Three mothers in Tulsa are part of billionaire George Kaiser’s bold bet on early child development as an antidote to intergenerational poverty. Their journeys shed light on the promise of philanthropy to close an opportunity gap that opens when children are young and widens as they grow.
JANUARY 2, 2019 - TULSA, OKLA. - Dawn is breaking outside as Alexis Stephens ferries her daughter into daycare, past the bright yellow lobby with its metal animal mural and into the classroom. Addison plops onto a rug and reaches for a ball. Ms. Stephens sits beside her.
Alexis Stephens plays with daughter Addison at Educare on Oct. 26, 2018, in Tulsa, Okla. Educare is a year-round learning center that is a flagship project or Tulsa’s foremost philantropist, George Kaiser.Ann Hermes/CSM staffIt’s a routine – play, hugs, and goodbyes – that usually takes 10 minutes before Stephens goes to work. Addison was six months old when she started here, and she knows its rhythms. Today she begins her day in a mixed class with three infants who are grouped around a teacher. But Addison, who turned 2 in June, has eyes only for mom.
Stephens rolls the ball back to her. “This is one of those mornings when she’s going to take a little more convincing,” she says. Change has been a constant in Stephens’s life since Addison was born. She’s been in jail, entered a rehabilitation program, kicked her addiction, found a full-time job, and gotten custody of Addison and Carson, her son. In August, she moved out of a women’s shelter and into the house of her new boyfriend. It’s a longer commute to the daycare, but Stephens doesn’t mind.
For Addison, “it’s not going to get any better than this. Are you kidding?” she says.
Addison is one of 164 kids at Educare, a year-round early-learning center that is a flagship project for Tulsa’s foremost philanthropist, George Kaiser. He’s also the benefactor behind Stephens’s prison-diversion program and a constellation of other child- and family-based initiatives that are designed to bend the arc of justice in Tulsa so that every child, however disadvantaged, can have a shot at early success in life.
The Monitor is following three young mothers in Tulsa who are part of Mr. Kaiser’s bold bet on early child development as an antidote to intergenerational poverty. Each has her own struggles. All want the best for their children, who range in age from 6 months to 10 years. Their journeys shed light on the promise of philanthropy to close an opportunity gap that opens up when children are young and widens as they grow, calcifying class divisions.
Kaiser isn’t the only rich businessman who sees early education as a potential game changer. In Chicago, Jay Pritzker, the new governor-elect of Illinois, has donated millions to child development, including to build Educare centers. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the richest American, recently announced a $1 billion plan for a national network of Montessori preschools in low-income communities.
Tulsa is a testbed for these ideas. What does it show us?
Lavelle Nichols holds two of his children, Myracle and Lijah, at home in Tulsa, Okla., on April 6, 2018.Ann Hermes/CSM staffAcross town, Mikaleah Moment basks in the afternoon sun as her youngest daughter, R’Myah, totters across an enclosed playground. R’Myah, age 1, attends an Educare preschool in her majority African-American neighborhood, one of the poorest in Tulsa. Ms. Moment and her boyfriend, the toddler’s father, Rande, have come to pick her up.
Moment is all smiles with the teacher and other staff at the center. Some raise their eyebrows when they see her. “Hey girl. Where have you been?” one asks, and leans in for a hug. “Oh, around. I got busy,” she replies.
Moment has two children enrolled here, R’Myah and Jo’Nae, age 3. Both were born before Moment turned 18. This fall she’s been too busy with work and school – she’s studying for a medical-assistant certificate – to bring the girls to Educare, relying instead on Rande and the father of Jo’Nae, who lives in the neighborhood.
For Jo’Nae, who will transfer this year to a public pre-K, this arrangement has meant a string of missed days. In October, she averaged 70 percent attendance.
That worries Serenity Weedon, the director of family services, which is why she’s relieved to see Moment today.
Moment tells her it’s not her fault. Jo’Nae’s father “has been stepping up lately” in taking care of her, but then he leaves her with relatives who don’t have a working car. “I know it’s our responsibility to make sure that attendance is right,” she tells me after talking to Ms. Weedon.
Alexis Stephens, with boyfriend Bryan, reads a bedtime book to Addison in Tulsa, Okla., on Oct. 26, 2018. Ms. Stephens is a graduate of the Women In Recovery program, a prison-diversion program that helps women overcome addiction.Ann Hermes/CSM staffThis attention to shifting family dynamics and wraparound services is part of Educare’s mission and one reason Kaiser has invested in it. Few public schools could commit such resources to keeping families connected and making sure kids max out their classroom hours.
