When the Lifetrack school bus makes its rounds through St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood, the driver can expect the worst: children might show up at the bus stop without shoes or a coat in subzero weather. They might not show at all, because a drug-addicted parent doesn't know the difference between night and day. Or maybe a child will get on the bus crying, and cry on the way home, too.
"There's a child who doesn't want to go home, who cries all the way home, and we're very concerned whether it's at the point of abuse," says Julie Nelson, a teacher at Lifetrack's "Families Together" program.
The center runs two St. Paul preschools for toddlers between roughly age 3 and 5. The program's 65 children come from low-income households and are often put in touch with the preschool through social workers. Three days a week, all year, the bus tracks the kids down, sometimes at homeless shelters, and drops them off a few hours later.
Once at school, the 12 children in the class act like normal preschoolers. They run around, paint, and build with Legos.
"You're like architects," a teacher tells a child. "Architects?" he asks quizzically.
But some kids show high levels of stress and aggression.
"If you touch him again, I'm gonna beat your butt," one little boy shouts. A tiff has broken out between a few little boys, and this one grows threatening, slamming his bigwheel against the ground, and cursing.
"Son of a bitch!" he yells.
Meanwhile, a teacher tries to comfort the child who's been pushed by telling him she'll protect him.
"I'm going to keep you safe," she says. "That's my job. We're on the same team."
Teacher Julie Nelson says that's the kind of message the kids need to hear before they can even think about learning their ABC's.
"In our program we really stress meeting needs, and so once their needs are met and they feel safe and secure, you just see them excited about learning and counting and knowing letters and things," she says. "But first we just have to deal with relationship and anxiety needs."
An occupational therapist works with kids who may have problems with coordination and body regulation, sometimes due to pre-natal drug exposure. And a psychologist helps kids work through trauma in play therapy.
The play therapy has helped two of Karin Corbett's nine children work through intense stress at home. A couple of years ago, Karin was diagnosed with cancer and her husband entered rehab for alcoholism. Their youngest daughter, Jaelah, who's now 5, reacted to the situation with lots of anxiety. She couldn't look at people without holding her hands up to her eyes as though peering through binoculars. As Karin and Jaelah snuggle on the couch of their living room in their St. Paul home, Karin asks her daughter about her progress with the play therapist.
"Does she teach you how to talk about your feelings?" Corbett asks.
"Yes," Jaelah responds.
"And what's the thing you're working on right now? You're working on doing what with your mouth, with your voice?" her mother asks.
"Talking," Jaelah responds.
Another big part of the Families Together program involves home visits from Lifetrack staff. Karin Corbett says those have helped her family a lot as well. She says staff connected her with resources when she was financially strapped. And they taught her how to communicate better with all of her children.
"This preschool isn't limited to the needs of the children that attend there," she says. "They help the whole family, and they look at the needs of the whole family."
Some early education researchers, like Dale Farran of Vanderbilt University, question how much an intensive preschool can really do to combat the intractable problems at-risk preschoolers face.
"Just providing that intervention when the children are four or five is not going to be sufficient, because the family circumstances continue, the neighborhood circumstances continue, and they're often reflected in the schools that these children attend," she says.
But staff at Lifetrack say even if a child attends a therapeutic preschool for a year, the cognitive and social skills change dramatically. And according to a growing chorus of Minnesota legislators, and Art Rolnick of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, that means saving millions of dollars down the road in education resources, crime prevention, and social services.