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Inside a Birmingham Early Learning Center for Children Experiencing Homelessness

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By Sym Posey

The Birmingham Times

When the Early Learning Center (ELC) at Pathways opened its free, licensed childcare facility in downtown Birmingham two years ago it began a service that few offered — childhood education for families experiencing homelessness.

While some shelters have services for families and access to childcare many do not focus specifically on young children.

United Way’s Pathways has been dedicated to serving women and children experiencing homelessness in Birmingham for more than 30 years and its childcare center which celebrates its second year in November is still relatively rare nationwide.

Bailey Real, Assistant Director, Pathways Inc.

“We’ve come a long way. What we are doing is different from a lot of other places [shelters] and we’ve learned that it is challenging but it is worth it,” said Bailey Real, Assistant Director for Pathways Inc.

She added, “our parents are able to get into housing a lot quicker, because they are able to get jobs when they have a safe place for their child. So many of our parents before the early learning center would leave their kids with people who might not be safe or people that they might not trust just because they have to.”

The ELC is available not only to women and children who stay in Pathways’ emergency shelter program, but also to families staying in any homeless shelters in the Birmingham area, families sleeping outside, and families staying in any place not meant for human habitation. Parents with children aged 8 weeks to 5 years who meet these qualifications can simply call or visit Pathways to begin the enrollment process.

The center is open Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. and licensed to serve 22 children and immediately available from a family’s first day of homelessness.

One in 23 children in Alabama will experience homelessness before the age of six and most of the state’s children without homes in that age group live in Jefferson County. Only 3 percent of those children have access to federally funded early childhood education.

“We are not your typically daycare,” Real said. “The expectations and licensing guidelines for other daycares can be challenging to implement here because we have a day center that is open for ladies living on the streets and we are all in the same building. We work hard to create a system that makes sure everyone is safe and the DHR guidelines are met … . “

“We have a high standard that we follow. We know that our kids deserve the best childcare. I believe that is the way we will change the world, through education. “

Real said the ELC is always looking to improve. It already has 4 out of 5 stars in Alabama’s rating system for daycare centers to help parents determine which daycares are going above and beyond the bare minimum “which we are proud of … [however] we are in the process of working towards our fifth star.,” said Real. “We’ve hired a teacher who has her master’s in counseling, and she is great with our students.”

Recently the daycare has adopted a Montessori teaching style, a system of education for young children that seeks to develop natural interests and activities rather than use formal teaching methods.

“In June we started to take a more Montessori approach,” said Real.  “We hired Emily Bloyd, AMS (American Montessori Society). We’ve completely flipped the classroom in the last few months. It’s a very homelike environment where we can meet the kids where they’re at. “

“Montessori education in general has gotten expensive and inaccessible for kids who truly need it the most, kids it was designed for, “said Real. “Being able to provide free childcare with a Montessori approach is something we are proud of. “

Pathways, which was founded in 1983 by a small group of women from the Cathedral Church of the Advent (St. Mary’s Guild) who partnered with Greater Birmingham Ministries (GBM), the Alabama- based nonprofit will soon plans to incorporate parenting classes, said Real. This is its 40th year and 20th as a United Way agency.

“Starting in November we have a social worker dedicated to the program who will teach [moms]. If it is one parent at a time, or two she will teach them skills and empower them in that way. We think this is a huge need for our parents. “

To learn more about Pathways visit www.pathwayshome.org

To refer a child email: elc@pathwayshome.org