ATLANTA—This neighborhood south of downtown is bleak, with empty parking lots fenced in by barbed wire, and skeletons of buildings covered in graffiti.

Many of the people walking the long blocks of Mechanicsville grew up poor, and their children are likely to be poor, too. It’s part of the vicious cycle of poverty—without access to high-quality education, kids born into poverty are likely to remain there for their whole lives, despite the promise of the American Dream. According to the Kids Count Data Center, a project sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 39 percent of African American children lived in poverty in 2013, the highest rate of any racial group. And one study found that 42 percent of African Americans born into the lowest-income category remained there as adults.

Policymakers have some ideas about what can help ensure that children born into poverty succeed. In one oft-cited study from the 1970s, the Abecederian Project randomly selected certain infants from low-income families to attend full-time, high-quality education from infancy through age 5, while others were put in a control group. The children who participated in the education program had higher cognitive test scores, were more likely to attend a four-year college, and put off having a first child for longer.

Similarly, the Perry Project in the 1960s randomly selected African American children born into poverty for high-quality pre-school and followed those students throughout their lives; those who attended pre-school had higher earnings, were more likely to hold a job and had committed fewer crimes than the control group that did not attend pre-school.

But high-quality pre-school is expensive, and most parents struggle to afford any daycare, much less a program that meets quality benchmarks.

Dayisja Davis, 19, discovered this when she had a daughter, who she named Maileia, 10 months ago. She was working for Popeye’s and was about to begin attending a medical assistant program. She thought she’d be able to work and go to school if she could find good childcare, so she applied for CAPS, a Georgia childcare subsidy for low-income parents. She was denied because she would have been required to work 25 hours a week, but her fast-food hours were unpredictable and she sometimes didn’t get assigned enough shifts.

Since she didn’t have anyone to care for Maileia, she quit her job to take care of her daughter. And then she didn’t have enough money to go to school, so she quit school, too.

“At first, when I was working, I thought I could do it, but it’s not that easy,” she told me, pushing a baby carriage down a busy street in Mechanicsville as trucks rattled by.

That’s why a foundation is sponsoring a new approach to breaking the cycle of poverty just a few blocks from where Davis and I spoke. It tries to give children access to high-quality, early-childhood education while helping parents get better jobs and build stronger families. It’s called the two-generation approach, and has been found to be one of the best bets in helping families escape poverty.

“It’s really attempting to better integrate the services and tools that parents and children receive at the same time,” said Leah Austin, the deputy director of the Atlanta Civic Site, the complex in Mechanicsville where the Annie E. Casey Foundation is piloting this approach.

After all, a parent who finds a job working a night shift at a fast-food restaurant may be happy to find work, but end up with a whole new range of childcare problems. A center that focuses on both the parent's working life, and the childcare they'll need, can spare them some of those headaches.

"This two-generation approach aims to create opportunities for families by simultaneously equipping parents and kids with the tools they need to thrive while removing the obstacles in their way," the foundation wrote, in a report about its work released this fall.

The Dunbar Learning Complex is a calm and bright space in the otherwise blighted streets of Mechanicsville. There, children receive free schooling, from infancy to pre-K, when their parents register with a career-development center to begin improving their job skills.

Children at the Dunbar Learning Complex in Atlanta (Alana Semuels)

The complex is home to both a public elementary school and a pre-school, which accepts children beginning at six weeks of age. The pre-school, which opened five years ago, holds itself to high standards, and is part of Educare network, a national network of full-day, early-education schools. It has an entire art studio where children can experiment, part of a Reggio approach to learning, and its infant classrooms allow only eight students at once.  

The pre-school has clean, white walls covered in children’s art work; its classrooms are scenes of controlled chaos, with children drawing shapes on a table covered in shaving cream, playing with LEGOs, dancing with teachers for a part of the curriculum that focuses on music. On the day I visited, it was cold outside, but children played in a big atrium, running around in bicycle helmets. In one classroom, giant, paper snowflakes hung from the ceiling, beneath them, children chanted a song about numbers.

Though parents can drop their kids off for the whole day, from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., director Steve White is adamant that this is not daycare.

“It can’t be daycare, it can’t be a nursery, it can’t be a childcare center,” he said. “It  has to be a school, so that people who make decisions can understand the importance of what we’re doing—we want to have better outcomes.”

Indeed, even the toddler classrooms have weekly curriculums posted on the wall; acting out the movements of different animals, learning which animals hibernate in the winter, completing motor motions like tying a shoe.

It’s important for not only the children to understand that they’re at school, but for parents, too, White said—knowing their child is in school motivates parents to make sure the children get enough sleep and are healthy enough to attend every day.

The results at Dunbar have been impressive—after the first year alone, 55 percent of incoming kindergarten students at the elementary school were reading at or above grade level, up from 6 percent in 2010. The percentage of children below the thirtieth percentile on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test dropped by 23 percentage points the first year alone, while the percentage of those scoring above the 50th percentile increased 12 points.

