“Many parents don’t know what is appropriate in the growth and development of their children. . . . They have to be taught.”

Ethel Washington, clinic coordinator, Center for Successful Child Development, Robert Taylor Homes.

Nationwide, the push for school readiness has focused on preschool programs for kids. However, a small but growing number of programs zero in on parents as their children’s first teachers.

And while Illinois has a foot in the door of this movement, other states have surged ahead.

“Development and learning are so rapid in those first few years of life, when the home is the school and parents are the teachers,” notes Mildred Winters, director of Parents as Teachers National Center in St. Louis. “Knowing what we know about the critical nature of the early years in determining what the child ultimately will become, it makes so much sense to invest in getting children off to a good start. It’s far less expensive and far more productive than trying to fix it later on.”

The parent-support movement includes a wide range of programs. Some just teach childrearing skills—often through home visits—while others provide a full menu of family services. Most target low-income families, but some serve all parents who want assistance, regardless of their income.

“All parents can benefit from support and assistance in those critical early years,” says Winters. “We don’t feel it should be targeted toward any one group. Just because you’re poor or minority, doesn’t mean that you’re an inadequate parent.”

Missouri and Minnesota are the leading states in support for parents of young children.

In Missouri, all school districts must offer a program that includes at least one monthly contact (through home visits or group meetings) with parents of children from birth through 3-years-old, comprehensive annual developmental screenings for children 1 to 4, and information and advice for expectant parents.

“It’s schools reaching out to families to say, ‘We would like to be your partners in helping you give your child the very best possible start in life,’ ” says Winters, who was the Missouri state program’s first director. “The heart of the program is the personal visit in the home on a regularly scheduled basis.”

During a home visit, “parent educators” engage parents and children in learning and play activities scaled to the child’s developmental level, offer parenting tips and serve as a sounding board.

Tenfold growth

The state’s contribution to Parents as Teachers has grown from $2.7 million in 1984 to more than $21 million in 1995. School districts receive $15 per child for screening and as much as $330 per participating family, depending on the number and age of children in the family. The state also makes supplemental grants to districts with “hard-to-reach” parents.

Many districts supplement the state funds, making more parent contacts than required or providing drop-in centers. Parent waiting lists are long, but Missouri’s goal is to provide funding by the year 2000 for all the families who want to participate.

In Minnesota, districts are not required to participate, but most of them do, offering weekly two-hour group sessions for families with children under 4. Parents and children engage in learning activities, children get developmental screening, and parents attend discussion groups and have access to a lending library.

Minnesota spends $32.5 million a year on the program, with 43 percent coming from the state and 57 percent from local districts. In 1993-94, about 40 percent of eligible families participated.

Since Missouri and Minnesota launched their programs in the mid-1980s, their concept has been adapted by some states to provide a wide range of services—including job training and substance-abuse counseling—to families with school-age children.

Kentucky, for example, has opened Family Resource Centers (for families with children up to age 12) and Youth Service Centers (for youths 12 or older) in school districts where more than 20 percent of students qualify for free lunches. The Family Resource Centers have a strong component for families with children younger than 5, including parent training and support groups, parent-child activities and preschool programs for the youngsters.

Currently, 545 centers serve families and youths from 861 schools, which is about 75 percent of eligible schools. The cost is about $36 million, with 50 percent coming from the state, 30 percent from school districts and 20 percent from municipal governments.

Fifteen state governments provide money for parent- and family-support programs, according to the Parents and Teachers National Center. Illinois is among them, but its commitment pales in comparison to that in Missouri and Minnesota.

“Illinois is an example of a state where you might have a smattering of grass-roots programs here and there,” says Shelly Peck, public education and advocacy coordinator for the Chicago-based Family Resource Coalition. “We’re certainly not in the leader category, because we do have 10 to 12 states that have taken a model statewide and put a line item in the budget.”

Last year, Illinois distributed about $2 million in grants to programs supporting parents of children under 3 who live in “high-risk” communities, according to Mary Jane Broncato of the Illinois State Board of Education.

Shining stars

Illinois’ big early-childhood bucks— about $100 million—go for prekindergarten programs for “at-risk” 3- and 4-year-olds. But 4-year-olds are taking up most of the seats, notes Maureen Patrick, chair of the State Interagency Council on Early Intervention. “For the 0 to 3 population, basic family support services are not there,” she says. “We have some wonderful shining stars as far as programs in the state, but we don’t have the resources that we need.”

