Strong Suit

Madeline Gray

Project Enlightenment equips young students

by Hampton Williams Hofer

photographs by Madeline Gray

In a quaint neighborhood on Boylan Avenue in downtown Raleigh sits a brick building surrounded by thick trees. Outside, there’s a playground usually busy with children scurrying from one colorful structure to the next. It looks like an elementary school, but it isn’t; a modest sign out front identifies the place as Project Enlightenment.

Founded in 1969, the  program operated by Wake County Public School System’s office of early learning offers a comprehensive array of early childhood services to parents and young children in the area.  It’s all focused on equipping students for academic success. Today, Project Enlightenment is a nationally recognized initiative and a model for early intervention.

Project Enlightenment supports children at risk for school failure and taps into their needs during the critical developmental years from infancy to age 5. With a staff of educators, child development specialists, psychologists, and counselors, Project Enlightenment prepares young children to succeed in school and out of the classroom. But the focus isn’t just on the kids: There are also parenting classes and an extensive lending library of children’s books and parenting resources galore, covering topics from temper tantrums to potty-training. There are toy stations to occupy the children, and comfortable chairs so visitors can stay for a while. Anyone is welcome.

Madeline Gray

The welcoming atmosphere cultivates transformation. Five months ago, a Raleigh woman walked through the doors at Project Enlightenment in tears. She had recently taken on sole primary care of her 5-year-old granddaughter, a child acting out from the stress of being separated from her mother. The grandmother, who was receiving near-daily calls from the child’s school regarding misbehavior, had to quit her job. At Project Enlightenment, she found friendly faces in the Parent Teacher Resource Center, and went home with armfuls of resources – books, pamphlets, videos – to help her. And she kept coming back. She began meeting with a parent counselor, and after each meeting, was visibly relieved. “Now, she comes in smiling and laughing and telling us that she is hoping to go back to work after the holidays,” says Beth Tyler, coordinator of the parent-teacher resource center at Project Enlightenment. The woman’s granddaughter is now a productive kindergartener doing well in school. Tyler says stories like these are typical, and ceaselessly heartwarming to witness. “One of our preschool teachers (recently) said, ‘I love coming here. Everyone is always so helpful. It is such a feel-good place.’”

Transformation also comes from Project Enlightenment’s innovative approach. The preschool, for example, has two classrooms serving 4-year-old students: one is the Demonstration Preschool, a half-day pre-kindergarten for both children with developmental and/or social-emotional concerns as well as typically developing children. The other is the Blended Classroom, site of a full-day class funded by Title I and Preschool Services. Both classrooms emphasize research-based early literacy practices. These classrooms are essentially training sites for the hundreds of educators and parents in the community who come in to observe each year. The children, accustomed to this observation, are unfazed by the onlookers. Teachers come to Project Enlightenment for professional development, but they also utilize its programs in their own classrooms.

Perspective and support

At Aldert Root Elementary, kindergarten teacher Wini Boswell struggled to connect with one of her students whose attention-seeking behavior (things like calling out, kicking, running through the classroom) had grown unmanageable. With a class of 23 students, it can become difficult for a teacher to teach at her normal pace and rigor in the face of a glaring behavioral issue. Boswell, eager for a way to positively interact with this particular little girl, had tried her own strategies: She would wear five rubber bands on her left wrist and move a band to the right wrist every time she found a time to commend the student, if even on the smallest victory. The rubber bands were a visual reminder to remain positive with a student who often caused frustration. Eventually, Boswell turned to Project Enlightenment. “When I’ve exhausted all of my tools,” says Boswell, who has accumulated quite the tool belt in her 18 years of teaching, “I can turn to Project Enlightenment for an outside perspective, for fresh ideas on how to help a struggling child. And when it comes to the family, Project can do a lot more than I can,” she says, referring to their parenting classes. “Everyone at Project has been genuinely helpful and supportive of the child,” Boswell says, “but also of me, encouraging me professionally every step of the way.”

Teachers all over the county – at preschools, childcare facilities, and kindergartens – have found relief and support in the program. The process is simple to accommodate teachers and parents: Teachers fill out a form with parental consent, and Project Enlightenment will send a consultant to the classroom to observe the child. Colleen Sheriff, a teacher at Brooks Elementary, recently utilized Project Enlightenment for the first time, after hitting roadblocks with one of her kindergarteners who struggled to thrive in numerous areas. A Project Enlightenment staffer visited Mrs. Sheriff’s class to observe, then met with her and the child’s parents. “The information gained from that screening gave me, as a teacher, as well as our school staff and the family, some specific areas to focus on … it gave us a common tool, and now we have a path to follow that will help this student make strides toward success.”

That’s what Project Enlightenment is all about: building on children’s strengths in order to help them succeed in the classroom and beyond. And the project is thriving, thanks in part to a $2 million grant received in 2013 from the John Rex Endowment that supports the Positive Parenting Program to help parents with young children in Raleigh improve parenting skills, and also from Wake County SmartStart and private contributions.

Project Enlightenment is for the young children of Wake County and for the adults in those children’s lives. People come in to work through a plethora of issues; among the most common are discipline, following directions, the impact of moving, divorce, loss, and other transitions. For a small fee, parents can attend classes on topics of interest, such as positive discipline and communication. The goal is to help the adults help the children, and the impact is big. “I can hardly go anywhere in the RTP area where I don’t see someone who has had some connection with Project Enlightenment,” says Audrey Bunch. Bunch is the director of Project Enlightenment, a role she’s had for the past five years. She once met a 35-year-old who had participated in programs at Project Enlightenment as a child.

Raising children is serious business, and Project Enlightenment seeks to make it a little easier. “Every family with young children has needs,” Bunch says, “and we’re here to serve them.”