Promoting School Readiness

Promoting School Readiness

Baltimore's "Judy Centers" prepare both preschoolers and their parents for kindergarten.

When you walk into one of Baltimore City’s Judith P. Hoyer Early Child Care and Family Education Centers – one of 12 unique centers housed in public schools across the city – you’ll see a hive of activity. You might see a toddler fitness class, led by a local nonprofit, that’s teaching kids the importance of play and exercise. You might see a father reading to his young daughter. A Judy Center coordinator might be helping a mother register for a job fair.

Judy Centers, as they are more commonly known, are formidable, do-it-all, one-stop shops for low-income young children and their families to get access to the services and supports they need to get ready for kindergarten. In 2012, Judy Centers were virtually unknown in Baltimore City public schools despite their measured success in getting children ready for school. Today, they are a core component of the city’s strategy for school readiness.

The Baltimore Community Foundation identified Judy Centers as an effective way to achieve the goal of preparing 90 percent of Baltimore City children for school by age five. We raised $6 million in private donations, which opened up an additional $6 million in federal, state and local funding. With financial support in place, we worked with school partners to create a unique arrangement among public agencies, private donors and elected government to create nine new Judy Centers in the school district and ensure they could operate beyond the life of the initial private donations used to start them. These centers are expected to serve 5,000 children and their families each year.

The challenge

Children in Baltimore City face incredible odds to achieving success.  Each year, about 6,500 Baltimore City children are born into poverty. These children begin to fall behind in vocabulary development and other skills critical for school success as early as 18 months of age.

“The socioeconomic conditions that our families are experiencing put our young children at a disadvantage,” Billie Marie Malcolm, BCF’s program officer for education, told me. Malcolm is also a former employee of the Baltimore City Public Schools central office team. “When parents are overwhelmed with basic needs like housing and putting food on the table, they’re less likely focused on their child’s social, emotional or cognitive development.”

A ray of light

In 2012, as part of our investment in education, we set a goal:  90 percent of Baltimore children would be ready for school by 2017. To do this, we focused on investing in children from birth to age five.

While researching early childhood education programming, our staff learned about the three small early childhood resource centers in Baltimore City which had achieved significant success in preparing young children for school.

These Judy Centers were named for the late Judith Hoyer, wife of U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD). Judith Hoyer, an education activist, founded a resource center for young children and families which provided non-academic supports to help prepare kids for school.

Hoyer’s center was an early model of family resource centers for young families. Maryland’s Judy Centers are inspired by her work.  Each Judy Center is located within a neighborhood school building, and offers services like preschool, health care referrals, family support, parenting and caregiver classes, to any parent of a child between the ages of 0 and 5.

The keystone of Judy Centers – and what sets them apart from programs like Head Start – is that they adapt to meet the needs of the specific community they serve, and identify local resources that can be leveraged to meet their school readiness mission.

We found that the existing Baltimore City Judy Centers were very successful in preparing children for school. According to the 2013 Maryland Measurement of School Readiness (the state’s school readiness measure at that time), between 85 and 93 percent of Baltimore City children with Judy Center experience were more likely to possess the social, emotional, academic and language skills required to be ready for school at age five. In contrast, 76 percent of children without Judy Center experience were ready for school.

“Quite simply, we did our research, and discovered a solution that could improve school readiness,” says Tom Wilcox, BCF President & CEO. “This was a program that was operating under the radar of many in our school system, but the centers were doing wonderful work. The coordinators in charge of those three centers were bringing together the right mix of resources that were really lifting the families and children in these communities.”

Expanding Judy Centers

BCF made opening additional Judy Centers a centerpiece in its strategy to achieve its school readiness goals. As major education advocates within the Baltimore community, our staff had spent years building relationships with representatives at every level of government – from the classroom to the state legislature. We used our political capital to develop a novel partnership among the major players in expansion: its donors, the Baltimore City Public Schools and the Maryland State Department of Education.

The goal of this partnership was to open new Judy Centers in school buildings using private donations as seed money to fund startup costs. Following the opening of new centers, private donations would be used as a supplement to public support for operating the centers. As time progressed, the private share of funding would be reduced and public funding sources would become the sustaining force behind Judy Centers. BCF also funded advocacy efforts around early childhood education to make the public funding available.

“We strongly believe that the only way our society is going to succeed over the long term is to ensure that every child, regardless of economic standing, has the same opportunity for an excellent education,” said George Sherman, a local philanthropist who, with his wife Betsy, provided significant funds for Judy Centers in Baltimore.

At BCF, we worked with our partners to create a memorandum of understanding that would solidify the agreement. This public-private model of sustainability proved to be a serious asset to BCF during its fundraising push. A 2014 federal Preschool Development Grant awarded helped leverage philanthropic contributions, allowing BCF to significantly accelerate its timeline and raise $6 million in private support. By 2015, BCF had raised enough to open nine centers in only three years and fund a citywide coordinator position within the school system.

Measuring success

Test results from Maryland’s new state-level readiness exam—known as the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment—show that Baltimore City Judy Center students outperformed their non-Judy Center counterparts in the city district by 6 percentage points and in the state by 3 points.  The data still show that Judy Centers are delivering on their promise of helping children prepare for school. And the expansion of Judy Centers has allowed Baltimore City Schools to offer services like this to 5,000 children ages 0 to 5 get access to services and support they need to be ready for school.

Our push for expanding Judy Centers is ahead of national trends. In October 2016, the U.S. Department of Education released non-regulatory guidance affirming the efficacy of preschool in preparing children, especially those born to low-income families, for kindergarten.

“This is the first time ‘early learning’ has been written into federal law, accompanied by non-regulatory guidance and authorized funding,” says Malcolm. “BCF is ahead of the curve on investing in equitable learning opportunities for the most vulnerable.”

Andrew Waldman is a Communications Officer with the Baltimore Community Foundation.


Judy Centers


Baltimore Community Foundation