Attendance is a key metric in any early-childhood intervention, says Stephen Dow, who runs CAP Tulsa, another preschool provider that Kaiser also funds, since the more time infants and toddlers spend in a nurturing classroom the better. “Dosage matters a great deal,” he says.
Studies show that quality preschools like Educare and CAP Tulsa act as a significant booster for low-income students entering kindergarten. They are better prepared for school and score higher on tests. Whether these effects persist or fade out in later grades, however, is a hotly debated topic.
Weedon’s concern is that Jo’Nae’s no-shows could affect her transition this year to public preschool. To her, a 70 percent attendance rate is flashing a warning sign. At 60 percent, Weedon tells families that this may not be the right preschool for them.
Moment promises that she’ll talk to Jo’Nae’s father about attendance. In a subsequent call from a reporter, Weedon says Jo’Nae has been coming more regularly to class. Moment is about to start a new job in a cafeteria and to switch over to evening classes at her for-profit college. The program is going well, she says. “It’s very hands-on. Not so bookish,” she says.
She’s happy to sign a permission form for Jo’Nae to join the next day’s field trip to a pumpkin patch. She wants to go too and asks Weedon if R’Myah might join them.
Mikaleah Moment holds her youngest daughter, R’Myah, in her home in Tulsa, Okla., on April 6, 2018.Ann Hermes/CSM staffNo, R’Myah stays, Weedon says, firmly. “This way you can spend more time with your kid [Jo’Nae]. You’ve got to find a balance. I know you love them equally,” she tells the teenager.
“I know, I know,” says Moment.
“It’s about finding a balance,” says Weedon.
I text Moment the next day to ask about the field trip. “We Didn’t Even Get To Go. I Had Car Trouble,” she replied.
Hayzetta Nichols knows all about car trouble.
Lavelle, her mechanically minded husband, replaced the engine in her old sedan. Before that, she transported her three young children in the used Toyota SUV she bought in April with her tax refund. In the back window is a purple Lyft decal. Ms. Nichols has been driving passengers and delivering takeout to pay bills.
The previous month, the only bill she didn’t pay was her phone bill, which is why it’s not working the day I meet her and Lavelle for lunch at a Chinese cafeteria. But both are upbeat about making ends meet. “You gotta roll with the punches; that’s how I see it,” says Lavelle, a former boxer whom Nichols first met in 2011 when he was in jail.
Over noodles and stir-fry, Nichols tells me that she recently quit her job at a call center that was the family’s only regular income. Over the summer, her manager ordered her to work weekends and evenings, a schedule that left little time for her three children, Myracle, Lijah, and Loyal.
That left Lavelle in charge of the kids, whom he had to wrangle for baths and bedtime, then bundle into the Toyota so he could drive across town to pick up Nichols when her shift ended at 10 p.m.
It was a disruptive routine for everyone, says Lavelle. “It was a fight every day.”
Nichols found another call-center job that requires evenings but not weekends. In January, she hopes to go back to college and study on weekends.
For Lavelle, finding work as a former felon is tougher. He recently caught a break at a new Tulsa park that is hiring overnight cleanup crews. When he saw the application form, it had no box to check for criminal record. The job pays $10 an hour and has guaranteed hours and a weekly paycheck. “They don’t hold no cash back,” he says.
The park is no ordinary leisure spot. The Gathering Place is a $400 million riverfront park designed, built, and largely financed by the George Kaiser Family Foundation. That means that hiring at the family-friendly park, which opened in September and attracted 300,000 visitors in its first month, reflects Kaiser’s social justice goals.
In addition to the people’s park, GKFF has developed a 117-acre industrial park in North Tulsa. The goal is to attract companies willing to build facilities that would generate hundreds of decent-paying jobs in a disadvantaged neighborhood. So far, none have bitten, a reminder that philanthropy is hostage to larger forces. “It’s a tough sell,” admits Kaiser in an interview at the Gathering Place.
Nichols’s three children attend the same Educare as Moment’s daughters. Myracle, Nichols’s eldest, recently moved up into a 3-year-old class.
She was reluctant to leave her brother, says Nichols. “She would tell them, ‘I need to go back to Lijah.’ ” Now she’s proud of “preschool” and of what she’s learning there.
Loyal, the youngest, was born in March. She’s already crawling and pulling herself up as well as thriving in her infant classroom, says Nichols.
