Aiming for Literacy Across Two Generations, Even Start Teaches a Parent To Reach a Child

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Judy Bitner beams as she tells how her daughter, Ashley, at age 7, has already written her first book as part of a school project to encourage young authors. Her 3-year-old son, Bodie, meanwhile, is gaining an early appreciation of the written word from the stories his mother now reads to him each day.

But the 27-year-old single mother also has plenty to boast about in her own right. While Bodie attends an early-childhood program, Ms. Bitner pursues her own studies in an adjoining classroom in this central-Illinois community. Besides working on her own book--a project in which she takes obvious pride--she is honing her math, reading, and writing skills so she can earn a General Educational Development certificate. At the same time, she is mastering techniques to help stimulate her children's learning.

Ms. Bitner is a participant in Even Start, a federally funded program that combines adult-literacy and parenting training with early-childhood education in an effort to break the cycle of illiteracy that often passes from parent to child.

The Pekin Even Start Family Education Program provides educational services for parents and children, separately and together, at a center based in a technical high school. It also offers home visits every two weeks, helps link parents with services ranging from housing to health care, and hosts family activities with social and educational themes.

The lessons Ms. Bitner is learning are aimed at helping to boost her confidence, so she in turn can raise her children's expectations.

"I've learned that by giving them praise instead of harsh words and scolding, I can get them to feel they can do things if they just try and set their goals high,'' she says.

At the same time, "I want to hurry up and get my ç.å.ä. and get my college courses,'' adds Ms. Bitner, who has set her sights on becoming an electrician. "Before the program, I thought there was no way.''

The Pekin program, which was funded in August and fully launched by the local school district in January, is one of 240 Even Start projects nationwide. Federal spending for Even Start has more than quadrupled since its inception, rising from $14.5 million in 1989 to $70 million in 1992.

Now that appropriations for the program have topped $50 million, the law that established Even Start provides that the next cycle of grants will be awarded by states rather than by the federal government.

The shift from federal to state administration has raised concern among some grantees about whether states will maintain the consistency of Even Start's philosophy. In an era of tight budgets, some also wonder how they will find the funds to sustain their programs if their federal grants are not renewed.

Even the most well-established projects, meanwhile, have faced challenges enlisting participants and meeting a wide range of family needs. Moreover, preliminary research suggests that some have had difficulty involving families fully in all of the program components--particularly adult basic education. (See related story, below.)

Still, early data assessing the skills of young children in the program appear promising. Experts think it holds promise as one strategy to help meet the first national education goal, set by President Bush and the governors, that by the year 2000 all children enter school ready to learn. Many also view it as a model approach to at-risk families.

"It can become a catalyst for change in the way we look at education,'' said Sharon Darling, the president of the National Center for Family Literacy in Louisville, Ky.

'Intergenerational' Effort

Passed as part of the 1988 reauthorization of Chapter 1, the federal remedial program for educationally disadvantaged students, Even Start is the largest effort to date in an increasingly popular genre of "intergenerational'' programs aimed at fostering the literacy and competence of children and their parents at the same time.

Interest in the family-literacy movement has burgeoned in recent years, amid estimates that one in five adults lack basic functional literacy.

The National Center on Family Literacy maintains contact with 300 such projects nationwide and estimates there may be as many as 3,000 programs with family-literacy components. Working with 25 other national groups, the center held the first national conference on family literacy last week in Chapel Hill, N.C., and plans to publish a book this summer offering recommendations from the gathering.

A precursor to Even Start was the federal Head Start program, which set out to brighten the educational outlook for disadvantaged young children through a comprehensive preschool program linked with social and health services and highlighting parental involvement.

But Even Start backers saw the potential to do more. The program helps parents build skills to "climb the ladder out of poverty'' while cultivating a value on literacy in the home, Ms. Darling noted.

Ms. Darling helped develop a model for a set of projects funded by the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust and based on Kentucky's Parent and Child Education program. The model is now used by many Even Start grantees.

