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Published in Print: March 24, 1999, as Backers of Home-Visitation Program Remain Confident

Backers of Home-Visitation Program Remain Confident

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In January, Boston University Chancellor John R. Silber--who announced March 2 that he was leaving his post as the chairman of the state board of education--convened a meeting of state leaders to pitch the idea.

The goal is to increase the number of children being served in the state by 1,000 next fall, which would require $2 million in state funds. The National Center for the Parent-Child Home Program, which costs $2,000 per child, now reaches 420 children in Massachusetts, but it is paid for with funding from the federal Title I program and other non-state-government sources.

Even though Mr. Silber has stepped down from the state board, those involved in the program are still confident about the proposal's chances in the legislature this year.

"It's my sense that it's moving along," said Sarah E. Walzer, the executive director of the Wantagh, N.Y.-based program.

The program seeks to prepare children for school by improving the literacy and verbal skills of low-income 2- and 3-year-olds and their parents, particularly parents who have not completed high school.

Paraprofessionals--often parents who have been through the program themselves--visit the family for 30 minutes, twice a week, and bring a book, puzzle, or educational toy to leave in the home. Since many of the families served do not speak English, bilingual materials are also available. The visits continue for two years.

The Parent-Child Home Program is now operating in eight sites in Massachusetts. The expansion would increase the number of children served in the existing sites and add more locations around the state.

The program is also in place in 13 sites in South Carolina, 18 in New York, and 10 in other countries. But the Massachusetts proposal, if approved, would be the largest expansion of the program since it was developed 30 years ago in Freeport, N.Y.

Promising Results

Unlike some home-visiting initiatives, the Parent-Child Home Program has a very narrow focus: verbal interaction. Other models often aim to make an impact in broader areas, such as child abuse and welfare dependency.

An evaluation of the project, which appeared last year in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, shows that those who received the visits as preschoolers were far less likely to drop out of high school than those who were not served--15.7 percent, compared with 40 percent, among those studied.

In general, the results of home-visiting programs throughout the country have been mixed. While some models are promising, a soon-to-be-released review of the research cautions policymakers and practitioners against setting high expectations for such programs.

"The results that we're seeing show a lot of variation across program models, across sites, and across families within sites," said Deanna Gomby, the deputy director of the children, families, and communities department at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation in Los Altos, Calif. The newest issue of the foundation's journal, The Future of Children, will focus on home-visiting efforts and is scheduled for release in May.

"Programs have a way to go yet to see who benefits from each of these models," Ms. Gomby said. People who run home-visiting programs should be working in cooperation with researchers to determine what works best, she added.

One of the critical questions about home-visiting programs is whether those that succeed on a small scale can be as effective when they serve more children. That's why the national home-study center, Ms. Walzer said, has been careful about allowing the program to be copied too quickly.

She added that she has also been meeting with foundation representatives in an effort to get funding for an evaluation of the program. That study would begin at the same time the new Massachusetts sites are slated to open.

The longitudinal evaluation of the Parent-Child Home Program focused on the Pittsfield, Mass., school district, which has used the program for 29 years and will likely serve as a regional training center for the state if the program is expanded.

The Pittsfield district was the first in the state to use federal Title I aid to pay for the program.

"There is a tremendous commitment on the part of the public schools to fund this," said James Shiminski, the Title I director for the district.

Vol. 18, Issue 28, Page 17

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