Preschool classrooms have curriculums at Dunbar (Alana Semuels)

Parents at the Dunbar Learning Complex also get a handful of resources to help them in parenting: Counselors help them access special teachers if their child is lagging behind in development; health navigators help ensure children get necessary vaccinations and can inspect housing, with parents’ permission, to see if anything in a family’s home might be making a child sick. The complex has monthly meetings on issues like child development, literacy, and health, and helps teach parents how to read with their children at home.

The strategy has proven so successful that there’s now a waiting list of 400 children, double the preschool’s enrollment. And that, in turn, has driven parents to show up at the Center for Working Families, up the hill, to register for job training or a career counselor. Kids can’t get on the waiting list of the Educare site unless their parents are enrolled with the Center for Working Families.

“When the lure is free childcare, I will sit through whatever class you tell me to,” said Jomal Vailes, the chief development officer for the Center for Working Families. “But we do believe that someone coming here is a sign that they have a hope for change and are willing to take a few steps around the corner.”

The Center for Working Families is located on the ground floor of a community center just a short walk and up the hill from the learning complex. When parents arrive, a counselor screens them to find out what benefits they qualify for. Then they can enroll in an intensive job-readiness boot camp that gives them the tools to interview for employment. They can also be paired with a counselor who will help them navigate the labor market and the complicated network of grants and education programs available to them.

The Center has placed 1,800 people in jobs and annually connects people with tax refunds, credits, childcare subsidies and other benefits. But it's the way the center works with the school down the hill that has really helped parents improve their children's chances. There’s literacy training for parents so they can read with their children, and counselors at the workforce center consult with staff at the school about families’ well-being.

"It's not just, 'The parent has a job, kudos, the child is on reading level, kudos," but more 'Oh, I can actually grow in this process, to become a more effective parent,'" Vailes said.

Two-generation programs are not new—the phrase was coined in the early 1990s, when a few programs linked early-childhood education and self-sufficiency programs for parents. But those programs mostly faded away under welfare reform, when policy emphasis was put on “work-first” policies, according to this report on two-generation programs in The Future of Children.

Oklahoma was one of the first states to try the approach more recently; the state has universal pre-K, and a program called CAP Tulsa helped parents participate in GED and parenting classes at the same time.

But the two-generation approach in Atlanta is unique because of the scope of poverty in the area. In Atlanta, a child raised in the bottom-fifth of income levels has only a 4 percent chance of rising to the top-fifth income level, according to a paper published earlier this year that looked in depth at mobility across the country. That rate is lower than in any other developed country, and pales in comparison to areas such as Salt Lake City, where a child raised in the bottom- fifth has a 11.5 percent chance of moving to the top, and San Francisco, where a child has an 11.2 percent chance of moving up.

Even parents who feel secure about the job market and their child-raising abilities struggle in Atlanta. D’Nise Fitzpatrick moved to Atlanta from Connecticut five years ago for a new job at the IRS; a few weeks after she began working, she was informed her job was being relocated to another state. She decided she couldn’t move again and started applying for other jobs, only to find out how tough the job market was in Atlanta, where the unemployment rate was hovering around 11 percent. Then she got pregnant at age 43—an unplanned occurrence, since she’d already raised two kids, who are now grown. Then her car got stolen, and Fitzpatrick had to rely on Atlanta’s public transportation—which doesn’t cover much ground get to potential jobs.

After her son Joshua was born, Fitzpatrick found a job working in a fast-food restaurant at the Atlanta airport for minimum wage. She was given only three shifts a week, and was struggling to pay the bills, since her husband had been laid off too. She would ask neighbors or her mother-in-law to watch her son when she went to work, but knew that working a minimum-wage job for 15 or so hours a week wasn’t sustainable, especially since she had to beg for the amount of hours she was getting. So when someone told her about the Center for Working Families, she decided to give it a shot. She started working with a coach who helped her prepare for interviews, revamp her resume and apply for different jobs. She also put her son on the Educare waiting list.

It was terrifying to be in a new city with a minimum-wage job and a new baby, Fitzpatrick said. But going into the center and seeing other parents in similar situations helped, she said.

“It was more like a support group—kind of like, wow, I’m not in this by myself,” she told me. In the meantime, she attended classes on budgeting, repairing her credit, and interviewing.

This June, her son, Joshua got off the Educare waiting list and into the program, and the free childcare was “an awesome burden lifted,” she told me. Joshua also has some speech problems, but the school was able to hook him up with a speech pathologist, and Fitzpatrick said he’s improving quickly. Now, Joshua loves school, and gets up every morning—even on weekends—and wants to play school with his mother. Fitzpatrick often volunteered at the school when she wasn't working, because it seemed like such a positive place to be.

“This is so important, since it sets the pace for his future—we’re going to college, and then you’re going to have gainful employment in the field of your choice,” Fitzpatrick said about the benefits of school.

