Yonkers Basics Aims to Shrink the Achievement Gap

  • Yonkers Basics Aims to Shrink the Achievement Gap

    Open Quote  Stop worrying about spoiling babies. Little boys need love too. Close quote

    --- Dr. Ronald Ferguson, Director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University 

  • A culture shift is beginning to take place in Yonkers. It will start in daycare centers, pediatricians’ offices, churches, and barbershops. It will be subtle at first and if it takes hold, experts say it may eventually help a generation of Yonkers’ young people from diverse socio-economic, racial and ethnic groups shrink the “achievement gap.”   

    Yonkers Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Edwin M. Quezada is seeking to spark a culture change with the new Yonkers Basics campaign, which focuses on how adults interact with children under the age of three.  The civic program aims to spread the word about the crucial need to build children's learning capacity early on.  The idea is that with proper interaction in their first years, today’s babies will have the skills to ultimately expand their lives’ possibilities.

    The Basics are five evidence-based parenting principles: maximize love, manage stress; talk, sing, and point; count, group, and compare; explore through movement and play; and read and discuss stories.

    Dr. Ronald Ferguson, Director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University and the lead creator of the Basics, said that the 18-month-old program was borne of his realization that the skill gap among two-year-olds based on socioeconomic status and race is “stark.”  These skills predicted income and other success markers in life.  

    The five pillars are simple, specific and meant to be understood holistically. For example, Ferguson said, “It’s not just ‘maximize love’ that’s important,” reducing stress is also crucial, he said.  Stress in very young children, can impact brain elasticity and impede learning. Research also shows that children who feel a better sense of security and love from their parents as babies are better able to control their own behavior and follow through on goals later in life.

    Dr. Ferguson said that the Basics will help parents ignore warnings against coddling very young children – especially boys.

    “Stop worrying about spoiling babies,” he said. “Little boys need love too.”

    Dr. Quezada, who brought the Basics to Yonkers and is partnering with the City of Yonkers and YonkersThrives, said he was looking for an effective way to meet Yonkers’ My Brother’s Keeper Milestone One -- Ensure all children enter school cognitively, physically, socially, and emotionally ready. This pre-school milestone was “not directly in my circle of control,” he said.  It was Raymond Sanchez, Superintendent of the Ossining Union Free School District, who told Dr. Quezada about the campaign and its potential impact. Ossining Basics launched in December.

    The Basics movement, which began with Boston Basics in January, 2016, has begun to spread to cities around the country. In the Hudson Valley, in addition to Yonkers, Ossining, Peekskill, and Newburg recently adopted it. In these cities, pamphlets, videos and other materials describing the five principles are or will soon be distributed to places frequented by very young children and their parents and caregivers.

    The success of the program will depend upon widespread word-of-mouth or as Ferguson puts it “socio-ecological saturation.”  If mom reads about the Basics at the pediatrician’s office, and grandma hears about them at Church and Dad hears about them at the barbershop, the consistent reminders may effect behavior changes.   

    “We have to make it impossible not to know the Basics in Yonkers,” said Ferguson, who acknowledged that the program is still too new to have produced outcome data.

    State and city officials and Yonkers early childhood care community have enthusiastically welcomed the campaign. Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano, SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, New York State Regents Lester Young, Jr. and Judith Johnson as well as Yonkers Board of Education Vice President Judith Ramos Meier,  Trustees Andrea Brown and Edgar Santana, administrators from neighboring towns and hundreds of people from Yonkers’ schools, nonprofits and community-based organizations attended Yonkers Basics’ kick-off on May 10, 2017.