United Way planting early learning seeds

by Heather Miller

The United Way of Acadiana's two new early learning centers slated to open early next year are perfectly aligned with the learning philosophies of incoming Lafayette Parish School System Superintendent Pat Cooper.

Incoming Lafayette Parish School System Superintendent Pat Cooper won't officially take the reins of our school district for another month, but his large focus on early learning as a means to combat the achievement gap in high-poverty schools is already taking shape locally thanks to the United Way of Acadiana and its education initiatives.

The Advocate reports that the United Way of Acadiana is opening two new Early Head Start centers, one in Abbeville in mid-January and one at the old Lafayette Motors on Jefferson Street in mid-February, both of which will target children from birth to 3 years old with single parents who are working toward finishing their education.

United Way of Acadiana Executive Director Margaret Trahan tells The Advocate that the centers' main goal is to better prepare students for kindergarten.

"The earlier that children are engaged in learning, the better," Trahan tells The Advocate. "Research-based data shows that Early Head Start is a proven way to reach children and their families, to strengthen the parent-child relationship and enhance the child's growth and development."

United Way's commitment to early learning mirrors the career of Cooper, whose successful education model includes a coordinated school health program that focuses on poverty-stricken children from birth to 5 years old receiving solid developmental training - and health care resources - to ensure that underprivileged and often under-performing children are ready and able to learn when they begin public school.

Cooper told the Lafayette Parish School Board during his final interview that partnerships with nonprofits like United Way and commitments from day cares and other private sector child services are critical factors in establishing successful early learning environments, as evidenced by the performance turnarounds in districts where Cooper has previously served as superintendent.

According to The Advocate, the new centers' openings were delayed due to snags with a $3 million grant from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, but funding has since been resolved and the program is moving forward. The local UW chapter began a home-based educational program to counter the funding delays, and children who have been active in the home program will transfer to the day centers once their doors are officially open.

The Lafayette center is only open for children who reside in the 70501 zip code. Both centers, which provide the services at no cost to eligible, low-income families, are already at capacity with 103 students, Trahan says.

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