Improving Educational Outcomes for American Indian Children

By Diette Courrégé Casey — July 24, 2012 3 min read
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Parent educators in six states have been going into the homes of at least 720 American Indian families with prekindergarten children every other week in an effort to narrow the achievement gap by the time they start school.

The program is part of Project BabyFACE, which is the only federal Investing in Innovation grant that serves tribal communities. The vast majority of the 22 Bureau of Indian Education schools involved in Project BabyFACE are in remote or rural areas of Arizona, Idaho, North Carolina, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Washington.

The Rural School and Community Trust provided the biggest chunk of the required matching funding for the $14.3 million grant, and it held a one-hour webinar in June on the project as the latest in a series highlighting innovations that have proven successful in rural areas. The audio and slideshow from that presentation is posted online.

The achievement gap in Native communities is a big issue, with recent reports showing the situation has been stagnating, and in some cases worsening, since 2005.

The group winning the i3 grant to serve American Indian students was Parents as Teachers, an international nonprofit that works with nearly 500,000 parents annually. The group helps parents improve their children’s development and learning before school starts, and its home-visitation program is the model for BabyFACE.

Marsha Gebhardt, the BabyFACE project director, spent the bulk of the webinar describing the program. As background, Parents as Teachers has had a partnership with the Bureau of Indian Education since 1991, and prior to the grant provided training and on-site assistance to 67 of its schools.

Its i3 grant was one of the few focused on early learning, and Gebhardt said the project addresses more rural communities than most, if not all, of the other grant recipients.

Some of the specific grant objectives include: providing 100 books to each child before they start kindergarten, preventing child abuse and neglect, increasing parent knowledge of child development and parenting practices, and supporting Native language and culture.

In the BabyFACE program, parent educators serve 20 families each and make 24 visits annually. Parent educators all are Native Americans and come from the communities where they’re working. They hold group meetings for parents and do health and development screenings for children. Parent educators also help connect families with child health and development resources, or any other service that’s needed to meet the broader family’s needs, she said.

The home visits are the heart of the program. Each visit takes about 2½hours total, which includes preparing for and traveling to the site as well as record-keeping and follow up. Family members other than parents are encouraged to participate.

Every visit includes an activity to engage the parent and child together. The parent educator talks to the parent about that activity and how to do it, then supports the parent in engaging the child. Parents also are given information about what’s typical at certain ages so they can better understand their child’s development. For instance, at 14 months, children often become resistant and assert their independence, so the parent educators help families understand and not overreact, Gebhardt said.

BabyFACE has been underway for about a year, and some of the challenges have been:
• Obtaining matching funding prior to receiving the i3 grant;
• Hiring parent educators in isolated communities where the pool of qualified personnel is limited;
• Turnover of parent educators;
• Supervision of the program;
• Isolation of families;
• Internet access, which is lacking in some homes but mostly has been available;
• Recruitment of families. The grant has specific requirements for the age of children that were necessary for its evaluation, but every parent educator has found the required number of families to serve.

Gebhardt said this past year needs to be looked at as a “start-up” year rather than one on which outcomes could be based. The program has had success in getting an average of three new books to children each month, as well as other child-care needs, such as car seats, cribs, and diapers. It plans to intensify technical assistance support through the second and third years of the grant, and they hope to find funding to continue tracking these children at least until they start kindergarten.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rural Education blog.