The best idea in education: Developing families center in Washington, D.C.

The longer I work with 11th and 12th graders (this is my 5th year), the clearer it becomes to me that education really begins when a child is in the womb– or even before. Lost time is rarely made up.

Each year a few of the 17-year-olds I teach light up in our English class and say some variation of: “This is the first book that I actually read!” It’s intended as a positive comment, but I quietly take it as a crushing reminder of the collateral damage done by years of not reading and not learning— a pattern that starts at home. In my experience, the students who say that tend to write in fragmented English, struggle to self-advocate effectively, and do not envision for themselves a realistic long-term path to stability in their professional and personal lives. It’s not what anyone wants for his or her kid.

The solution is to start early.  Last week at a panel discussion for Teachers College alumni on social entrepreneurship, I listened to 85-year-old Ruth Lubic, the first nurse to be a MacArthur “genius” grantee, who blew me away with her story of founding the Developing Families Center (DFC) in Washington, D.C.

Lubic is a midwife who in the 1980s launched a groundbreaking birth center in the Bronx, then moved to D.C. where the infant mortality rate was the worst in the nation. Her center is described in its literature as “a comprehensive, one-stop service center for childbearing and childrearing services.”

It’s a dizzying feat of bureaucratic synergy in the name of quality care for low-income African American families. Under one roof, the DFC offers services to families from pregnancy through toddlerhood via the Family Health and Birth Center, the Healthy Babies Project, and the United Planning Organization Early Childhood Development Center— funded by Early Head Start, Medicaid, private donors, and other federal programs.

Earlier this year, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius  chose the DFC as the location for launching a new Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation initiative:Strong Start for Mothers and Newborns.

There is a fantastic (though un-embeddable) video on the nonprofit’s website here.

At the panel discussion, Ruth was asked why, with such a successful program, DFS hasn’t expanded to more locations. The answer was money. “I keep hoping Gates will notice,” she said.

I hope so too. The Developing Families Center is a sustainable, brilliant long-term investment in stronger families, higher academic achievement, more competitive American workers, less crime, and good karma… and fewer low-skilled seventeen-year-olds exclaiming that they just finished their first book.