Fight Poverty by Sending Dad and Daughter to School Together

One D.C. charter school offers free English, computer, and parenting classes for adults and early education for their kids.

Shortly before the year-end holiday break at Briya Public Charter School in Washington, Paige Reuber started the work day by helping a student finalize her health insurance enrollment, which had been rejected on the first try. In the afternoon, Reuber headed to the class in which she teaches some 20 adults the basics of the English language. Her students had just completed their midterms, so they had time to focus on holiday-themed phrases. They then used those words in their next class—computer skills—to make holiday cards using a commercial publishing program.

English-language instruction, basic computer skills, parenting classes, and infant and toddler care during school hours are just the beginning of the services that Briya offers to adult students and their children for free. Would-be students—generally, people who have recently immigrated to the United States—simply have to put their names in a lottery to enroll for one or more of the 482 slots available at Briya under D.C.'s public school charter system.

Parents can enroll as a family—themselves in Briya's adult program and their 3- and 4-year-old children in preschool. The school can also provide care for up to 100 infants and toddlers for those students with younger children. Each of the school's three campuses is co-located with Mary's Center, a social service and health clinic for D.C. residents. Many of the school's students are referred through the clinic, where they might have initially shown up seeking dental or medical care or welfare assistance.

Briya prides itself on being a one-stop shop for education and public assistance for disadvantaged adults, wholly embracing the "two generation" approach to fighting poverty. Its founders believe that if you want to permanently pull families out of their low-income situations, you need to provide parents and children the same things: education, health care, and work skills.

Teachers and social workers across the country intuitively understand this concept, but government aid programs generally don't follow that pattern. State and federal assistance programs are typically targeted to the child or the parent, but not both at the same time. There are also more government programs for children than for adults, a reflection of public unwillingness to "reward" adults who some see as a drag on society.

And yet, most families living in poverty in the U.S. consist of young parents with young children. Simply helping young kids doesn't, by itself, change the poverty cycle they live in. Children might qualify for Early Head Start, but that doesn't mean their parents are employed or know how to approach getting a job. And it's difficult to expect those children to rise to academic expectations when their home lives may be chaotic and lacking in basic necessities such as clothing or food.

"For all the strides we've made in investing in early education, we can't put all of the weight on the back of the child," says Anne Mosle, the executive director of Ascend, an Aspen Institute program that advocates for a holistic approach to educating families.

This is what Briya has been doing all along, although under different names and funding streams. The school was founded as a family literacy center by a group of immigrants in 1989, in response to an influx of refugees from Central America and Vietnam. The student body is still mostly immigrants—about 80 percent from Central America and the rest from other, far-flung regions. Reuber's current class includes students whose native languages are Spanish, French, Vietnamese, and Amharic (from Ethiopia).

Briya became a charter school in 2005, and it is one of the first in the District to offer adult education as part of the city's public school system. It is also the only one that offers dual schooling for students' kids. In doing so, Briya addresses the most pressing needs of immigrants. "They're getting English classes, and someone's going to take care of [their] kid," says Briya Executive Director Christie McKay.

McKay conducts hour-long orientations for each entering group of students to tell them there is more to the school than free child care. Attendance in classes isn't compulsory, but the school asks them to commit to a full school year. They are expected to attend two and a half hours of classes every day. The adult curriculum consists of English-language training, computer courses, and parenting lessons—all designed to ready a parent for the workforce and for supporting her children when they enter kindergarten.

Many students tell Briya employees that they want to better engage with their children's teachers, and English classes are often focused on those topics. McKay is proud that a slew of principals at local elementary schools take the time each year to come to Briya's K-12 open house, because the adult students have learned to ask good questions. Even better, their kids show up to kindergarten without needing remedial training, which is a significant bonus for the public school system.

Some adult students at Briya stay longer than one year, particularly if they test in at a beginner's English level, which means they haven't yet learned to write the English alphabet or speak basic phrases. "It's basically a literacy class," says McKay of the English level-one class. Some drop out before they're finished, an occupational hazard of teaching grown-ups who have more to worry about than just their studies.

Rueber does double duty as a teacher and student-services coordinator, teaching English level two, which is the rough equivalent of a beginning Spanish or French class in an American high school. She begins her classes with basic phrases such as "My name is X" and "I am from Y," but they quickly move on to the topics the students are most eager to learn about—how to talk to a doctor, how to talk to their children's teachers, or how to use English to get a job or a better job.

"I love teaching adults, but they have way more responsibilities," says Reuber. She has gotten used to her adult students's absences because their children were sick. McKay says many of the school's students have jobs cleaning offices or working in restaurants. It's not uncommon for the restaurant workers to be absent on Fridays as they are gearing up for the weekend rush.

A typical adult at Briya will enter with six years or less of prior formal education. For these families, their continuing education is a multigenerational journey. Their goals are simple for themselves. "I want to get a driver's license and drive a truck," or "I clean houses now, but I want to start my own house-cleaning business."

For their kids, McKay says the goal is almost always the same. "They want them to do well in school, better than they did."

By instructing both parent and child, Briya helps make these goals attainable.