EAST PALO ALTO, Calif. — Sitting on the carpet, Karen Melendez slaps her knees twice with both her hands, then brings them together in a thundering clap. Then she repeats the motion, over and over.
It is the unmistakable beat of Queen’s hit single, “We Will Rock You.” But for her classroom of four year olds, the message and lyrics are different.
To the melody of that song, Melendez sings: “We are a school family. I will keep you safe here. Your job is to help me.” The children, gathered in a circle, do their best to sing and clap along to her tempo.
Following the song, she leads the class in expressing well wishes for the classmates who are absent. Then they head outside for the all-school family meeting, where Melendez’s class joins a hundred other students, parents and teachers who have already gathered in the courtyard.
The scene looks like any other morning school assembly. Except in the place of the usual announcements, teachers read aloud the personal updates that their students have decided to share with the community. A grandparent is ill. A student misses his pet. Another is psyched about losing one of his baby teeth.
These small expressions of gratitude and grief, wishes and worries are woven into the conversations throughout the day. And they are core to the environment that The Primary School aspires to create.
Here, as in many other schools, educators try to create a communal sense of family, so that school feels like a second home to children. Yet proactively supporting students’ families is also core to The Primary School’s approach to early childhood education. School leaders believe children do best when their parents are well, and that parents can best support their children when they also attend to their own personal needs and goals.
“Parents are usually seen as adults in the service of children, but we forget to acknowledge that they are also individuals with their own hopes and dreams,” says Valentina Helo-Villegas, who directs the parent coaching program at The Primary School.
That philosophy is not unique to The Primary School. For over fifty years, the federal early childhood education program Head Start has operated a two-generation model in which family advocates and other staff match parents to community resources including career development, housing, food and trauma services.
At The Primary School, every family is assigned a coach who checks in with them regularly. Three times every year, a parent, teacher and coach all gather for a “Children’s Circle” to discuss how the child is doing on academics, health and “soul,” the school’s term for social-emotional development. And coaches bring parents together monthly for a group conversation around their personal goals and well-being.
These coaches play a critical role as the main liaison between the teachers, parents and the school. For teachers, they provide an additional lens into the lives of students, and help them understand how home dynamics may impact a child’s engagement in the classroom.
“It’s important to have this line of communication, so that we’re all aligned on what’s happening with the families and what’s happening with the child,” says Martha Paramo Garcia, a lead pre-kindergarten teacher at The Primary School.
Garcia recalls finding out from a coach that one student who showed up to school in tears every morning was emotionally distraught over his parents' divorce. “We ended up creating a story to let him know that it’s okay to feel this way, and that it’s okay if your family starts to look a little different,” says Garcia, who herself was raised in a single-parent household.
She adds: “Sometimes, you don’t have those chances or have the time to build those relationships with the parents that the coaches get to do.”
Left: Karen Melendez consoles a child. Right: Martha Paramo Garcia works with her students. (Photo credit: Tony Wan)
Tucked behind a strip mall, The Primary School is not easy to spot. With the exception of its logo—a blue hand with a red heart in the palm—the campus and its offices are nondescript and inconspicuous. That’s intentional, given the high profile accorded to its co-founder and board chair Priscilla Chan, whose husband is Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
In 2016, Chan, a pediatrician, opened the The Primary School with co-founder Meredith Liu, on the premise that providing effective early childhood education requires a combination of academic, health and family support services. A “birth to three” program coordinates medical services and screenings for toddlers. On campus, the school serves children in preschool through second grade, and there are plans to add a new grade each subsequent year, up to eighth grade. A new site, with a similar support model, is slated to open next year across the bay in Hayward, Calif.
Parents are usually seen as adults in the service of children, but we forget to acknowledge that they are also individuals with their own hopes and dreams.
Valentina Helo-Villegas, director of parent program at The Primary School
The Primary School is private, but receives public funding from the California State Preschool Program to run preschool programs for 3 and 4 year olds, and other public funds for its food program. The other grades are covered by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), the philanthropic company named after the couple that supports education, health and science initiatives. (CZI also provides grant support to EdSurge.)
