Early-childhood intervention is slowly re-emerging as a foundation for improving America's schools—addressing what isn't covered in addition to reforming what is. There's Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman's Heckman Equation; Hillary Clinton's new Too Small to Fail initiative; University of Chicago surgeon Dana Suskind's 30 Million Words project; the Harlem Children's Zone; and newly elected New York mayor Bill de Blasio's proposal for universal pre-K, among others, which focus on or include services before children set foot in a public school.

It's grounded in decades of large-scale, basic programs like Head Start (which just saw 57,000 students cut from its rolls), and smaller, more intensive experiments like the Perry Preschool and the Abecedarian Project.

But one of the most influential and effective early-childhood interventions has been running in Chicago since the 1960s, in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods, generating impressive results for both the parents and children involved, from graduation rates to child neglect to crime: Chicago's Child-Parent Centers. "The breadth of the impacts is incredible," says Arthur Reynolds, a professor at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs and director of the Chicago Longitudinal Study, which has been tracking the outcomes of children involved in the centers. "The cumulative advantages begin because of the way parents became involved in their children's education."

The Child-Parent Centers were the brainchild of Lorraine Sullivan, who passed away last month; she was the child of a Chicago cop, a graduate of Chicago Teachers College (now Chicago State) who was one of the first women to recieve a doctorate from Harvard. After serving as principal of Crane and Bowen high schools, Sullivan was tapped by then-superintendent Benjamin Willis (in 1966, the last year of his tenure), to develop an early-childhood education program in North Lawndale and Garfield Park, then the city's poorest neighborhoods, where Sullivan was district superintendent: “less than 10% of District 8’s sixth graders were performing at the national average in reading."

Sullivan's idea was an intuitive solution to a problem that Daniel Patrick Moynihan had popularized the year before, and remains one for policymakers looking to change the culture: what do you do with the children when family structures start to dissolve? Her answer was to educate the parents in the same place and at the same time as the child. And 46 years later, the approach is the same: educating parents directly through a parent resource teacher, and indirectly, by working with teachers in the context of school.

From the beginning, the CPCs integrated parents into the pre-kindergarten curriculum: "acting as teachers aides, chaperoning field trips, helping with special arts and crafts projects, and participating in extra curricular programs involving the children," according to a 1968 Tribune piece. Using Title I funding—the CPCs were the second federally funded early-childhood program after Head Start—the centers also surrounded the parents and children with social workers, doctors, nurses, and home visits.

Five years later, the centers were considered a huge success, the only inarguable one among the raft of programs that followed $182 million of Title I money from 1965 to 1973, according to the Tribune's Edith Herman:

The 10 Child-Parent Centers were the only programs to come out on top in the audit. Children generally began their schooling there at age three and parents participate in their education.

The centers have almost performed miracles, according to Jack Stenner, vice president of the Institute for Development of Educational Auditing. "I have never seen a Title I program that is as successful," he said after a recent audit by his firm.

Stenner said the fact that children begin at an early age is the key and no compensatory program will ever be as successful without such "early intervention." Others become "catchups" and less effective, he said.

Modest miracles, statistically speaking; the average CPC student, by the late 1970s, was reading above the national average and competing with their suburban peers. But miracles, in context: "five of the six centers where classes continue through 3rd grade are clusters of mobile classrooms set on lots cleared of old houses by urban renewal," wrote Tribune education editor Casey Banas in 1977. "The mobiles are deteriorating, spray paint graffiti covers some doors, yet the idea of a small group of portable classrooms has created a certain mystique that adds to the program's success, said Debora Gordon, principal of the Dickens and Hansberry Child-Parent centers."

The centers performed so well, in fact, that grade-school-age participants stopped being eligible for Title I funding. "Previously, a child who began the program could continue through 3d grade. Now the school board must make an annual assessment to determine the neediest children," wrote Banas. "Because the children learn to read so well, they no longer qualify."

Rather than fold, the centers ceased to function as autonomous schools and were folded into elementary schools. But they retained the same concept and continued to perform. In 1985, "no long-term studies of Chicago child-parent centers have been completed, but pupils traced through the 3d grade were outperforming their peers, according to a school board report," the Tribune's Jean Davidson reported. "Among 577 pupils who received intensive follow-up, the average score in 1984 reading tests was 3.6, compared with 3.0 for low-income children without preschool and 3.5 citywide. Nationally, the 3d grade average is 3.8."

