Community IMPACT Series: Mahalia Jackson Early Learning Center, July 13, 2010

New Orleans, LA – Community IMPACT Series: The Mahalia Jackson Early Learning Center | July 13, 2010

Ask Phyllis Landrieu to describe the public education situation in New Orleans today and her response may come in stark terms.

"We had a Katrina disaster, we have an oil disaster now," Landrieu says. "But for many years, as long as maybe 30 or 40 years, New Orleans has had at least half its population undereducated and unemployable. That is the worst kind of disaster we could possibly have, and that is what holds New Orleans back."

Landrieu is co-founder of the Mahalia Jackson Early Learning Center, a new education center serving very young children and their families in Central City. The center's goal is to break a cycle of poor education, poverty and the social ills that predictably follow by starting children on the right track from the earliest possible age. It's all based on the idea that children who receive the right care, proper mental stimulation and robust social interaction from birth on are better prepared for success at school.

"What we found through our research is that about 90 percent of the children who enter the public schools in New Orleans at five years of age are at about a three-year-old development level, which means that immediately they're behind the eight ball in terms of their development," says Dr. Pat Cooper, CEO of the center.

Cooper has witnessed the impact of similar programs in McComb, Mississippi, and West Feliciana Parish, where he was formerly superintendent. This new center is housed inside the former Mahalia Jackson elementary school in Central City, but a key to the program is that is much more than a school.

"We're trying to create this pipeline that would allow all children to have the same opportunities that my children have or your children have. We're trying to allow access to opportunities for their families," Cooper says. "One of the major problems in New Orleans, because you have generations of parents that weren't educated properly, they're not able to help their children with their homework, they're not able to read to their children. They're not able to do a lot of the things that we take for granted, and that we know really helps the child in terms of doing well in his academics. So our job is not only to get those children ready to learn but to get those parents ready to teach those children as they get older."

The center combines services for children from birth to age five with community programs and family social services. Parents can access technology training, GED preparation and classes on nutrition and household budgeting. There's a health clinic, a public library branch, a fitness center and areas for arts and music. All of this is free for families who become members of the center.

The Mahalia Jackson Early Learning Center opened its doors this summer, but organizers already hope its model can be replicated in other neighborhoods across the city.

"By having all of the services on site, so that they're accessible to the children as well as to their families, we can address their needs, and make sure that physically, mentally, socially and emotionally they'll be ready to learn," says Landrieu. "This is going to make a big difference in the lives of so many children in New Orleans."