It is a well-funded operation, thanks largely to the largesse of CZI. According to a school official, total operating expenses for East Palo Alto site the 2017-2018 year came out to about $5.5 million. That covers a sizable staff of 60 includes nurses, paraprofessionals and speech pathologists, in addition to teachers and parent coaches.
It also fully covers tuition for the 282 children currently attending the school, many of whom are referred by the nearby Ravenswood Family Health Center, which provides medical services to low-income families and uninsured residents. All families reported an income below $95,350, which is roughly 65 percent of the household median for San Mateo County in 2018—and considered low income in the county. Eighty-four percent of its preschool families reported an income below $80,628.
In many parts of America, those would be comfortable livable wages. But not here, where the estimated median monthly rent in East Palo Alto exceeded $3,509 in 2017, according to the Bay Area Equity Atlas, a group that measures inequality in the region.
Even though the campuses of Facebook, Stanford, and venture capital firms sit merely miles away, the East Palo Alto and Belle Haven communities served by The Primary School are working-class neighborhoods, with a checkered history of segregation. And though they have shed the “murder capital” label, residents now worry about displacement from the rising cost of living.
“Housing insecurity is one of the things that is top of mind for families,” says Helo-Villegas, who hails from Colombia and previously worked as a psychotherapist specializing in severe trauma. Concerns over possible eviction “not only has a negative impact on their mental health and ability to support their children, but it also breaks their relationships in their communities.”
Valentina Helo-Villegas (in red) leading a Parent Circle (Photo credit: The Primary School)
Each of the nine full-time parent wellness coaches serve 35 to 40 families. They offer guidance across a wide variety of matters, from practical goals like finding a job to mental wellness needs around improving self-esteem and positive identity development.
The coaches hail from different backgrounds and hold a range of credentials. Some previously counseled and provided mental health support to families. Others worked with at-risk youth in other schools and local community centers. Seven of the nine parent coaches—and about a third of the school staff—currently live in or were raised in the community.
Stephanie Coy, who grew up in East Palo Alto, became a parent coach in 2016. Previously a crisis counselor for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, Coy was interested in the opportunity to take a more proactive approach to supporting children and families.
“A lot of the work I was doing before felt like it was always responding to trauma. For example, I worked on a 24-hour hotline,” says Coy. “That fulfilled me in a sense, but I really wanted to prevent and support preventing some of these outcomes.”
When she interviewed for the job, two parents from the school asked how Coy would react in discomfiting scenarios. “One mom asked me how I would support a family with autism when there’s another family gossiping about them.” That mock exercise gave her a glimpse into the kinds of unpredictable situations and group dynamics she would later occasionally face.
Now in her third year on the job, Coy sits on the other side of the interview table. Of the different competencies she probes potential candidates for, time management is usually near the top of mind, as each parent coach works with 40 families. Juggling their often unpredictable needs and schedules can be a steep learning curve.
For her, that adjustment also coincided with a life-changing moment: Coy found out she was pregnant during her first week on the job. “That was a big learning curve. I was becoming a parent myself. Life was shifting for me, and at the same time I had to also fit in the scheduling of all the different families.”
Parents’ handwritten commitments to their children are posted on classroom walls. (Photo credit: Tony Wan)
New parent coaches complete a 16-week professional development course run by Real Balance, a company that offers credentialed trainings for wellness and healthcare professionals. Then they learn about the parent programs specific to The Primary School, which is developed internally.
Coaches lead every new parent through a 8-week “Foundations” program, which covers topics ranging from language development to managing stress and healthy habits. One lesson might explore how establishing routines can provide a sense of security for children and aid in their development of executive functioning skills. Another covers why it’s essential for adults to get proper sleep.