"We know from the adult-literacy side that as [parents] start valuing education, they feel more capable of supporting the education of the child,'' Ms. Darling said.

Other efforts "have focused on the adult, the child, or maybe on the adult learning how to help the child,'' observed Mary Jean LeTendre, the director of compensatory-education programs for the U.S. Education Department. "But they were not really requiring that time be set aside for the family to work together.''

A Blend of Services

Representative Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, Even Start's chief Congressional backer, said the idea for the program emerged from a project he started some years ago as a school superintendent in Spring Grove, Pa.

"I didn't think anything was working very well by trying to deal with either adults in adult education or children [in remedial education],'' the Republican lawmaker recalled, noting that community surveys had revealed a pattern of dropouts among members of the same family.

Disadvantaged young children involved in a home-visit program he had launched appeared more ready for school, he explained, and "for the first time parents felt a part of the community and had confidence to get involved in schools.''

Recognizing that the existing fragmented system of serving families could result in uneven programming, Mr. Goodling has underscored the need to ensure that programs incorporate a blend of services for children and adults.

Mr. Goodling said he frequently admonishes grantees that if he finds adult-education, early-childhood, or Chapter 1 officials "trying to take the ball and run with it by themselves, I would work just as hard to defund the program as I did to fund it.''

Because Even Start activities can be funded through multiple sources and complement preschool, adult-education, welfare, vocational, and job-training efforts, said Ms. Darling, the program could serve as a model to marshall collaboration and redirect existing resources.

"Let Even Start be a demonstration to say this works better than what we currently are spending our money on,'' she suggested.

The approach "has exciting implications for the way we do business in Chapter 1 in general,'' said Ms. LeTendre. "We haven't placed as much emphasis on the parent as we should.''

'A Better Mood'

The four-year Even Start grants provide "seed money'' for ongoing projects, with the federal share falling from 90 percent the first year to 60 percent the fourth year.

The Pekin program, which is funded at about $290,000, currently serves about 30 families with children up to age 7. Most of the parents receive some form of public aid, none have completed high school, about three-quarters are single mothers, and nearly three-quarters first became pregnant as teenagers.

The population of Pekin, a largely working-class community outside Peoria, is about 32,000. The city has one of the highest teenage-pregnancy rates in the state, and unemployment has swelled as a result of an extended labor dispute at Caterpillar Inc., the heavy-equipment manufacturer that is the area's largest employer.

Even Start families, who must live in areas targeted for Chapter 1 services, are referred by such sources as schools, churches, the state department of children and family services, and local administrators of a federal nutrition program for women and children. Referrals also come from the Tazewell County health department, which visits the home of newborns considered at risk, and from a developmental-screening program conducted by the school district.

The program is open to biological or foster parents or legal guardians who have not completed high school or a G.E.D. or who do not read, write, or speak English fluently.

Some parents carry with them painful legacies of child abuse from their own past, and some enter the program at crisis points, such as leaving an abusive partner or becoming homeless, notes Marti A. Woelfle, the coordinator of Pekin's program.

It is plain when some participants arrive, Ms. Woelfle observes, that they have not been eating regular meals.

Those with the most severe problems often need the most coaxing and have to be physically escorted by relatives and friends, she notes. But those initially reluctant participants frequently end up going to great lengths to attend and rarely miss a day.

"It gives them a support system in the community'' and adds structure to their lives, Ms. Woelfle explains.

Ms. Bitner says that before she entered the program, "I would have been staying up all night and sleeping until noon.'' Her son, she adds, was often irritable.

"With this schedule it seems like he's in a better mood,'' she notes.

Rock, Cuddle, and Read

Participants visit the center three times a week for about three hours, either in the morning or afternoon. Parents, children, and staff eat breakfast or lunch and settle in together--all the while "modeling'' good table manners and airing pressing concerns--before dividing into groups.