Lijah, who turned 2 in October, is their only boy. Lavelle tells me he’s trying to “toughen” him up, to tell him that he shouldn’t cry like his sisters. “I gotta start now because if I don’t start now the whole world’s gonna beat him,” he says.
“He don’t like me babying him,” says Nichols.
“I just know how different it is for young black males,” says Lavelle. The system “expects my son to fail.” That’s why he needs to be prepared for how society will see him, he adds.
I ask Nichols if she agrees. “I gotta follow his lead on this. I don’t like it, but at the same time he knows more about being a black man than I do,” she says.
Stephens met Bryan Hamilton in May. “It wasn’t love at first sight,” she says. But she felt comfortable around Mr. Hamilton, an Army veteran who works for a cable company. On their second date at a movie theater, he offered her a beer. No thanks, I don’t drink, she told him.
Stephens doesn’t drink because drinking could lead to drugs and that was her life, before she went to jail and had Addison and ended her addiction while enrolled in a long-term rehabilitation program for incarcerated women in Tulsa founded by GKFF.
It was a lot to explain to a guy she’d just met. “I didn’t want to tell him upfront ... and I didn’t want to wait too long and be deceitful,” she says.
One conversation led to another, and as the past unspooled the two grew closer. Hamilton met Stephens’s family, who live in Tulsa, and her friends from the recovery program and at the downtown women’s shelter where she lived. Over dinner with her family, he suggested that Stephens move in with him. She accepted on the spot.
Now Stephens lives with Hamilton in Owasso, north of Tulsa. She has a partner who is happy to take care of Addison and of Carson, her fourth-grade son. (Hamilton has a daughter, age 10, who lives with his ex-wife in Nebraska.)
“He’s helped me so much. I didn’t know how hard single parenting was until I wasn’t doing it anymore,” she says.
Stephens is also full of gratitude for Kaiser, whose philanthropy allowed her to avoid prison and to put Addison through Educare. “I didn’t know if I was going to give [her] up for adoption, if I was ever going to see her again, and here she is. It’s crazy,” she says.
When the Gathering Place opened, a downtown store printed retro T-shirts saying “Thanks George” to wear at the park. Stephens went out and bought a green one.
Back at Educare, Addison has brought a book over, and they settle into a pint-sized armchair to read about the Itsy Bitsy Spider and mime the actions. Addison is all smiles.
She also has a temper that flares at times, says the teacher who is minding the infants. “We’re working on her keeping her calm. But that’s just being 2,” she explains.
To education specialists, this is a crucial step. Executive function – the control of behavior and inhibition of impulses – can determine how children will do at school and even in adulthood. For toddlers raised in unstable homes it is even more important for school readiness. Longitudinal studies show that children exposed since birth to high levels of poverty and stress score poorly on executive function.
Critics of early-childhood education argue that the effects of preschool often fade by third grade and that it doesn’t provide a sustained boost. However, the debate over “preschool fade-out” is complicated by wide variations in the quality of publicly funded preschools – most are not as well resourced as Educare – and a paucity of careful studies that track children into adulthood.
For his part, Kaiser is convinced that toddlers like Addison, Jo’Nae, and Lijah are benefiting and that third-grade math and reading tests shouldn’t be the main metric for assessing preschool programs. He notes that executive function and socioemotional development are correlated with success in adulthood, such as school completion and not being incarcerated.
“We’ve moved them somewhere, and we may never know the impact. It’s somewhere they can always come back to, that they remember,” says Liz Neas, director of the Educare that Addison attends.
Ideally this nurturing is reinforced by parents. Stephens says that Hamilton has helped her to see the importance of routine in her kids’ lives, something that Carson missed because of her addiction and erratic hours. Hamilton also knows how to temper Addison’s wilder moods.
“I look to Bryan for discipline when they’re driving me crazy. He can step in and fix it,” she says.
Home after a long day, Addison is in her pink cot piled with stuffed toys. Stephens and Hamilton both read her a story, then lean in for goodnight kisses.
“You want another book?” asks Stephens, feigning surprise. “Not time for sleep?”
Addison waves her arms at mom. “More books,” she whispers.
Stephens hugs her daughter again, then backs toward the door. Hamilton is beside her. “Good night,” she says. They close the door gently, then head back to the sofa.
Part 1: Tulsa experiment: Can investing in children early reverse poverty cycle?
Part 2: For three families, Tulsa experiment offers chance to grasp American dream