On the sunny side of a red-brick building, Alexis Stephens extracts a dusty pink stroller from beneath a black-iron staircase. A quick wipedown, and Addison, her impish daughter, is inside, waiting to be pushed the length of the fenced-in yard.
Across town, Mikaleah Moment sits in a well-worn leather armchair in her living room, as sunlight filters through black curtains. She comforts R’Myah, her infant daughter, who's still recovering from a trip to the doctor the previous day. Ms. Moment’s shift at Family Dollar starts at noon, but she’s not sure if she’ll show up.
At a rented house further north on a dead-end lane, Hayezetta Nichols, a working mother of two in her last month of pregnancy, moves slowly past a dish-clogged sink. She moved her family into the house a month ago, gaining an extra bedroom for Loyal, the daughter she’s expecting, but it’s all she can do to keep the place tidy with two small children underfoot.
These three mothers are raising young kids in Tulsa, a city of uneven wealth and deep poverty, delineated by race and class and geography. All are part of a grand experiment rooted in the belief that investing early in children can help close the gap when they start school and set a path out of straitened upbringings. Behind the experiment is George Kaiser, an oil-and-banking billionaire. His local philanthropy has made Tulsa a testbed for innovation in fighting poverty and injustice, along with civic renewal and music heritage.
Over the next decade, Mr. Kaiser’s foundation aims to match tens of thousands of low-income families with the social services they need, from nursing and birth control to childcare and early education. Some are publicly funded programs, vulnerable to Oklahoma’s perennial budget crises; others are run by nonprofits that depend on donors like Kaiser.
His $200-million bet on the potential of poor children to succeed after a sustained early dose of nurturing and stimulation is called the Birth through Eight Strategy for Tulsa (BEST), an echo, perhaps, of the Jesuit maxim, “Give me a child for his first seven years, and I'll give you the man." (Kaiser is a descendant of a German-Jewish family who immigrated here in 1940.)
“Ultimately BEST is about tackling inter-generational poverty and creating a cycle of opportunity,” says Sophia Pappas, who directs the strategy at the George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF). “We know how important the early years are for a child’s development.”
The Monitor is following the three families profiled here, and others like them, to see the challenges and opportunities that they encounter and to plumb the promise of Kaiser’s child-centered philanthropy. Educators, activists, and philanthropists in other cities are also watching BEST closely, and an elite club of wealthy donors is helping to fund its first phase.
In an era of yawning gaps in health, education, and social mobility, what can Tulsa teach us?
When Ms. Nichols was pregnant with Myracle, her first, whose name reflects the nine miscarriages that preceded her, she craved dirt. For her son, Lijah, born 16 months later, she took the advice of a friend with similar cravings and substituted cornstarch for dirt. It worked.
Which is why on a recent afternoon Nichols breaks off conversation to lean back on her chair – two cushions propped behind – and tips cornstarch into her mouth. She swallows. “Go on,” she says.
Although such cravings, known as pica, can be an indicator of malnutrition, Nichols says she’s had regular check-ups during this pregnancy, even dashing across town to the clinic – “I’m a worrywart” – when something felt wrong and being told her baby is fine. In fact, Loyal, was born three weeks later.
One of BEST’s goals is to improve access to prenatal care so that more babies are born healthy. In 2015, of roughly 9,400 babies born in Tulsa County, more than one in 10 were premature. Among all mothers, 41 percent didn’t receive prenatal services in their first term.
Nichols delivered Loyal, her third, at Hillcrest Medical Center. Last year nearly 3,000 mothers gave birth there, according to Jenny Leach, the director of nursing for women's and children's services. Of Tulsa’s hospitals, Hillcrest has the highest share of mothers enrolled in Medicaid, which is why BEST is targeting expectant mothers there with early-literacy and infant-nurturing kits, and signing them up for home visits after they leave the hospital.
On top of the normal anxieties of an imminent delivery, Nichols has plenty more on her mind. Money, for one. After she goes on unpaid leave from her call-center job at AT&T she can apply for cash welfare, and her monthly food stamps will automatically increase with a third child. Her rent is supported by vouchers. Myracle and Lijah are enrolled at Educare, a GKFF-funded childcare center for low-income families. And when she runs low on baby supplies, she knows how to tap another GKFF-funded charity, Emergency Infant Services.
Still, she frets about making ends meets. So instead of a baby shower, Nichols has a more practical idea. “I’m going to have a diaper party,” she says, a smile playing on her face framed by twists of braided hair. “A diaper party is you have diapers or wipes in hand when you come to this door. You don’t have either, you don’t get to enter.”
Then there’s Lavelle Nichols, her live-in partner and ex-husband. They met when he was in jail in Tulsa, facing a charge of assault. That first visit, set up by a cellmate, turned into a three-hour talk, and she kept going back to see him. “I knew I was going to marry her,” says Lavelle, a former boxer from Little Rock, Ark.
