ARUN RATH, HOST:
The Harlem Children's Zone is a nonprofit with an innovative approach to ending the cycle of poverty. One of their best-known programs is Baby College. It's for expectant parents or for those with kids up to the age of 3. As it approaches its 15th anniversary, there is criticism, as well as some successes. Alexandra Starr of NPR's Code Switch team attended the latest Baby College graduation and reports.
ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: The event had the feel of a motivational seminar crossed with a rock concert. There was an engaging emcee - the program director, Hassan Daniel.
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY COLLEGE GRADUATION CEREMONY)
HASSAN DANIEL: Good morning, Baby College. How are you doing?
UNIDENTIFIED BABY COLLEGE GRADUATION ATTENDEES: Good morning.
DANIEL: Good morning, y'all awake?
STARR: And it was early on a Saturday morning, but the 59 graduates, joined by friends and family, were used to the schedule. Baby College is held over nine consecutive Saturdays, during which instructors go over everything from baby-proofing and nutrition to brain development and communication skills. A big emphasis is on reading to kids. Some of the parents performed a rap on the topic.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Rapping) Here's a little rhyme to help us learn them better.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Rapping) A is for alligator. B is for bib. C is for...
STARR: The fact that these parents had been meeting up weekly for more than two months has created a community. Dr. Joshua Sparrow is director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center in Boston. He says that's one of the big benefits of Baby College - it builds a support network.
JOSHUA SPARROW: And when parents don't feel isolated, when they don't feel alone and they feel like they've got the support from others in their community, they're much more likely to be able to be warm and responsive and sensitive in their interactions with their children.
STARR: Dr. Sparrow and the famed pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton helped create the Baby College curriculum. It encourages discipline without corporal punishment. Program instructors share research with parents warning that spanking can stymie brain development and weaken emotional bonds.
Edgar Garcia's a 25-year-old first-time father. He says the overriding message he got from Baby College was the importance of that emotional connection with his son.
EDGAR GARCIA: Discipline comes first and then a lot of things follow afterwards. At the end of the day, just make sure you're there for your child.
STARR: Thousands of Harlem residents have been through the program. Baby College recruits aggressively. Outreach workers knock on doors in public housing and stop pregnant women on the street. Staff members also do weekly home visits with participating families. There are also incentives to go to the classes. Baby gates and children's books are distributed along with free meals and child care during classes. Those with perfect attendance are entered in a raffle at graduation. The winner gets a free month's rent. This time, it was an expectant mother, Caprice Johnson, who won the prize.
DANIEL: Congratulations. How do you feel?
CAPRICE JOHNSON: Great. I'll probably go into labor. Hold on.
STARR: Despite all these giveaways and support, the academic benefits of Baby College are not clear. A 2011 Harvard study did not find that parents' participation in Baby College alone improved their child's test scores in elementary school.
STEVE BARNETT: They don't find a difference between getting the good charter school experience and getting the good charter school experience plus Baby College.
STARR: Steve Barnett is director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. He says that despite that finding, a parenting workshop like Baby College can be valuable.
BARNETT: There's a lot more to learning and development than test scores. Baby College is not an intensive, expensive program, and so if it only had modest impacts, then it's probably worth it.
STARR: Now, the Harvard study did find that children enrolled in the nonprofit's charter schools outperform their peers academically, especially in math. And Baby College can serve as a gateway to enrollment. At the graduation, Baby College director Hassan Daniel emphasized he was saying congratulations, but not goodbye.
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY COLLEGE GRADUATION CEREMONY)
DANIEL: Please make sure you stay connected with us because we want to make sure that we are giving all of these great opportunities to you and your family.
STARR: Some parents took to the stage again to perform a rap - history happens every day.
UNIDENTIFIED BABY COLLEGE PARENTS: (Rapping) History happens every day. History happens every day.
STARR: If the Baby College staff has its way, that Saturday could be just the first of many milestones parents celebrate with the Harlem Children's Zone. Alexandra Starr, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.