In between naps and diaper changes, infants are rocked, cuddled, and cooed to in a colorful room with cribs, strollers, and soft toys. Preschoolers play and explore areas set aside for sand and water, music and movement, and quiet time, based on a model recommended by the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation. Children of all ages are read to, encouraged to explore books, and get lots of verbal feedback to prod language development.

Most of the teachers have backgrounds in early-childhood education and are experienced in working with families. All of them have received training from the National Center for Family Literacy. Additional help is provided by child-care students in the vocational school that houses the center, who are graded on their work.

In the adult classroom, parents keep journals and do other writing assignments, often related to parenting. They work on self-paced or assigned study materials tailored to their academic goals, and get guidance on how to prepare a budget, interpret a lease, or apply for a job. They also discuss news articles and children's books, plan activities to do with their children, and talk through discipline and other family concerns.

"You plan topics for the day, but sometimes a parent brings the activity,'' notes Jeanne Tifft, one of the adult-education teachers.

In a recent session, for example, the discussion centers on consoling a mother who has recently abandoned a troubled marriage and is living with her children in cramped quarters with friends.

"Allow us to help you so you can help your kids,'' advises Ms. Tifft, who appears to have recognized signs of stress in the mother that could adversely affect the children.

Parents are encouraged to take home books to read on their own and with their children, and a portion of the day is set aside for parents and children to play, read, tell stories, and participate in "hands on'' art or other projects under the tutelage of center staff.

Parents are required from the start to set goals for themselves and their children. Projects they complete together at home or at the center are placed in portfolios that help chart their progress.

Tutors work individually with parents who need extra academic help. In addition, time is set aside for parents to volunteer at elementary schools and work with their school-age children and their teachers.

Collaboration Critical

To reinforce the center sessions, each family is visited every other week by one of the teachers, who reads with them, demonstrates educational activities, and offers parents feedback and advice.

Without embarrassing or belittling parents, teachers try to help parents maintain order while steering them away from abusive or inappropriate discipline methods, says Judy Patterson, an early-childhood teacher. They also stress ways to help spur learning without pushing children to read and write before they are ready, she says.

While she sees progress from visit to visit, Ms. Patterson observes, a traumatic event or shift in routine--such as a child spending the night at an absent parent's home--can dramatically change the tenor of the encounter.

"You wonder what happens when you're no longer with them,'' she says. "I wake up at night thinking about the families.''

Besides the center- and home-based activities, the program brings in experts to lead discussions; helps orient parents to libraries, parks, and other community resources; and sponsors family dinners and outings that are open to relatives and friends. Plans for a summer program are also under way.

A critical element, Ms. Woelfle points out, is the network of agencies that help refer families and offer continuing support. Those links, she says, have been instrumental in helping parents find emergency shelter, counseling, or other help.

The network includes some 50 organizations, including charitable agencies, schools, colleges, city and county services, courts, parks, churches, libraries, businesses, hospitals, and stores.

Educating Teachers

When Even Start was announced, Ms. Woelfle says, it was seen as the logical "next step'' in a process that began several years ago, when Jerry L. Parker, the superintendent of the Pekin schools, involved district educators and members of the community in the first of a series of strategic plans for the next five years.

"A major element of the plan was to help families support their children's education,'' notes Michele Maki, the director of special programs for the district. Officials also recognized, she adds, that a state preschool program for at-risk 4- and 5-year-olds did not accommodate the schedules or educational needs of many parents.

The plan gave Pekin an advantage in enlisting community support for Even Start, says Ms. Maki, who notes that in applying for the grant, the district garnered "letters of collaboration'' from some 25 agencies.

"I think we became the catalyst for a lot of these agencies that feel kind of isolated'' and saw a chance to share common concerns and pool resources, says Mr. Parker, who adds that a "dream'' of his is to extend that level of cooperation throughout the education system.

"With so many groups involved, communication is one of the biggest challenges,'' says Ms. Woelfle.

