Just shy of his third birthday, Dominic Chiarello had a vocabulary that was just “yes,” “no” and “potty.”
After a year in preschool in the Educare Center of Omaha, the 4-year-old Nebraska boy wants to be an astronaut and blast off into space. "I want to shoot up into the sky like a firework," says Dominic, thrusting his fist into the air.
“He’s exploding,” says his mother, Audra Chiarello, of Omaha. “He’s constantly telling me all the new words he has learned at school. Just the other day, he said, 'Mom, my hair looks atrocious.' He's using so many big words and has become a talking encyclopedia. I can't keep up.”
The Educare Center, part of a nationwide program begun in 2000 in Chicago, aims to help the city's poorest preschoolers close the achievement gap with richer children through all-day, year-round care and education. The goal is that when economically disadvantaged kids reach kindergarten, they'll be able to keep up with their middle-class peers.
Educare relies on the belief that when children receive quality education early on, they're more likely to achieve academic success, graduate high school and go on to college or seek career training. The curriculum aims to develop language, literacy, mathematical and social skills.
The program has gained support from philanthropists, including The Buffett Early Childhood Fund run by Susan A. Buffett, daughter of Omaha-based billionaire investor Warren Buffett.
Omaha has two Educare centers, next to the Indian Hill and Kellom elementary schools. Children are enrolled as early as 6 weeks old. Classrooms are small: For example, the class size for toddlers (birth to age 3) is three teachers to eight children.
lts have been promising, says Gladys Haynes, executive director of the Educare Center of Omaha.
Data from Educare programs in six cities — Chicago, Denver, Milwaukee, Omaha, Seattle and Tulsa — show positive results in preparing at-risk children from birth to five for later academic achievement, according to researchers at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Their finding states "kindergarten-bound children who entered Educare before age 2 scored 98.5 on school readiness tests. That is at the national average and exceeds typical scores of at-risk children. This pattern persists even after controlling for risk factors such as maternal education, race and teen parent status."
Educare centers have popped up across the country — in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Oklahoma, Maine, Washington and Wisconsin. Nationwide, Educare enrolls at least 2,000 children, from birth to 5 years old, and employs 700 teachers and staff, according to Educare officials.
The first Educare was opened in Chicago in 2000 by the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a Chicago-based nonprofit that advocates early childhood programs and policies. The Ounce relies on private donations to develop programs and then leverages public funding to expand the programs to serve more children, Educare officials say.
“We never planned to have the number of programs we have nationwide," says Portia Kennel, executive director of Educare Learning Network of Chicago, a partnership between the Ounce, the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, and other national philanthropies. "We were just trying to keep a promise to a distressed community in Chicago that we would work tirelessly to make sure their children would be prepared for kindergarten and have an opportunity to have a good education.”
In Nebraska, the cause's champion in Susie Buffett, who has focused her personal philanthropy in improving early childhood education. Her foundation is part of a collaborative effort with Omaha Public Schools and the local Head Start to fund the Educare Center of Omaha.
“There are too many poor kids in really horrible child care situations for the first five years of their lives,”Susie Buffettsaid in an interview with TODAY's correspondent Jenna Bush Hager. "So we went around the country looking for who was doing the best work and we found the Ounce of Prevention people … So we just copied them — and partnered with them.”
Statistics show up to 11 million children under the age of 5 in the U.S. are in some type of child care arrangement, according to The National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, a nonprofit that works to improve quality and availability of child care services nationwide. The association also reported that 40 percent of infant programs were of poor quality.
Buffett's foundation and the Ounce of Prevention Fund are working with partners to build more Educare centers across the nation.
“It is a model of what's working,” said Adele Robinson, deputy executive director for the nonprofit National Association for the Education of Young Children in Washington, D.C. The association serves as an adviser to policymakers and advocates for literacy and early childhood education. But Robinson says there’s a big hurdle.
"Many places are trying programs like this, and everyone is troubled by the same problem and that's funding," she said.
Operations like Educare are expensive, and states keep making drastic cuts to preschool programs.
Wendy Moreno, a 19-year-old single mom from Omaha, says Educare has helped her sons learn to read and count.
"My boys are learning so much and I know they are going to have a brighter future," said Moreno, whose sons, Anthony, 2, and Jonathan, 3, attend the Educare Center at Indian Hill Elementary School. “I don't have to worry about who is taking care of them. I know they are in school learning."
She said teachers have worked hard to strengthen bonds between parents and their children.
Parental involvement is the key component in Educare's curriculum. Before school starts, teachers make home visits to meet the child's parents, siblings and family members.
"At first, parents are reluctant," said Reyna Barrales, a teaching assistant at Educare. "Some want to be involved, but don't know how to, while others think it's the teacher's job to teach and that's it. What we try to explain to them is that it's up to everyone. Some of these families have so little, and they still want to give us something when we go to the home. One time we got bananas."
Barrales, born and raised in Mexico City, is bilingual and is also helping coach her colleagues to speak conversational Spanish.
"The biggest thing parents need to know is to be patient," Barrales said, adding, "A child is not going to learn overnight, especially for those 3 and 4 years old."
At school, teachers give updates to parents on their child’s learning progress at the end of each day. Parents are encouraged to share issues or concerns with their child.
"The program has made me a better parent,” said LaChar Perkins, a single mother of two, Raheem, 8, and Ilana, 4. Ilana is enrolled in the program and Raheem graduated a few years ago and is now in third grade. "I can't say enough positive things about the school, its program and its teachers. The teachers are open and honest."
Like her children, Perkins said she is studying hard. She is enrolled at the Metro Community College, studying to be a nurse. When she's not with her children or at school, she's working as a nail technician. She said she earns $10,000 a year.
"I didn't want my children to struggle," she said. "I wanted to give them a good education so they can succeed in life, and with Educare I believe they have a solid foundation to do just that."