In a humble house in East Palo Alto's Gardens neighborhood, mothers and young children gathered around colorful picture books, turning the pages at teacher Margarita Ventura's direction. Each page is illustrated with a corresponding creature or object, letter of the alphabet and sound.
"Monkey, monkey, m-m-m," the preschoolers and their moms sang along.
In the course of three hours, the children -- and their mothers -- exercised while they counted, developed fine motor skills, explored science, made art and shared healthful snacks.
All are part of a holistic educational program run through the nonprofit Family Connections, which provides kids with early-learning programs that allow them to enter kindergarten and higher grades at skill levels equivalent to or above their peers'.
Family Connections is the only parent-child participation program dedicated to low-income families in San Mateo County. The tuition-free school has helped more than 1,000 families in Menlo Park, East Palo Alto and Redwood City to jump-start their children's educations since 1993. A Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund recipient, Family Connections received $10,000 this year to support its Kindergarten Readiness program in East Palo Alto.
The need is great. Despite the best intentions, children in these poorer communities are still being left behind -- a particularly glaring situation amid Silicon Valley's wealth and highly educated population.
According to San Mateo County School Readiness Data, having a high quality preschool experience is one of the biggest influences on a child's school readiness, but there are too few preschool slots in the county to accommodate all of the children in need. Even with a traditional preschool experience, English Language Learner children are entering kindergarten behind their peers. In many cases, they then fall even further behind.
That deficit is stark among local low-income school children. Just 28 percent of students at Belle Haven Elementary School and 25 percent of third-graders at Fair Oaks Elementary School in Redwood City scored proficient or advanced in English/language arts, according to reports by Belle Haven and GreatSchools.org, Family Connections noted in its grant application to the Holiday Fund. According to research by the Anne Casey Foundation, children who have lived in poverty and are not reading proficiently in third grade are about three times more likely to drop out or fail to graduate from high school.
But Family Connections' results are promising. In a 2014 alumni survey, 75 percent of Family Connections parents reported that their child is reading at or above grade level.
The success may be due to the fact that the lessons in its colorful classrooms aren't just for kids. Parents learn how to nurture their children and develop positive parenting skills. They learn how to manage stress and to become good leaders; how to be their child's first teacher and their lifelong advocate.
Family Connections is teaching parents how to value their own self-worth and to let those attributes shine, even if they can't read or write or don't have good finances, said Ruth Pinkus-Resnik, program director.
"Our strongest part is family engagement. The parent is an asset in the community. We believe that when we build a strong foundation in the parent-child relationship and build community (and) when we support each other and when a parent feels confident and proud, the child feels that," she said.
Programs, many of which run concurrently with the preschool education, help identify and address risk factors such as mental health, substance abuse and family violence so that the child has a better chance of healthy growth and development. The organization offers maternal depression screening and helps identify special-needs children, getting kids and their families the services they need early on.
Along with basic education, Family Connections weaves in several other skill-building components: a father-involvement education and activities program, a parent cafe where small-group discussions allow parents to meet and talk about important topics and build leadership skills; support groups with a psychologist; health and nutrition classes with gardening, cooking and exercise; and a parent leadership program to increase self-esteem and encourage advocacy and involvement in the child's education.
For Iraida Gutierrez, a mother of three, Family Connections has been a godsend.
"When I came to this country seven years ago from Panama, I had no family here," she said. "Everyone was always working."
Seeking community and resources for her son, she brought her son to Family Connections when he was 18 months old. Now he is in the Young Scholars program, which provides support and mentoring for children from the time they enter Family Connections through high school and entrance into college. The program ensures that students meet educational benchmarks, such as third-grade reading proficiency, high school readiness and college preparation, Pinkus-Resnik said.
Gutierrez's daughter, 3, is also enrolled at Family Connections. During a recent weekday, the lively and curious child headed for the lending library in search of a book; then she took part in the jumping game that teaches kids how to count while exercising and expelling some of that exuberant little-kid energy.
Gutierrez looked on, reflecting on the education she has received here.
"I've learned how to improve myself as an individual because I am the role model for my children. If I want good kids, I have to be a good person. It has helped my kids to be independent and to relate with other kids and to have the opportunity to interact with different children," she said.
And she is already seeing the results of that impact. Gutierrez's son, Natanael, has developed a kind and giving heart. It's the sort of attribute that Family Connections seeks to instill to build a strong and thriving community of leaders for the future.
When Natanael, now a kindergartner at the Cesar Chavez Aspire School, saw that other children were in need, he approached his mother to ask if they could help. And that makes Gutierrez proud.
"He asked me if we could give a blanket to kids who don't have any," she said.
Donations to the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund can be made at the Holiday Fund page here.