In September, Fitzpatrick was offered a job working part-time in the school. Having her son in school all day allowed her to take more classes and get a teacher certification, she’s still going to budgeting classes and hopes to save up enough to buy a car in the next year. The center also helped her figure out what was causing Joshua’s constant illnesses—mold and mildew in their rental apartment was exacerbating his asthma, it turned out. The family moved into a temporary apartment while the landlord got rid of the mold.

D'Nise Fitzpatrick in the school where she's now employed (Alana Semuels)

The two-generation model isn’t cheap. It requires high teacher-to-student ratios and counselors for parents as well. The average cost per child at Educare Atlanta is around $14,000 a student. Much of that comes from federal and state dollars, but foundation money helped get the program off the ground.

That means that despite the program's successes, two-generation might be hard to scale. Public funding is hard to come by these days—although state funding for pre-K increased by $30.6 million in 2012-2013, it was cut by nearly half a billion dollars the previous year. Only about 17 percent of eligible families receive childcare subsidies, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty.

Though 41 states have some sort of funding for pre-K, only 15 states qualified as providing enough funding to meet standards provided by the National Institute for Early Education. Georgia, for instance, has a pre-K program, but it does not serve 3-year-olds, and there’s a long waiting list for 4-year-olds in many counties. Federal programs provide some relief, but also fall short: Head Start only operates for half a day in many states, and is often closed for the summer.

But White, the director of the pre-school, insists the program is scaleable. He says it’s smarter not to depend on federal dollars for pre-K funding anyway. He and Austin speak of the possibility of businesses funding childcare or family-wellness programs for their employees, or of foundations stepping in on interventions like this one, since they save money down the road.

“We have to get away from the dependence on Congress and the Senate to determine our fate, because our kids are going to exist regardless,” he said.

Austin, of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, offered me a different perspective on the cost issue.

“We hear that all the time, people say, ‘That sounds expensive, all that work for little kids,’” she told me, as we walked up the hill from the school, through a park to the Center for Working Families. “My response is, it’s much more expensive to have to intervene, whether you’re talking about rehab or prison.”

A gleaming juvenile justice center across the street accentuated her point.

“We have to change our mindset to be willing to invest in the front end versus always wanted to kind of wait and revealing the results,” she said.

One of the things that struck me about the two-generation model is that it favors parents who are self-starters, and who have the wherewithal to fight to get their children enrolled in school, and to get themselves some career help. D’Nise Fitzpatrick was savvy enough to get her son into a better pre-school program and enter the working world. But what about the parents who don’t know about the program, or who are too overwhelmed to take any steps for themselves or their children? Aren’t they the ones that need the most help?

Dayisja Davis, for instance, had never heard of the Center for Working Families. I talked to other young mothers near the West End MARTA station and many said they had tried to apply for childcare subsidies, and had quit when they were denied the first time. A few told me they didn’t trust anyone else with their babies,  that there have been bad stories about childcare centers that lose or abuse kids.

Even those that would trust their children with others say it’s hard to access any sort of financial assistance.

But research suggests that two-generation programs could be more effective than offering just job training or childcare independently, because they draw in two types of parents—those who are interested in better jobs, and will put their children in pre-school if it's offered to them, and those who are interested in childcare alone, but will jump through some job hoops if it gives them access to school for their children. Being a part of both programs often motivates parents to behave differently, said Curtis Skinner, director of family economic security at the National Center for Children in Poverty.

"The child seems to inspire the parent to really dedicate him or herself to their own education, the programs seem to work in tandem," he said.

Student artwork at the Dunbar Learning Complex (Alana Semuels)

It may become easier to convince some parents that the two-generation program will lead to results for both themselves and their children once they see how it affects others on their street or in their neighborhood.

Tyra Massey is noticing the difference in her own family. She, her husband, and four children moved to Atlanta from Illinois and soon heard from neighbors about the program at the Dunbar Learning Complex. She enrolled with the Center for Working Families and soon got a job at AirServ, which cleans planes at the Atlanta airport. Massey’s husband was able to watch their 3-year old and infant when she was working. Their 8-year-old and 11-year-old were enrolled in local schools.

Then, the 3-year-old got into Educare. He’s been in the program for just two months, but Massey says she’s seen a big difference. He was shy when he enrolled at age 3, and wasn’t speaking to other students or to teachers. Now, he talks to other teachers, and students, and comes home and talks to Massey and her husband about trains and colors and cars, and tells stories about things he did during the day.

But she also has an infant who is still on the waiting list to get into Educare. She’s working part-time now and her husband works in sales, so he only gets paid on commission, and sometimes the family has trouble coming up with the $150 a week to pay for infant care.

"I’m going to teach my infant all that I can," she said. "But if my infant doesn’t get into a quality learning center, definitely the 3-year old will have an advantage, because he will be kindergarten ready."

Like many of the other mothers I talked to, Massey had applied for Georgia’s CAPS program and was denied funding. She’s planning on working full-time come January, and is getting desperate about what to do about childcare. Now that she’s seen the benefit of the Dunbar Learning Complex, she worries that her infant won’t have the advantages that her son did.