Upon completing the program, parents meet monthly for “Parent Circles” to continue the conversation. Coaches facilitate lessons about assertiveness, active listening and other topics that borrow from Conscious Discipline, a popular framework for social-emotional learning adopted in many schools. Empathy, says Coy, is key to facilitating questions that encourage parents to reflect and open up to their peers when addressing sensitive topics.
A “Wish Well Board
” hangs in every classroom. (Photo credit: Tony Wan)
Coy says the school prepares meticulously detailed materials to guide the coaches, which include “an agenda of how the meetings should be going, what points to hit, and what you should do differently if you’re dealing with a new family, versus one that you’ve already been working with.” Still, no plan can cover every scenario, and coaches sometimes improvise. “There’s a lot of ambiguity that comes with the fact that every family is so different,” she adds.
Awkward, private and uncomfortable conversations are not uncommon. One mother shared how she felt her partner had become more attached to his cell phone than his daughter. Coy recently learned that another mother, who had been skipping meetings and calls, had been suffering from work-related depression.
Trust is essential in these conversations, and coaches are required to practice the lessons they preach. As an example, Helo-Villegas says that before coaches lead a session on the importance of self-reflection, they need to develop that skill within themselves. “It’s important that coaches are able to look at themselves and notice their patterns and their triggers, so they can do their work with integrity and in a way that doesn’t burn them out.”
“You can only go as far with someone as you have gone for yourself,” she adds. “If you haven’t done your own work, then the level of support that you can give to someone is very shallow.”
A core component of the Parent Circles involves setting and working toward personal goals. Every parent fills out a personal growth plan template that resembles a Mad Lib, filling in the blanks about what skills they want to improve on, and how they support their family. They can choose a goal from eight categories that the school has identified.
Personal goal-setting categories for parents, adapted from The Prosperity Agenda
At the monthly circles, coaches check in with parents about their progress and obstacles. Some are tied to resolving immediate concerns, like housing and employment. Others are more aspirational and straightforward, like setting up a savings account, or starting English language learning classes.
The purpose of these conversations is “not necessarily about directly helping the families,” says Coy. “It’s about building parents’ awareness, and expanding their own belief in themselves that they can find resources that are in the community.” In other words, coaches serve as facilitators, not fixers.
Even people who have lived in the community for decades do not always know what local support services are available.
For Liboria Barrera, a mother of two children at The Primary School who’s lived in East Palo Alto for over 20 years, “one of the most important things was getting connected to organizations that help with low-income housing.” Knowing that there are services helped ease her mind a bit, “even as there’s a big waiting list” to secure subsidized housing.
Barrera also credits these meetings with adopting a healthier lifestyle. She’s out of work, in part due to arthritis and other health issues. Recently she learned about a food drive where she can get fresh vegetables, fruit, eggs and milk. From basic personal needs to bigger challenges, “it’s been helpful to receive information and resources that not just support my child, but my family as a whole,” she says.
More importantly, the monthly circles help parents build relationships with one another and establish their own support networks. That’s important for those who feel socially isolated, Coy says. “If you don’t have a social network, then who are you reaching out to for support, for help or guidance with your problems?”
Through these meetings, parents have helped one another arrange shared transportation duties, apply for jobs and prepare for the G.E.D. test. As they come together to talk about their goals, the hope is that they not only support each other, but also hold each other accountable.
“Peer-to-peer support can go beyond what any coach can provide,” says Helo-Villegas. “It goes much deeper than what any employee from our school can do.”
Garcia, the pre-kindergarten teacher, understands why these support networks matter. Growing up in Belle Haven, she recalls that her mother had a hard time finding local social services or simply knowing who to turn to. It was a challenge, for instance, for her mom to make sure she got her regular medical check up. “It’s not one of the easiest systems to navigate,” she says.
“Everyone has needs, and it’s important for parents to get that extra support where they can ask, ‘Okay, how can I focus on my needs as well?’” Garcia adds. “It’s really important that we focus on the child. But we also check in with the families to make sure, ‘Are you okay?’”