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Unprecedented Milwaukee preschool effort aims to build literacy, curb later problems

January 15, 2019
Annysa Johnson
Journal Sentinel

A lowercase “e,” it turns out, can be difficult to master. But Patrick Jagiello is endlessly patient.

“Slide right, then circle around,” Jagiello tells 4-year-old Tarrell Harvey at the sign-in table in Mandy Sluss’ preschool class at Milwaukee’s Next Door Foundation. Tarrell follows his lead, but his “e” looks a little wobbly.

“Here, I’m going to help you,” Jagiello tells him, gently placing his hand over the child’s hand. And together they move the pencil, sliding right, then circling around.

“That’s cool,” Tarrell tells him, obviously pleased with their effort. “Now, I want to try.”

That is exactly the reaction founders of the Washington, D.C.-based Literacy Lab hoped to elicit when they created the Leading Men Fellowship, a 2-year-old program aimed at boosting early childhood literacy skills while exposing young men of color to careers in education.

Jagiello, 19, is among nine Leading Men Fellows embedded in preschool programs around Milwaukee, part of a multifaceted effort to expand access to high-quality early childhood programs, particularly for low-income and minority children for whom, research suggests, that access can be life-changing.

It is an unprecedented collaboration, bringing together a cross section of leaders — from education, health care, philanthropic organizations, business and government — to name a few. And the stakes are high for a city with some of the widest black-white academic achievement gaps in the nation, where the high school graduation rate for black and low-income students hovers below 60 percent, and where black men in some neighborhoods are more likely to go prison than college.

“All of us understand that the best way to make an impact on a person’s life is on the front end,” said Milwaukee Ald. Cavalier Johnson, a father of three who co-chaired a citywide task force on early childhood education last year.

“We need to make smart investments in people when they’re young, when their brains are developing … so they can become productive, contributing members of society.”

Research suggests that poor children who have high-quality early childhood experiences — not just baby-sitting, but interactions that nurture brain development — are more likely to graduate from high school and go on to college. They’re more likely as adults to be employed and less likely to spend time in jail.