About twenty young children sat on the brightly colored carpet as a man with long dreadlocks slid a large conga drum in front of him. It was “circle time” at Lotus Bloom’s Room to Bloom program, a drop-in parent-child playgroup in East Oakland.
The drummer called out to the kids to stand up, take one step right, one step left. “Now daaaaaance!” he yelled as he began to play the drum. The kids exploded in a flurry of movement: small feet jumped feverishly and smiles brightened nearly every face. Some parents sat off to the side watching and smiling encouragingly, while others stood alongside their child to dance with them.
Many of the parents and children gathered here are Latino or African-American, a reflection of the surrounding community’s demographic. It is this population – California’s children of color – that a recent Race for Results report from the Annie E. Casey foundation says will face different health and education opportunities from these early years and on.
The report looked at twelve indicators that measure racial differences in areas such as health, education and family environment, and took into account contextual factors such as a neighborhood’s level of poverty.
The findings were striking. On a scale of 0 to 1000 (with 1000 being the highest), Asian and Pacific Islander children in California scored 768, White children scored 748, American Indian kids came in at 529, Latino children at 405 and African American children scored 395.
Malo Hutson, assistant professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley, says this report helps draw attention to the importance of inequality and the importance of addressing issues that lead to inequality in the U.S.
“I think that we talk about it, but when we put it in the context of a report, I think it’s very helpful to see, especially with the 12 indicators that they use, just to see where we rank as a nation with our youth,” explained Hutson, who has worked with several Oakland organizations to foster youth engagement and leadership.
More than half of Oakland’s population (52 percent) is either African American or Latino, according to the Census Bureau. Their children face significant challenges, Hutson said. He pointed to factors in East Oakland such as high population density, a transition of demographic groups, a lack of economic opportunities, the high proportion of people involved with the criminal justice system and the violence that marks the neighborhood.
“When you look at East Oakland – it’s 90,000 people, for some places, that’s a city within a city – with all of these issues, from disinvestment to violence to struggling schools…there are people trying to build community, but it’s always a struggle,” he said.
Having a safe place for parents to bring their children to come and engage with each other, and their kids with other kids, is incredibly important to their development, he said.
“It’s really important for us to understand that you can’t have a group or just a few groups of people who are doing well, and the rest of society not doing well,” Hutson said. “Overall it’s going to have a huge cost for society: Economically, politically, socially, and so forth.”
“We have to address all these other issues if were going to be serious about addressing the achievement gap in education,” Hutson added.
Back in the Room to Bloom classroom, Laura Chavez sits between her two daughters at the arts and crafts table. She watches while each of her girls pick up brightly colored flower-shaped paper scraps helps them glue the petals to a green paper stem.
Chavez said she recognizes the importance of programs like Room to Bloom for children like hers “because I want them to learn, and want to take advantage of their age, since I know that children absorb more prior to age 5.”
“I want them to be prepared for when they go to school,” Chavez said.
Research has shown that children develop the most in their earliest years of life, laying the foundation for learning and success down the road. However, according to the report, Latino (54 percent) and American Indian (56 percent) children ages 3 to 5 were least likely to participate some form of preschool or kindergarten.
Twice a week, children and their parents are invited to a small building alongside Castlemont High School in East Oakland for Room to Bloom. The program caters to children from 0 to 5 years old, and teacher Cassandra Hughes said they focus on a variety of activities, including music and art, to develop a child’s five senses.
“It’s like having a sparkplug in a car,” Hughes said. “Unless you turn the car on, there’s no firing. So what we do is we are literally firing their brains.”
Unlike other early childhood programs, the staff at Room to Bloom encourages parents to stay with their child the entire time of the 3-hour program.
“What this type of program tries to do is really trying to get the parents engaged in their children’s lives at an early age,” Hutson said. This engagement and socializing is important in developing a child’s vocabulary and language skills.
Jacina Williams has three daughters aged 15 and 3 and a 3-month-old. She said she appreciates that Room to Bloom offers her second daughter – a child working through a speech delay – an opportunity to interact and play with kids her own age.
Williams said that she herself gets something out of the playgroup too. “I figure out a way to keep my child entertained when we go home by watching the other parents and the staff play with their kids, and how I can entertain both of my children at the same time, so I get a lot of fun out of it also,” she said.
Williams was a teenage mother with her first child, and understanding what that was like, suggested that a program like this would likely benefit other teenage mothers in the area who may not know what to do as a parent.
“They can bring their kids here, especially if they don’t go to school,” she said. “But it’ll just take kids off the streets …even bringing younger girls and their boyfriends in, to have fun with their kids…it’s wonderful for the community.”