Program Draws Grassroots Support From the Start

By Deborah L. Cohen — May 09, 1990 7 min read

Canton, Ohio--Sixteen years ago, Canton school officials got a call from the Ohio Department of Education asking whether they would be interested in applying for a $60,000 grant for an “infant-stimulation lab.”

Aurelia Zoretich, an adult educator who was teaching nights while rearing three young children, set about crafting a proposal that would fulfill her wish list “as a parent and as an educator.”

Tapping rent-free space at an unused school building, the proposal laid out plans for a center that would not only stimulate infants, but also support and guide parents in their childrearing roles.

The award, made available with federal funds channeled through the state education department’s vocational home-economics division, became the catalyst for a parent-education and early-childhood-intervention effort that has been praised for its comprehensive approach, creative use of resources, and grassroots appeal.

Program staff members went door to door to recruit parents and, from the outset, involved them “in all aspects of planning,” says George Tsarwhas, director of community educational services for the Canton schools.

“They talked about colors, drapes, and furniture” for the center, helped price and order materials, and “opened boxes and put the toys away,” he recalls. “For once in their lifetimes, school people had come to them, and that made a big difference.”

Supplementing its vocational-education funding with grants from the Stark County Health Department and the state’s Children’s Trust Fund, the Parent-Child Education Program has expanded from one center serving 70 families to four sites serving nearly 1,000 parents and children.

The program is free and runs year-round, offering a dual parent-child curriculum on a 15-week cycle.

Teachers, who earn $13 an hour, must have a bachelor’s degree and certification in preschool and adult vocational education. Aides, paid $5.80 an hour, must have 45 hours of early-childhood training.

To build the skills and self-concept of parent and child, “family life” classes combine play and language-development and learning activities for children with guidance on child development, communications skills, nutrition, consumer education, and health and safety issues for parents.

Parents also receive information on childbirth and prenatal care and direction in helping children cope with separa6tion, divorce, illness, and death.

Teachers begin each two-hour program with songs, rhymes, and clapping games and then work with parents as they interact with their children at play.

Following time for stories, art projects, and snacks, the children go to the gym for supervised play while parents meet in a separate room.

Although the center operates on a drop-in basis, parents are encouraged to maintain a regular schedule. They typically attend sessions two to three times a week in the first year and continue regular visits for two and a half years. Sessions generally draw 10 to 12 parents and 18 to 20 children up to age 6.

In the afternoons, the centers operate a preschool program, using the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation’s early-childhood curriculum, for 3- to 5-year-olds.

Supplementing the center schedule are monthly luncheons and evening seminars on such topics as family law, communications skills, sex education, and discipline.

The program “has established its place in a network of family-support systems” in the county, notes Ms. Zoretich, now the teacher-coordinator of the program.

“We try to develop a strong relationship with other programs and agencies in our community that have the same concerns,” she adds, listing health and social-services providers, the court system, and crisis centers.

The program has drawn support from the health sector as a prevention and intervention strategy to promote “family well-being,” says Stephen R. Wermuth, director of support services for the Stark County Health Department.

Nursing schools, high schools, and colleges send students to the centers for training. And in a new collaborative venture, program staff members are applying for funding to mainstream handicapped youngsters into the preschool.

While the centers are situated in places that allow them to draw large numbers of low-income families and children at risk of learning problems, the program is open to all parents and serves a diverse mix, Ms. Zoretich stresses.

“All have one major factor in common--the desire to improve their parenting skills in developing healthy, well-adjusted children who will be ready to function productively in our school system and in society,” a prospectus states.

The program serves not only natural parents, but also relatives, babysitters, and friends. About 25 percent are single parents, and 5 percent are teen parents.

In addition to several local mothers, participants in a recent session included two fathers, a grandmother, a single pregnant woman, and a single mother referred by a domestic-violence shelter.

In additional to the original center--which has since moved to a larger school site--three satellite centers based in church buildings have been added in the past year. Each center is equipped to serve 450 families. In the main center, classrooms are arranged in play stations laying the foundation for physical and language development, art, math, and science.

There are areas for infant care and for exploring shapes and colors; there are toys, dolls, games, puzzles, books, and playhouses. And there are niches for sand play, building blocks, dress-up clothes, dollhouse decorating, and puppet play.

In the parents’ meeting room, fresh flowers are on the table, coffee is brewing, and home-baked snacks are served.

A lending library in one corner includes topics from childbirth and parenting to how to keep children off drugs.

Parents sit in easy chairs and couches while discussing family communication with head teacher Jill Shepard.

At one of the satellite centers, Barbara Castillo, the head teacher, leads parents in role-play exercises designed to explore ways of helping children solve problems or responding when they experience grief.

In discussions on discipline, “we try to show parents alternatives” to corporal punishment, notes Ms. Zoretich, who says some punishments reflect a misinterpretation of normal developmental patterns.

Crystal Thompson, the parent of a 2-year-old, says the program has helped her become more patient, better able to handle stress, and more aware of the importance of “how you say things.”

Others say the program has exposed them to ideas and materials they would not have otherwise used, while affording them “quality time” with their children.

“Here, you take the time to play with your kids,” says Betty Fortune, a parent who has had two children in the program.

But the main reason that parents come, they say, is for their children.

While “nobody can really tell you what to do in your own personal situation with your own kids,” Myra Thomas argues, her daughter benefits from learning and playing with other children and adults.

“On the days I neglect to come to parent meetings, she gets really upset,” she explains. “She likes it, she’s learning, and I think she’ll be better off in school.”

A longitudinal study of the program conducted in 1983 showed that children scored above city and national averages on standardized tests from kindergarten through 10th grade. And 84 percent of the parents reported their own communication skills and discipline methods had improved.

Despite such positive findings, however, the program is “a drop in the bucket” relative to the level of need, Ms. Zoretich says.

Stark County has 22,000 children under age 5, and more than 40 percent of the births in 1980 were to mothers age 18 and under with no higher than an 11th-grade education.

Despite the need, expanding the Parent-Child Education Program has been a constant challenge.

“We are like a stepchild of our school system,” observes Ms. Zoretich, who wants to see the program “absorbed into the mainstream” K-12 system.

“Right now,” she adds, “we are living from grant to grant. This is a very difficult way to survive.”

Until recently, state law barred local schools from spending general funds on preschool programs.

While the prohibition has been lifted for certain grant and special-education programs, the area’s depressed economy and the district’s fiscal constraints make a major infusion of funds unlikely.

While early-childhood education is a high priority, contends Barbara F. Schreiber, a member of the Canton school board, “we don’t have enough money to operate the school district, let alone add more programming.”

The program recently won one of six state grants to replicate Missouri’s Parents as Teachers program. The $100,000 award will provide each center with an extra teacher and aide and restore a home-visit component phased out for lack of funds.

Program officials are also hoping for additional support from a coalition of local businesses that is setting aside funds to carry out education reforms.

In Canton, as in other communities, however, securing a stable revenue source for parent and early-childhood programming may require a change in policymakers’ thinking.

When finances are limited, “those who control the budgets want to see a quicker payoff than beginning with 3- and 4-year olds,” notes Robert L. Henderson, superintendent of the Canton schools.

Others, he says, may harbor “a traditional belief that we operate as we always have and that parents are compeletely responsible for things until children get to kindergarten.”

“To get over that kind of thinking,” he says, “takes a real jolt.’'

A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 1990 edition of Education Week as Program Draws Grassroots Support From the Start