In October 2012, Lavelle was released on probation after serving 16 months of a three-year sentence. The couple married the same day. A year later, Ms. Nichols filed for divorce. “I don’t do too well with abuse,” she says, acidly. Myracle, her daughter, was born in 2015 to another father. Then the couple reunited and together had Lijah, their son. Lavelle has kicked a drug habit and enrolled in a work-training program for former prisoners.
Earlier this year, Lavelle was forced to suspend a job hunt after he was diagnosed with a hernia. (After the interview, Lavelle's medical procedure was a success.) “I’m more worried about us being able to keep moving forward. But I think we’re going to be OK. I do,” she says.
Like many young girls, Mikaleah Moment watched MTV’s “16 And Pregnant” and thought, no way. “I always used to tell myself, I don’t ever want to be like that,” she says. (Some researchers credit the show for accelerating the national decline in teen pregnancy rates.)
Then in high school she got pregnant with her first daughter, Jo’Nae, who was born in May 2015. At the time, Moment lived with her grandmother, a retired schoolteacher who pushed her to stay in school, not give up on her ambition to be a nurse. Her mother, a diabetic who didn’t work, was in and out of jail. A day before Jo’Nae arrived, Moment’s mother died. A year later, her grandmother also passed.
For Moment, there was no going back. “I feel like I’ve been a ‘little old’ girl since I was about 15 years old. Life’s been hell since then,” says the 18-year-old.
Oklahoma’s high rate of teen pregnancies – second in the nation – is blamed for its failure to graduate more high-school students. Nationally, children born to teen mothers are statistically more likely to become parents at an early age and to underachieve at school.
But Moment bucked the trend. She went back to school and graduated early, something that neither of her parents had done. “I don’t want to be a statistic so therefore I’m going to get up and do something with myself. I’m going to push myself,” she says.
She was able to study because Jo’Nae was enrolled at Educare. At this time, she hooked up with Rande, who wore cowboy boots and went to rodeos, and soon she was pregnant again with R’Myah, who was born last August and also goes to Educare. She’s still with Rande, two years on, but calls their relationship “a bit rocky.”
On a recent morning, Moment sat in the front room of her late grandmother’s ranch-style house, checking her phone. Her deep-pink nails tapped on the glass, to her mild irritation. “I wanted them to be long but not this long,” she says. She wore gray sweatpants and a black tank top.
Rande emerges from the bedroom where R’Myah is sleeping to look for his wallet.
“Did you look in our room? Check the car too,” Moment says.
Minutes later, Rande comes back, and says he’s off to cash a check. He tells Moment that R’Myah has woken up in their bed. “All right,” says Moment, not rising from her armchair.
The front door slams. Moment frowns. “He’s leaving and I got to go to work at 12,” she says. Her nails go to the phone. Tap. Tap. “Oh, he’s coming back. We’re good.”
Moment’s last job was a temporary position in the safety department at a oil refinery. It paid well, but the 12-hour shifts were tough. Now she’s at Family Dollar. It’s part-time, not much money, but enough to pay some bills. (She later quit after a robbery at the store.) Now that she’s turned 18 she wants to start community college and pursue her dream of becoming a nurse.
As a parent, she marvels at the learning environment at Educare compared to the home daycares in her predominantly African-American neighborhood. Jo’Nae knows how to count to 10, her ABCs, her colors. She also knows how to be sassy, and to strike a pose for a camera that Moment recognizes as an imitation of her mother: tongue stuck out, head askance.
“She’s a little me. But I’m just going teach her to do better than me. Don’t do the things that I did. Don’t make the same mistakes. Don’t make the cycle repeat itself. You want the cycle to break,” she says.
This is what home looks like to Alexis Stephens: two airy rooms on the ground floor of a 1920s apartment block, windows thrown open to the breeze. In the back room is the bunk bed that Ms. Stephens shares with Carson, her third-grader, and Addison’s wooden cot.
“My kids love it here. I don’t want to leave,” she says.
The apartment is one of 13 units in a downtown women’s shelter that Stephens moved into a year ago. The previous year, she had been homeless, an addict who couldn’t quit, even when she found out she was pregnant with Addison. At seven months, Stephens was arrested for breaking into her ex-boyfriend’s house and held in jail pending trial.
Addison was born in June 2016, delivered at Hillcrest Medical Center, where Stephens was given 24 hours with her newborn before she was taken away by child services. “I kissed her so many times, over and over. I cried and told her I would come back for her,” she says.
Stephens avoided prison via another GKFF initiative, Women in Recovery, a criminal-justice diversion program for mothers. It’s the reason that she has Addison back and that Carson is living with her. Addison is enrolled at Educare, which allowed Stephens to go back to work. In November, she got hired at a marketing company.
That Kaiser’s philanthropy extends to rehabilitating female inmates speaks to the complexities of tackling child poverty. Oklahoma leads the nation in locking up women. Its swelling prison population of mothers exacerbates the plight of their children and also means that even less money is available for social services.
