Severe stress on young mothers in north Omaha hurts their babies' chances in school, an Omaha researcher says.
The “toxic stress” from chronic poverty, isolation and hopelessness can impair a baby's developing brain, even in the womb, said Jack Turman, neuroscientist with the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
That impairment “down to the cellular level” causes children to stumble academically, contributing to the gaps in test scores between poor and more affluent students, Turman says.
The Learning Community Council on Thursday voted 13-2 to allocate $100,000 to intervene in 20 of these mothers' lives in hopes of giving their children a better chance.
The money will expand Turman's pilot research project that deploys teams of volunteer mothers to coach and support black mothers, teaching them how to stimulate and nurture their babies.
The program, called the Connections Project, is one of the more unusual ventures for the Learning Community, the educational cooperative charged with improving academic achievement for disadvantaged youths in Douglas and Sarpy Counties and part of Washington County.
The Learning Community's money will provide maternal coaching for a full year — nine months longer than provided under the pilot program.
The project will be conducted between July 1 and June 30, 2013. It could be extended beyond that if it is effective.
Learning Community members said the program could become a model for improving early learning, though a few members questioned the spending.
Ted Stilwill, chief executive officer of the Learning Community, called it “truly innovative.”
“If this works, the benefits for those young kids would be astounding,” Stilwill said.
Council member Ernie Chambers was skeptical about the claim that stress causes biological changes. He said the program would treat children as laboratory “specimens” and provides a genetic excuse for the achievement gaps in the Omaha Public Schools.
Council members Mike Pate and Don Kelly expressed concern that the program exceeds the Learning Community's legislative authority.
State lawmakers authorized setting up elementary learning centers to serve as “visionary resource centers for enhancing the academic success of elementary students,” particularly poor and minority students.
Pate said the Learning Community was becoming a “social agency.”
“This is an experiment,” Pate said. “This is research. Is this really where we want to spend our dollars?”
Turman's project will be funded through the Learning Community's learning center program budget.
Rick Kolowski, who voted in favor of the program, said it “is within our scope.”
“It is part of the innovation that we were structured and founded on,” Kolowski said.
Kris Carter, who represents north and downtown Omaha on the council, said the program was “fabulous.”
“This committee was charged with being innovative,” Carter said. “This is it.”
Council member Freddie Gray, who also is chairwoman of the OPS board, said children living in poverty enter school three years behind their peers. “This is the right thing to do for children and their families.”
Turman earned his doctoral degree in child psychiatry and earned a Master of Science in kinesiology at UCLA, where he studied brain development in fetuses and infants.
According to Turman's proposal, poor women are more likely to have babies with low birth weights and to experience premature births and infant mortality. Poor black women are most likely to encounter these problems, it says.
Data show that the academic achievement gap is “a developmental process” established between ages 1 and 3.
“African-American fetal and infant development must be included in efforts to eliminate the academic achievement gap,” according to the proposal.
The program aims to strengthen the bond between infants and their mothers, an attachment that serves as a template for later relationships in life, and to provide mothers with play and learning strategies they can use with their infants.
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