The long-term studies came in the next decade, beginning with the work of Loyola professor J.S. Fuerst. In 1992 Fuerst summarized his research in an op-ed, finding that the centers had substantial immediate impacts for students beginning school, but extending their work well into the school-age years was required to reap the most substantial benefits:

Our research at Loyola University found that immediately following the completion of the CPC program, the reading and math scores of the children were equal to local and national norms. In effect, given enough educational support, black children from even the poorest and most deprived families can perform up to citywide and national standards.

Moreover, our 20-year study that followed these 600 children after they left the program to return to the general public-school system found that four out of five girls in the CPC program graduated from high schools compared with half of the girls from the control group who were not involved in the CPC programs.

In contrast, fewer than half of the boys in these CPC programs graduated from high school. Even a four- to six-year program in the public schools apparently is not enough to counteract the problems encountered by young black males in disadvantaged families.

However, in one of the six Child Parent Centers that provided up to nine years of training, 70 percent of the boys and 85 percent of the girls went on to graduate from high school.

Arthur Reynolds, looking at a later cohort than Fuerst, soon began publishing his own longitudinal research. In the early years of that research, Reynolds also found substantial benefits that correlated with the length of the program: "participation for four, five, or six years yielded significantly higher math achievement, life-skills competence, and lower rates of grade retention and special education placement than no participation. Only children with five and six years of participation performed significantly better than the non-CPC comparison group in reading achievement. All of the three- through six-year groups had significantly
lower rates of grade retention. Children with one and two years of participation were not distinguishable from the non-CPC comparison group on any outcome."

As the cohort progressed through life, Reynolds expanded his scope further beyond academics and into health and welfare outcomes. "A climate was fostered that's very participation-based," says Reynolds. "You have islands of competence in areas that have challenges."

In 2011, Reynolds published his research on the CPC students through age 26. Grade retention and special-ed participation rates dropped for participants; high-school completion increased. But the effects went beyond the classroom: "Adjusted for the covariates including school-age intervention, CPC participation was consistently associated with young adult well-being, including high school completion and years of education by age 26, occupational prestige, health insurance coverage, and lower rates of felony arrest and incarceration, substance misuse, and depressive symptoms."

The differences were not necessarily immense: a 25 percent reduction in felony arrest for preschool participants; an approximately ten percent increase in high-school graduation rates. (Some were greater, such as a 40 percent reduction in indicated abuse or neglect; the same year, UIC prof Joshua Mersky found further evidence that the centers had a positive effect on child welfare.) But Reynolds calculated that the substantial early preschool investment of $8,152 per student returned $92,220 to society, primarily from reduced "life-course crime savings," including victim impact (five dollars per dollar invested), and increased earnings capacity and tax revenues ($3.39 per dollar invested).

And the returns were substantially greater for the poorest students: "Children from the highest poverty neighborhoods (60% or more of children residing in low-income families) had returns for the preschool ($17.92 vs. $4.05) and school-age programs ($7.84 vs. $1.22) that were 4 to 10 times higher than children residing in less disadvantaged areas."

Despite the program's considerable success—even trumpeted by the conservative Chicago Tribune editorial page during the 1980s, which supported not just the centers but a birth-to-school chain that included Home Start teacher visits in a child's first few months, half-day Montessori pre-K, and full-day Montessori kindergarten—the Child-Parent Centers have never covered more than a few thousand kids at a time. Since the mid-1980s, enrollment declined, down to a mere 670 students in 2009, as cuts undermined the nature of the program and drove children into less intensive pre-K alternatives.

That number is climbing again, after a $15 million grant from the federal government allowed for their expansion—not just in Chicago, but Skokie and Normal and state, with Arthur Reynolds directing the management team. From 2011 to 2012, enrollment increased from below 1,000 to 1,600; the attendance rate was 90 percent in full-day classes.

Parents and advocates are rediscovering the Child-Parent Centers, but then as now, it covers a small segment of the city's children. "These are excellent programs," says Reynolds. "But the level of access to these programs that will give you long term gains is limited. You have to build in a network."