReadySteps right down the street.”
But, ReadySteps isn’t quite a school, as Taj describes. For one thing, it’s free to participants, which can’t be said about most preschools in Charlottesville. For another, parents stay with their kids the entire time. Also, there are five locations throughout Charlottesville, each set up for just a few hours per week and brought from place to place packed tightly into small cargo vans.
“We’re not a preschool, but we’re also not just a meet up or a social hour,” said Shannon Banks, ReadySteps Program Manager. “It’s community building. We’re this hybrid, like a free quasi-co-op preschool. It’s all built on trust and relationships. We have a full curriculum and routine so people can plug in at any location.”
EARLY EDUCATION IS CHANGING
Here’s a statistic that may surprise you. Since the year 2000 there has been a constant and steady rise of mothers exiting the workforce. For low and middle-income households, the reason is usually the same – the high cost of childcare. This year, in the state of Virginia, the average annual cost to send an infant to a year of day care was the same as the average annual cost to send a child to a year of college – around $10,867. For many families, it doesn’t make financial sense for both parents to go back to work during a child’s early years. Which leaves one parent at home – sometimes bored, lonely and on a tight budget.
ReadyKids noticed this trend. Local data showed an average of 225 children entering Charlottesville City and Albemarle County kindergartens were unprepared for school and in need of intervention services. The reason? Not enough kids were attending preschool.
For whatever reason, whether its economics or cultural dissonance, Kids Count data shows that half of 3 and 4-year-olds don’t attend preschool. That percentage has remained unchanged for over a decade. But exposure to other children and different sounds, sights and textures are crucial for little brains. The Center for Disease Control reports that 90% of a child’s brain physical volume develops as early as six years old.
The importance of the first years of a child’s life combined with the growing sense of isolation and loneliness in child-raising prompted ReadyKids to develop a new, innovative program. ReadySteps was born to encourage parents as a child’s first and best teacher through early learning playgroups within their home community.
The ReadySteps vans, filled with educational materials and early childhood toys, visit five neighborhoods around Charlottesville including Southwood, Greenstone on Fifth, Friendship Court, Park’s Edge Apartments and Greer Elementary School. ReadySteps rotates playgroups between these locations on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to noon.
COMMUNITY THROUGH FRIENDSHIP
At the Friendship Court ReadySteps group, Renee Cooper can’t decide what’s the best part because “it’s all great.” She and her 4-year-old son Clayton started coming to ReadySteps groups five months ago after their doctor recommended it because Clayton had a speech delay.
“He loves it here,” said Cooper. “He’s grown a lot.”
Clayton, who is an only child, began making friends – something he had never done before.
“At first he would cry when he was around other people,” said Cooper. “Now he asks every day to come here.”
Cooper was proud to share that Clayton had gotten into Clark Elementary School’s 4-year-old preschool program and would start there in the fall, thanks to the help of ReadySteps staff who helped them apply and figure out enrollment forms.
Each ReadySteps group is staffed with two professional early childhood educators, a family coordinator and evidence-based early education materials. But, in talking to ReadySteps participants, it’s not the educational components that they value. It’s the other parents.
“The relationships that are formed through the ReadySteps playgroups are the foundation of the community we build,” said Margot Pleasants, a ReadySteps Group Leader. “These relationships are the backbone of any community, and facilitating them is the reason ReadySteps exists.”
A NEED ACROSS ALL INCOMES
Back at the Gandy home, Taj Gandy wrinkles his nose deep in thought, and details everything a construction worker wears.
“Glasses … a vest … a helmet,” he says, pointing to different parts of his body.
“In the last six months, I’ve seen his language explode,” said Gandy. “He’s learning how to express himself with other kids and share toys, even if there is a language barrier.”
Gandy says she tells everyone she meets about the ReadySteps groups.
“There really is a need across all incomes for the aspects ReadySteps provides, whether it’s networking with other moms, getting ready for school or just getting out of the house. There’s nothing else like this,” said Gandy.