National Journal

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal

At the McKnight Early Childhood Family Development Center, 4-year-old Cesar Vasquez learned how to count, how to write his first letters, and his first words in English.

At the same place, his mother, Cecilia Gutierrez learned some important things too.

"I first took him out of curiosity," said Gutierrez, 38, a native of Mexico City. "But now I not only know better how the school works, but it's helped me grow as a parent, and now I can go further and prepare myself for a better job."

The mission of Head Start programs is to prepare kids to succeed once they enter school. But the Parent Training program at Parents In Community Action (PICA), a parent-led nonprofit that operates nine early-childhood centers in Minneapolis, gives parents a solid footing in the local labor market. Their training focuses on five sectors: infant/toddler and preschool childhood development, transportation, food service, and clerical.

"We've always believed that you can have the best early childhood program, and that's great, but if you don't change the economic outlook for parents, the growth of the child will be affected." — Rico Alexander, PICA

PICA's program is an example of what has been called the "two-generation" approach by the National Head Start Association.

"Two-generation is not a new concept," said Rico Alexander, Director of PICA's Head Start and Early Head Start programs. "We've always believed that you can have the best early-childhood program, and that's great, but if you don't change the economic outlook for parents, the growth of the child will be affected."

A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute identified the irregular hours that go with many types of low-wage jobs as one of five socioeconomic disadvantages that depress student achievement. PICA's parent training program tackles this head-on by getting parents ready for steady jobs with regular hours in job sectors that are compatible with child care and where there is demand.

Parents who enter the program must complete 96 hours of training and put in many hours of practice.

"Some people think they want to watch children, but they go through the program and realize it's a lot more involved," said Alexander. But enough parents have stuck with it that the program is now the top trainer of early-childhood teachers of color in Minnesota.

Gutierrez was enthusiastic about what she learned that she completed two programs, one in infant/toddler development and one in preschool development.

"I have been able to help the teachers and understand what they do better, and I became so involved I decided to do the second program," said Gutierrez, who said she wants to become certified to become a teacher's assistant. She said she is much happier doing work that connects with her family's needs than when she cleaned houses or worked in a factory.

"We now have a workforce that reflects the background of the kids and their parents," Alexander said.

Minneapolis' strong jobs market — with an unemployment rate of 3-4 percent — has turned PICA's training program into a victim of its own success. "We're always competing to hire parents with other entities like the school district," said Alexander. "We train parents and they get hired away."

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.

This story is part of our Next America: Early Childhood project, which is supported by grants from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.