Women In Recovery provides housing, therapy, parenting, and career classes to mothers, with an aim of cutting rates of recidivism and reuniting families.
For Stephens, it allowed her to be a mother to Addison, who spent time in foster care and with the family of her father during Stephens’ trial. She is also working on parenting Carson, who lived with her during her addiction, she says. She wasn't always there for him. “I was depressed. I didn’t want to be awake unless I was high,” she says.
Unlike Addison, who is thriving in her year-round program, Carson never went to preschool, because Stephens was worried that if her habit was found out he might be taken away from her. That fills her with guilt, but she’s determined to make it up to him, to be a good mom.
At a recent dental check-up, Carson was advised to start flossing. But Stephens recognized that telling him sternly to do it – her own mother’s method – might backfire.
“I don’t floss so I didn’t see how I was going to get him to floss. But we found a proactive way to resolve that,” she says.
“I started,” says Carson, a soft-spoken boy with brown hair. “And I made you start.”
Her diversion program ended in March, though she will remain on felony probation for two years. By summer, she’ll have to move out of the shelter and find a place for her family.
On the bookshelves above Addison’s cot, the toddler bedtime reading – “How Dinosaurs Stay Safe” and “Peek-a-boo” – is bracketed by “No Excuses: The Power of Self-Discipline” and a Narcotics Anonymous handbook.
Former addicts know all too well the risks of relapse. A mother living across the hallway from Stephens was recently sent back to prison. Her toddler son is currently staying with Stephens.
“I feel very confident because I have people I can call if I do run into situations. I’ve really built this life that I’m living from nothing,” says Stephens.
The three moms profiled here all have one important assist: free, high-quality daycare for their kids. That puts them in a minority in Tulsa and across the country, where about half of all toddlers stay at home with their parents. Oklahoma is unusual in that it enrolls nearly three-quarters of its four-year-olds in public pre-K programs, much higher than other states.
But for Kaiser and his BEST team, that classroom experience comes too late for low-income kids, whose cognitive and social-emotional development need a bigger boost. If toddlers can’t attend Educare or another similar center, other programs are needed to guide parents and other caregivers toward the same goal: an early-learning experience that sets them up for school.
To that end, BEST is drilling down on community outreach, from pediatric clinics to social-media campaigns, to promote early literacy. The strategy also calls for partnerships with schools to support learning between kindergarten and third-grade state tests. GKFF will be tracking the results of those as a metric, to see if its strategy is working.
“You need a cumulative effort of multiple programs rather than a single shot. Easier said than done. But that’s what has to happen,” says Steven Dow, the executive director of CAP Tulsa, a nonprofit that runs preschools and other programs for low-income families.
Once a month, the First Baptist Church North Tulsa dishes up free pizza and reading classes for preschoolers. Volunteers hold the “Talk! Sing! Read!” event inside a church annex, a lofty wood-floor gymnasium with basketball hoops set out with 20 trestle tables, most of which were filled on a recent evening by chattering children and their caregivers, mostly working parents.
At one table sits Sara Jackson and her son, Cortez, who is 15 months old. Ms. Jackson is a working mom – but unlike the women profiled above she doesn't get free childcare at a center like Educare. Cortez spends four days a week at a home daycare and Jackson's mother pays half, the only way she could afford to send him, she says.
Her elder sister runs a daycare, but Cortez never settled there so they moved him to his current place. The first time she dropped him off, Jackson waited outside. “I could hear him on the floor playing and he wasn’t crying,” she says.
The youngest of six children, Jackson was the only one to graduate high school without having a child. She went on to study photography and graphic design at college, and now works at business-services firm, while making extra as a photographer. She was 31 when she had Cortez, and on paper she's a single mom, though her boyfriend is involved. “We can't afford to get married,” she says.
For her, First Baptist is home: Her family has attended for decades, and the pastor's wife is a godparent to Cortez. So she's happy to bring him to reading nights, knowing that he'll go home with a book.
Also on the sidelines, watching closely, was Ms. Pappas, the BEST director, who as head of early childhood education in New York City’s Department of Education helped drive the rapid expansion of public pre-K. She knows that faith leaders like Deacon Darrell Walker, who has gone door to door to get out the word about literacy, can bring in at-risk kids that aren’t in GKFF’s fold. “They’re being reached by trusted members of the community,” she says.
After a blessing and a boisterous chant of L-O-V-E, the children are divided by age for reading groups. Newcomers are directed to a small room where Howard McCondichie, a volunteer at the church, hands out a tote bag with a T-shirt, blanket, and book. “This is a gift from George Kaiser,” he says, as the kids compared T-shirt sizes.
Mr. McCondichie, a retired middle-school teacher, explained to the families how the program worked. He told them that children who can’t read by third grade are statistically more likely to go to prison. He smiled. “Even when you’re in the car with them, sing to them. Read to them,” he says.
Correction: The comments from Howard McCondichie have been updated to reflect that it is children who can't read by third grade, rather than by age three, who are statistically more likely to go to prison.