Posted: October 31, 2015 – 9:06pm | Updated: November 1, 2015 – 6:55am
By Jenel Few
Apart from the charms of its historic structures, Spanish moss and southern hospitality, Savannah continues to face challenging problems with persistent poverty, crime and low educational results in predominantly African-American neighborhoods.
About 10,355 students — 27 percent of Savannah-Chatham’s public school enrollment — attend 26 overwhelmingly poor, inner-city neighborhood schools where academic struggles prevail and the majority of students are African-Americans who qualify for free and reduced lunches.
Twelve of those schools — Savannah High, Spencer, Hodge, Butler, Haven, Thunderbolt, Gadsden, Brock, East Broad, Myers, Beach and Hubert — have seen members of some of the same poor and under-educated families cycle through their halls for two or more generations.
“Many of us don’t have a realistic picture of what it means to be poor in these days or the impact that generational poverty has on children and their health, development, expectations and their education,” said Mike O‘Neal, executive director of Parent University.
Sixteen years ago O’Neal formed Parent University to help break the cycle of generational poverty through training and resources that engage local families in the education and well-being of their children. The Savannah Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs began partnering in the effort and established the Savannah Early Childhood Foundation four years ago to create Savannah Early Learning College, which expands the program’s reach to parents of children from birth to 5 years.
“Rotary committees and Kiwanis members spent three years researching demographic issues, cultural issues and Savannah resources,” said Paul Fisher, Savannah Early Childhood Foundation president. “Some of the conclusions they drew were that there are multiple generations of children having children and passing down eroded parenting skills … and although we had programs for the four-years-and-above age groups, nothing was preparing them for school readiness early on, and there were no resources to address the parenting skill deficit that exists during this critical developmental period.”
‘Empowering the community’
Several regular participants got involved because they are required to attend by the courts or to stay in good standing with city-sponsored housing programs.
Others are not necessarily struggling with socio-economic problems. They participate specifically to engage in group discussions about issues specific to their neighborhood or school.
Benjamin Payne, principal at Savannah Classical Academy Charter School, led a class on education initiatives Oct. 10. Classical Academy parents and several Parent University regulars discussed community problems and possible solutions. Classical Academy will host two more sessions in the coming months to develop detailed solutions, which they hope to implement with the help of community leaders and elected officials.
“I want them to have a voice and keep them engaged,” Payne said. “We’re going to come up with collective solutions and work to move them forward.”
Lebohang Mothapo is a South African emigrant who began attending the Parent University program a year ago not long after she took in two of her friend’s children. She said the courses help her deal with the cultural and generational differences in parenting techniques.
“Parent University taught me things no school teaches you,” she said. “They are empowering the community to raise better children.”
Some participants, like Tahirih and Williams Simpson, are just young parents who are looking for expert advice. They volunteer and take advantage of the sessions on brain development so they can give their toddlers every academic advantage.
But the program’s primary goal is to reach parents like Shanika Blige, whose children are at risk of becoming entrenched in low educational outcomes and poverty.
Blige is 24 years old. She is pregnant and has five other children between the ages of one and five.
“I started coming last year,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot in the different classes. I’ve taken a pregnancy class and learned about brain development and all kinds of ways to teach my kids with games. They really learn a lot.”
Each month Parent University and Early Learning College courses take place at area public schools, and officials provide Chatham Area Transit bus tickets to parents who lack transportation.
Parents can learn everything from disciplining with love and interactive storytelling to dealing with stress, making healthy meals and creating educational toys from common household items. There are sessions on community engagement, crime prevention, race relations, mental health and economic opportunities.
Groups such as the Lions Club provide free vision screenings, which can help catch correctable vision problems in children as young as 6 months. Children of all ages can participate in arts and crafts activities, horseback riding and other healthy and developmental skill building activities in a nurturing environment.
Tonya Foster, mother of a 5-year-old and 12-year-old, has been a regular participant for three years.
“We learn something new every time we come, and we can use it at home and in school,” she said. “I have a son with disabilities, and I’ve learned strategies to be more patient and motivating. I’m a much better parent, and my kids are excited about learning and they love school.”
After more than a decade of effort organizers have learned most of Savannah’s generational parenting issues are too complex and deep rooted for six sessions a year to resolve. In the short term, they are empowering parents to develop their own solutions to the issues affecting their children and their neighborhoods.
The long-range goal is to expand the program into more neighborhoods and gather at least five years of data to measure the parent knowledge acquired, child readiness and the impact on community challenges.
Katrina Bright, a Parent University graduate, said she has come back to participate in the program again because social, economic and academic issues and stressors have changed as her family has grown. She has five children ranging in age from 5 to 20.
“I want to get as much knowledge as I can,” Bright said. “It’s helpful for me, and my kids can come and express themselves and learn to better themselves as well.”
Parent University organizers say they know their program is working because of struggling but dedicated parents like Bright.
“They’re here every time,” O’Neal said. “And that’s a big deal for many of our parents. Parenting is hard for everyone, and we don’t often give them credit for fighting through all of the social and economic issues in life, then getting their kids up on a Saturday morning, bringing them across town on the bus, participating in these courses and putting some of what they learn into practice.”