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Milagros Nores, a researcher at Rutgers’ National Institute for Early Education Research, is the principal investigator for a study on the aeioTu program in Colombia, a promising model for lifting children out of poverty through education. The study, in its fourth year, has received $931,000 from the Jacobs Foundation.

Your study, the first of its kind in Latin America, focuses on 1,200 children, ages newborn to 5, in war-torn Colombia. What makes it groundbreaking?
While research has shown that early childhood education is critical in helping reduce disparities, most of the programs in the developing world involve paying parents cash to send children to school or offering nutritional supplementation. There is virtually no data in the developing world on high-quality, center-based early education, especially for infants.

What are the children’s backgrounds like?
They are the poorest of the poor, from families displaced by Colombia’s internal conflict. Their land has been seized, they have been threatened, or they have fled the rural violence of the mountains, where rebels recruit children. Many of them live in windowless houses with dirt floors and tin or straw roofs. Some don’t have access to water, electricity, or phones.

Why are you focusing on Colombia?
I lived in Colombia from ages to 2 to 12 and again from 15 to 18. I had also met members of the Jacobs Foundation who wanted to expand their work in developing countries at the time that aeioTu was starting to build early-childhood education centers.

How does the private/public partnership strengthen the program?
The two independent centers in Santa Marta are managed by the private organization aeioTu but are under a contract with the government, which provides stipends for each child. AeioTu adds on to the stipends. This way, the cost to the government is lower, the quality of the service is raised, and the impact is larger.

What difference do you hope to make in the lives of these children?
The skills developed in the first five years are critical to the development of positive lifetime pathways. We hope the program encourages the children to pursue secondary and higher education, reduces early risky and criminal behavior, and improves health by cutting down on things like teen pregnancy and smoking. Preliminary results have shown that the impact on infants has been dramatic. This would indicate that center-based programs for infants, while costly, may be cost-effective for governments in developing and developed countries.

Originally published in Rutgers alumni magazine. Photography by Anthony Colella.

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