Getting a head start



Street view from outside the Hudson Guild Children’s Center. Photo: Akintunde Ahmad.

Erika McCallum wrapped up the first week of school at Hudson Guild, in Chelsea, with more than the usual level of satisfaction. McCallum, who teaches 3 year olds, feels at home not simply because she likes her work but because of her personal history with Hudson Guild Children’s Center, a joint government- and privately-funded program for students ages 3 and 4. McCallum’s mother taught here for 30 years, and McCallum, now 27, attended Hudson Guild as a child.

“Coming back was like coming home,” she said. “There were still familiar faces of people who used to work with my mom and people who watched me grow up.” McCallum, who is starting her fourth year of teaching here, is now a head teacher in the program, responsible for developing lessons plans, supervising assistant teachers, aides, and volunteers, and identifying children with disabilities.

Located between two of the residential high-rises in the Chelsea-Elliot housing projects, Hudson Guild was founded by Dr. John Lovejoy Elliot in 1897 as a settlement house that provided resources and services to recent American immigrants, most of them from Eastern Europe. Hudson Guild still provides many social services and arts programs for NYC residents who need it most, serving over 14,000 individuals annually.

One key service is early educational programming in the Guild Children’s Center. Inside this building, the echoes of toddlers’ voices fill the halls as staff direct them in single-file lines. In the back office, Dionne Taylor, the center’s director, and Cara Aloisio, the center’s on-site social worker, sign students’ registration papers to get the new year started.

The Children’s Center provides free programming to EarlyLearn NYC Head Start students whose families make equal to or below the income threshold (a sliding scale that ranges from $20,780 for a family of three to $42,380 for a family of eight). Students whose parents’ incomes exceed these levels pay a partial fee based on a percentage of their income. The programs served 205 students in the 2016-2017 school year and rely heavily on federal funding – which looks promising, thanks to bipartisan agreement on a $610 million increase nationwide in FY 2018. And data shows that Head Start children are more likely to graduate high school, attend college, and receive a post-secondary degree.

Many families apply to the program, and Dionne Taylor says in past years, Early Learn’s  capacity of 140 students wasn’t enough to meet demand. So far this year, there is no waitlist, possibly due to Mayor De Blasio’s initiative for free pre-K for all three-year-olds — an expansion of the 2014 initiative for four-year-olds. According to The New York Times, the city saw pre-K enrollment grow in two years from 19,000 to 68,000 students. Taylor says that she expects a waitlist for the Head Start program to form soon.

Thirty-five year old Monique Cochrane Tucker, a Hudson Guild alum who remains active in the Chelsea-Elliot houses and surrounding community, says that she remembers when Hudson Guild had no age requirements; she started attending as soon as she could walk. Her oldest son, 16-year-old Messiah Jordan, started the program when he was two. Her eleven year old, Jeremiah Tucker, wasn’t able to attend the program until he was three because the age requirements had changed.

Tucker’s sons ended up having two of the same teachers as she did; she refers to them as Ms Evelyn and Ms Leuvan and says that they are long time residents of the Chelsea Elliot projects. Tucker says that Hudson Guild used to offer more services such as daily karate, dance, and after school art programs, but that now the focus is on education. But McCallum believes there are more programs now than when she attended Hudson Guild, as volunteers from different companies come to Hudson Guild to lead activities such as art and gardening.

The two alums agree that what matters most is not the specific programs but the way the teachers make these 3 and 4 year olds feel. McCallum says “I want children to receive the same love, dedication, and commitment my teachers showed me growing up at Hudson Guild,” McCallum said. In fact, McCallum is so dedicated to this mission that she is simultaneously pursuing her masters degree in early childhood education at Hunter College.