Patrick also is the executive director of Family Focus, which is one of Illinois’ shining stars. Founded in 1976, this non-profit organization operates four drop-in centers in the Lawndale and West Town neighborhoods of Chicago and in Aurora and Evanston; the centers target teens and parents with young children. Family Focus also runs Project Early Start in Evanston, which brings learning activities into the homes of children aged 0 to 3.

The bulk of Family Focus’s $2.5 million budget—48 percent—comes from corporations and foundations; about 36 percent comes from state and local tax dollars.

The Center for Successful Child Development, which serves parents of young children in six buildings of Robert Taylor Homes, is a more ambitious program. With a budget of $1.7 million, its services include:

Parent-child advocates, who bring learning activities into the home and link families with other community resources.

Parent counseling, support groups and educational workshops and seminars.

Parent training to prepare children for kindergarten.

Head Start preschool programs, offered both in families’ apartments and at the center.

Infant and toddler day care.

Maternal and child health care.

When the Center was founded nine years ago, its goal was to ensure that the Robert Taylor children who enrolled in nearby Beethoven Elementary School in 1992 were fully prepared for school learning. (Hence, the center’s nickname, the Beethoven Project.) It didn’t meet that goal; families moved frequently, joined the program at different points in their children’s lives, and didn’t use all of its services.

“We were responsive to the transient nature of the population,” says Harriet Meyer, executive director of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, with sponsors the center with the Chicago Urban League. “We didn’t recruit or sustain a cohort of 150 families over five or six years, but we have consistently served 200 families annually.”

Another program operating in Chicago, Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY for short), has its roots in Israel. Developed in 1969 by the Research Institute for Innovation in Education at Hebrew University, HIPPY was brought to the United States in 1984 by the National Council of Jewish Women and to Chicago in 1989 by Illinois’ ChildServ organization. Since 1989, the Chicago Department of Health and Aunt Martha’s Youth Service Center in Park Forest have established HIPPY programs, too.

Working in Lawndale and Humboldt Park, ChildServ’s HIPPY sends family educators into homes of 225 families with 4- and 5-year-olds for 30 weekly half-hour visits. Every other week, the educators help parents role-play the following week’s lesson. Conducted in English or Spanish, the lessons are aimed at helping youngsters develop such concepts as size, color, shapes and problem-solving. Many involve reading and storytelling.

ChildServ’s HIPPY program operates on a slim budget of $325,000, with 46 percent coming from the state.

Nationwide, local parenting programs such as Family Focus, the Beethoven Project and HIPPY have burgeoned in the last five years. HIPPY U.S.A. has grown from 12 programs in 1990 to 107 today. During the same time, Parents as Teachers grew from 628 programs in just a few states to 1,654 in 43 states, Washington, D.C., and several foreign countries. Between 1986 and 1994, the number of providers attending the Family Resource Coalition’s annual meeting grew from 600 to 1,600; and 2,000 are expected this year.

While government funding has grown, too, corporation and foundation grants remain the lifeblood for most programs.

“We’ve made a good beginning toward really meeting the needs of young children and their families,” says Winters. “But the need is so much more. The way we fund education, we’ve got our priorities wrong. We need to invest more money at the front end, rather than pouring it in at the back end.”

There are plenty of data showing that children benefit academically and socially and that parents benefit emotionally from parent-support programs. And testimonials are legion. Most go like this one from Racquel Billups, a 24-year-old mother of four (and no relation to the author) who participated in the Beethoven Project:

“I saw things they were teaching my kid that I wasn’t teaching them, and I learned how to do it too. It’s funny, my 9-year-old son was 3 when we moved here, but my 6-year-old daughter has been in the program since she was a baby, and she’s more advanced than he was at her age. There are things that she’s doing now that I wish my 9-year-old son could do.”

Margaret Billups is a Chicago writer with two small children.

‘Parents Hour’ talks

Faculty of the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development will give four noontime talks this fall to help parents discover new ways to understand and support their young children.

The dates and topics are: Oct. 24, beginnings; Nov. 7, trust; Nov. 21, expectations; and Dec. 5, friendships. The “Parents Hour” will be held at Erikson offices, 420 N. Wabash. Each session is $10, and reservations are required; call (312) 755-2246.

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