For the last three years, a unique community partnership between St. Catherine University, the Montessori Training Center of Minnesota, and Montessori Partners Serving All Children (MPSAC) has examined ways to eliminate the education and opportunity gap in early childhood. Thanks to a $1.1 million grant from Better Way Foundation, the partnership will now launch a large-scale, four-year intervention at five community sites.
Aptly dubbed “Serving the Whole Child,” the partnership aims to improve the wellbeing of under-represented and economically disadvantaged children and their families. This will be achieved through comprehensive service delivery that includes early childhood Montessori education; early childhood screenings, referrals and follow-up; one-on-one family resource interventions; and parent enrichment and social support events.
“What’s really exciting about this project is the opportunity to change life trajectories by intervening in early life, supporting the kids, and making sure that parents have what it is that they need in order to be successful,” says Mary Hearst, associate professor and director of St. Kate’s public health program.
For this kind of comprehensive approach to succeed for children in underserved communities, cultural competency is critical for educators and professionals who work with families. As part of the grant, culturally responsive training will also be provided to all partners.
“We’re working with American-Indian, Hmong, Karen, Somali, and Spanish-speaking communities. We’re working in North Minneapolis and St. Paul’s East Side,” says Hearst, who serves as principal investigator for partnership. “So there’s incredible diversity among the communities we’re serving.”
The partnership’s interprofessional approach opens up hands-on learning opportunities for St. Kate’s students in four academic disciplines: occupational therapy (OT), physician assistant studies, public health and social work. Students will fulfill internship, service learning, research, or fieldwork requirements in their respective programs.
“Not only are students learning about cultural and economic barriers, but how to interact with diverse and low-income communities,” says Hearst, “and they’re actually at community sites, so they get to see kids and families and neighborhoods that they may not have seen otherwise.”
For many students, this will be the first time they work with translators. Or critically examine whether the information they’re trying to relay is even culturally relevant. For example, OT students’ work around food, family mealtime and what that means for different cultures.
“The middle-class, white expectation that everybody sits down to a balanced dinner because we all work a day shift is different for people working evening shifts, right?” says Hearst. “And for cultures where men and women don’t typically eat together at the table — how do you have a family meal? So our approach and language around this kind of stuff needs to shift.”
The partnership will also address language gaps that exist in critical materials used for childhood screening and assessments.
“The materials are available in English, and some are standardized in Spanish, but many haven’t been standardized in Hmong, Karen or Somali,” she explains.
Ultimately, the University’s commitment to social justice drives their efforts to disrupt historic and institutional biases — what Hearst calls “perpetual structural violence” — that prevents children from fulfilling their potential.
“These are communities that have been abandoned by society for a long time, so this is a real opportunity to positively impact the lives of children and families,” says Hearst. “And in the process, equip students with the education and experience to be better professionals.”