Briya Public Charter School

At one charter school in Washington, D.C., grown-ups work alongside children in an unusual two-generation model.

At 3 p.m. on a weekday, Briya Public Charter School on Georgia Avenue in Washington, D.C., is noisy with excitement. The school day has ended and pickup has begun. Toddlers bound out of classrooms as parents steer strollers down the narrow halls.

Briya is not just a preschool—many of the parents collecting their children are students here as well. Some took classes in English or parenting earlier in the day. Others will return tonight to study for a credential. Briya’s two-generation approach is known as family literacy, and it emphasizes parents and children learning together.

“Children learn best when they have really good role models,” says Lorie Preheim, the school’s academic dean. “If children see their parents learning, if they see them going back to school, they’re more likely to study, work hard, stay in school, [and] succeed.”

Briya grew out of a now-defunct federal program called Even Start, which sought to break the cycle of low literacy in poor families. Unlike the bigger and better known Head Start, Even Start focused on parents as much as it did on children. It helped adults learn English or get their GEDs while their young children were cared for in a stimulating environment. The program also encouraged parents to become involved in their kids’ learning through activities like parent-child story time.

Briya began in 1989 as the Even Start Multicultural Family Literacy Program, one of 76 Even Start pilots around the country. It was based in Washington’s Adams Morgan/Mount Pleasant area, where immigrants from Central America and Vietnam were then settling, many having fled violence in their homelands. The D.C. pilot endured, even after Congress eliminated Even Start in 2011. It became a public charter school in 2005, and in 2013 it was renamed Briya in a play on the Spanish word brillar, which means “to shine.”

There are now about 150 children and 400 adults enrolled at Briya’s four locations around D.C. Adults can take classes in English as a Second Language, parenting, computer literacy, civics, and career preparation. (Many classes are in Spanish or bilingual.) They can study to pass the National External Diploma Program, equivalent to high school. Briya also offers training for the credential of Child Development Associate (CDA), whose holders can find jobs as nannies and in daycare centers and preschools.

Back in 1998, before it was Briya, the center partnered with a local healthcare nonprofit called Mary’s Center to provide a range of services for clients in need. For instance, an Even Start parent with a health problem might be referred to a doctor at Mary’s Center. Today most Briya students are patients at Mary’s Center, and the organizations have teamed up on workforce development.

Students in the Medical Assistant program at Briya in Washington, D.C. (Briya Public Charter School)

Three years ago, Briya added a Medical Assistant track leading up to the Registered Medical Assistant Exam. As part of the course, Briya students do an externship at Mary’s Center, and several graduates have gone on to become full-time employees there.

One of those graduates is Beatriz Sanchez. Sanchez immigrated to D.C. from El Salvador in 2004 after finishing ninth grade. She enrolled in high school, dropped out, got her GED a few years later, and tried to find a way into the healthcare field.

“I was interested in the medical field … My goal [was to be an] RN, but with financial issues, I could not make it,” Sanchez says. “So I looked at the Briya program.” She praises the support she received and how her teacher urged her to keep going during a difficult period in her life. “My grandma passed away; I was thinking of quitting the program. She was always there: ‘Don’t quit.’”

Beatriz Sanchez at her workplace, Mary’s Center (Amanda Kolson Hurley)

Sanchez still hopes to get a nursing degree and is saving money for tuition. Her nine-year-old daughter is inspired by her: “She says, ‘I’m going to be a doctor in the future.’” (Only about half of Briya’s adult students have children in the school; many, like Sanchez, have older children.)

Although it isn’t lucrative to be a childcare worker or medical assistant, both jobs are accessible to non-native speakers of English and allow for career growth. And crucially, they’re in demand. The number of openings for both is expected to rise—especially for medical assistants, with a projected increase of 23 percent between 2014 and 2024.

Already, employers in these fields are often forced to hire people who lack qualifications, Preheim says. That puts Briya’s credentialed graduates in a good position.

Ninety-five percent of CDA students passed their exam in the last academic year, and 100 percent of Medical Assistant students did. According to its most recent report card from the D.C. Public Charter School Board, 76 percent of former Briya students obtained employment or entered postsecondary education or career training.

The school shows strong results for younger students, too, with 98 percent of its preschoolers meeting or exceeding expectations for growth in literacy, 88 percent in math.

“The education and health performance data available strongly suggest that Briya/Mary’s Center is having a significant and positive impact on the families it serves,” wrote the authors of a 2015 Brookings Institution case study on the partnership. The study authors didn’t analyze adult education vis-a-vis other programs in the city, due to the many differences in curricula and demographics, but they ventured that “at first glance ... Briya is doing as well as, or better than, the other adult education programs.”

The composition of Briya’s student body has changed over the years, along with the profile of a typical immigrant to D.C. The number of adult students from Vietnam has declined, and today the top country of origin is El Salvador, followed by Ethiopia. There are also students from the U.S., Mexico, Bangladesh, and other countries.

As it has expanded, the school has had to contend with D.C.’s rapid pace of change. In its original, close-in neighborhoods, two-bedroom apartments now rent for up to $3,000 a month, meaning most immigrants can no longer afford to live there. Briya followed the northward trajectory of the city’s Latino community, opening on Georgia Avenue in Petworth and, just this fall, on the northeast edge of the District in Fort Totten (in both locations, it shares space with Mary’s Center). Preheim hopes to launch a Dental Assistant program at the new site within a few years. Meanwhile, the school has reduced its offerings in Adams Morgan.

The new Fort Totten campus that Briya shares with Bridges Public Charter School and Mary’s Center. (Studio Twenty Seven Architecture)

Briya’s holistic approach makes intuitive sense: helping parents improve their career prospects and become advocates for their children, while giving the kids a foundation for academic achievement. The school has received national and even global attention (when I talked to Preheim, she had just returned from a UNESCO meeting of family-literacy experts in Germany).

The problem is, it doesn’t come cheap. The ratio of caregivers to children required for a high-quality early childhood program means high operating costs. And charter-school funding doesn’t cover infant and toddler care. Briya relies on the D.C. government and philanthropic grants for support.

What exactly is Briya doing right, and does it make sense to scale it up, despite the overheads? Stuart Butler, the lead author of the Brookings study, says that’s impossible to know without better data—which is hard to collect and analyze for innovative, cross-sector programs like Briya/Mary’s Center.

The costs of the two-generation model may represent costs not incurred elsewhere, he notes. “To train people has to be done in some location, in some way.”

“Part of what got me interested in Briya and Mary’s Center is this whole issue of what’s sometimes called the ‘wrong pockets problem,’” Butler says. “Would it make sense to invest more in the Briya model for the health care system, or in the two-generation model generally? Are these costs that are incurred elsewhere in the future, and would it be wiser to invest in what Briya’s doing? You can only know that if you track the data and look at a much broader measure of value added. Right now, we don’t have the answer.”

If the data were there, though, he thinks the model could have bipartisan support. “There’s a very broad interest in community-based approaches on both the left and the right ... It’s a nice marrying.”

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