Coming Full Circle For Cambridge's Children

(Part I and Part II of this story appeared on May 7 and May 9, 2012.)

Walking past a kindergarten classroom at Fletcher-Maynard Academy, a public primary school in Cambridge’s Area Four district, Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey M. Young and Principal Robin Harris noticed a four-year-old boy sitting on the floor and reading a book upside down.

“It wasn’t atypical in a junior kindergarten class,” Harris says.

Inspired by moments like this, Young and Harris began casually brainstorming ways to improve children’s development before they enter formal schooling. The two toyed with the idea of a project modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone, a nonprofit organization that has garnered national attention for providing educational resources and other forms of support to low-income families living in Harlem, New York.

Young, Harris, and others on the Cambridge Schools Committee devised “Full Circle,” a proposed initiative to better connect the residents of Area Four—a low-income area where 80 percent of elementacary school students receive free lunches, according to Harris—to the public benefits provided by the city government and local nonprofits.

Full Circle—if it comes to fruiton—will be a culmination of several youth-oriented projects that Cambridge has undertaken in past years. But financing and potential partnerships are still up in the air.

The project, inspired by the work of HCZ founder Geoffrey Canada, a Harvard Graduate School of Education alumnus, marks the next chapter in efforts to improve Cambridge’s public education—a movement that Harvard and its alumni frequently influence.

CIRCLE GAME

Full Circle is envisioned not as a single nonprofit organization like HCZ but as a collaboration between many different entities in Cambridge. Based at Fletcher-Maynard, Full Circle would focus its efforts on the children living in the one-mile radius surrounding the school known as Area Four.

In Area Four, located between Central Square and Kendall Square, the median family income is $55,857, one of the lowest in the city, according to a report issued this year by the Cambridge Community Development Department.

The initiative plans to capitalize on already-existing Cambridge programming. One of those programs, Baby University, was founded after several Cambridge officials visited the Harlem Children’s Zone a few years ago. The program is loosely based on HCZ’s Baby College, which offers nine-week parenting classes.

Baby University, a 16-week publicly-funded program under the Cambridge Department of Human Services Programs, draws support from collaborations with many Cambridge nonprofits, including the the Phillips Brooks House Association at Harvard.

As the Cambridge Department of Education begins initial preparations for Full Circle, Baby University will be held at Fletcher-Maynard this year for the first time since the program began in 2010. Full Circle will also include Toddler University, an all-day course for parents of children ages three to eight that will kick off in 2013.

Harris has had discussions with other potential collaborators, including the Cambridge Health Alliance, neighborhood clergy and churches, financial institutes, and the Cambridge Police Department.

She hopes that Full Circle, like other Cambridge educational programs, will be able to draw upon Harvard University resources as well.

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