Jeanne Jackson, President of the Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham, shares the lessons and her reflections from their two-generation pilot, Prescription for Success.
Whitney is a single mom with four-year-old-twins who works at a grocery deli near my house in Birmingham, Alabama. While I have seen her many times, I met Whitney for the first time last week.
At her college graduation.
As the President of The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham, I was invited to speak at the graduation ceremony for a two-generation program supported by Ascend at the Aspen Institute called “Prescription for Success,” which combines quality child care with a pharmaceutical technician certification program. Being a former college administrator and a mom, I have attended countless graduations.
This one was different.
These women didn’t envision themselves as college students. Many were working minimum wage jobs or unemployed, several had been victims of domestic violence, all had pre-school aged children. Yet each graduate was poised on the stage, their confidence and excitement palpable. Each had worked incredibly hard to pass a challenging course and they were bursting with pride. The audience was filled with squirmy children, proud grandparents, supportive sisters, and caring friends.
Years earlier Whitney began college to become a nurse but financial limitations and her mother’s illness forced her to drop out. After her twins were born, she resolved that the only way to provide for her family was to work minimum wage jobs, taking several buses to work each day (quite a feat with Birmingham’s poor public transportation). In the fall, a cousin told her about our two-generation pharmacy tech program.
She applied for the two-tier program—a preliminary, competitive six week course to enhance students’ math, writing, and professional skills followed by a 60 hour pharmacy technician course.
Whitney graduated with an A.
I also met Whitney’s energetic 4-year old twins. Her daughter took credit for her mother’s success, boasting about holding up flash cards for her mom while she studied. Both children received quality child care through the Ascend grant and have recently moved to a strong Head Start program where they will continue learning while their mother continues to work, study, and search for a higher wage job in the pharmacy field. Whitney is proud that they are now writing their names and coming home every day wanting to share what they learned.
Whitney is currently studying for the rigorous Pharmacy Technician National Certification Exam and exploring job openings at a nearby CVS. She tells me she sees herself moving ahead in the pharmacy world. Several other women in the program have already secured jobs at Walgreens and CVS.
Lessons from Prescription for Success
As my staff and I watched President Obama’s State of the Union shortly after this graduation, we were affirmed in our work and the work of Ascend, but also challenged by how much work lies ahead of us. One of the main issues we have faced in our two-generation efforts is the extraordinarily high price of child care. There are so many women who make just enough to not qualify for Head Start or state subsidies. This innovative pilot helped each family overcome a significant barrier, in that most have stated they have not pursued postsecondary education because they could not afford both education and child care. However, the cost of child care for our program, even at reduced rates and on a diminishing schedule, accounted for the large majority of the project’s budget. At the end of the program, we’re sending a group of women back into the workforce making higher wages, but having to put most of those wages into child care. So, for the accomplishments each family has made in our program to be sustained, we have to continue to work on child care as, in the words of President Obama, not “as a side issue, or a women's issue,” but rather as “the national economic priority that it is for all of us.”
We have learned many helpful lessons.
We learned quickly that the lack of standardized test-taking skills present a serious problem when working toward a certificate that requires or prefers a national certification exam.
We learned that investing part of the budget in a program counselor or “coach” makes a huge difference in the success rate. Christine, the coach for the pharmacy tech program, tells me that she “provided the glue for the students.” She goes on to say, “I made the students feel that they were more than just a ‘student number.’ I was there to assist each student overcome their personal barriers to success.”
We have also learned that when attempting to work with corporate partners, we have to make an economic argument that works in their favor.
This is the third Pharmacy Tech program combined with child care that The Women’s Fund has supported. Overall, the women lack basic math and test-taking skill and academic confidence. The two-tiered approach of screening candidates likely to succeed and adding a coach during the course have been the most effective components. Offering the course at the Head Start center provided a stronger comradery among the mothers, but communal support eventually emerged at the community college setting.
What’s the next step for The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham in facilitating two-generation partnerships? We are taking the lessons from Prescription for Success and cultivating other partnerships with mothers in quality pre-K programs and exploring job paths for vision assistants, CNA programs, and manufacturing training programs. While the course completion time is considerably longer, we know that Associate Degrees provide longer-term success in moving beyond poverty. And we are exploring creative incentives to remain connected to the moms once they enter their first higher wage job.
Whitney, like all of us, simply needed the opportunity to take the next step.