Weekly inservice sessions for Even Start staff members often revolve around learning about the work of other agencies, and the program also "educates teachers about how to deal with dysfunctional families,'' Mr. Parker notes.

Many of the parents say they have learned to be more patient, and they report progress in their children's verbal and social skills, concentration, and behavior. They also talk about the time they spend reading with their children and about gaining new ideas for activities and discipline.

"These are things I never thought of,'' says Ms. Bitner.

"I anticipate that because of their early involvement, these are going to be some of the best-involved parents,'' Mr. Parker concludes.

'The Long Walk'

A key challenge for the project, however, is to draw more parents.

Staff members try to contact families who have been referred within a week, and they make repeated efforts to extend the invitation, notes Ms. Woelfle. But even though more than 150 prospective candidates have already been identified, the program is not full.

Some potential participants lack telephones and are hard to reach, says Ms. Woelfle. For those with painful school memories, she adds, "taking the long walk to go through that door is a challenge.''

But the four-month-old program is expanding as word spreads, notes Ms. Woelfle, who is negotiating for more room at the technical school but foresees outgrowing that space as well. An elementary school would have been an ideal site to ease the transition to school, she observes, but all are filled.

Evening activities are held in elementary schools, however, and Even Start staff members take pains to familiarize school workers with the program and to consult with the teachers of Even Start children, Ms. Woelfle notes.

The program has not had much luck attracting fathers for daily activities, especially those with day jobs. But some attend family activities, and five have enrolled in evening adult-education classes, Ms. Woelfle points out.

Facing Funding Fears

Like other Even Start grantees, project leaders in Pekin have some reservations about the transition from federal to state administration.

"One concern is that the states may not be as fully cognizant of what the federal government was looking for in the program and may change the focus slightly,'' says Ms. Maki, the district's director of special programs.

"Whenever an established core of people are working with a program, there is a little bit of fear of getting caught up in change of philosophy,'' says Superintendent Parker.

Similar fears were raised by some participants at a recent meeting in Washington convened by the U.S. Education Department for second- and third-year Even Start grantees. Some also raised concern about the potential for awards becoming more politicized at the state level.

"I don't want the decisions regarding funding to be pulled into the political agenda,'' said Dana Berry, the director of a Union City, N.J., Even Start project run by the school district and the city's day-care program.

But project leaders--including those in Pekin--say they hope to keep their projects on track by building strong relationships with state administrators and keeping them informed about their programs. Despite generally good support from the federal government, others noted, the shift to the states may have long-term benefits because there have been lags in communication.

Of greater concern for many is how they will carry on if their grants are not renewed. While most say they are seeking other funding sources, some argue that it would be counterproductive to drop strong programs in order to add new ones.

"I would hope the federal government would see fit to allow programs that have shown rates of success to continue after the fourth year,'' says Janet Dolan, the director of Even Start for the Richmond, Va., schools. "It takes that long to really get moving.''

"It's unreasonable to expect that a local government will be able to add that kind of cost'' in today's climate, said Elaine J. Ruggieri, the director of compensatory education for the Warwick, R.I., schools.

Others, like Ms. Darling, say it is unrealistic to rely on long-term federal aid. They argue that grantees should push to incorporate Even Start into city and statewide family-literacy plans that tap existing welfare, jobs, child-care, and other funds.

Pekin's project leaders, for example, are exploring other literacy and adult-education grants and approaching organizations and corporations, Ms. Maki says.

Assessment Concerns

Recognizing that such support hinges on how well the program can track its effectiveness, Pekin's project leaders are anxious to begin compiling the data required as part of a national evaluation of the project being sponsored by the Education Department. They complain, however, that some of the details and guidance they need have been slow in coming.

Some of the tests the federal government asks grantees to administer are outdated and fail to measure children's full range of capacities, Ms. Woelfle contends. She notes that Pekin plans to supplement those tests with other tools, such as a profile of parents' opinions and childrearing practices recommended by the National Center for Family Literacy and an observation-based assessment from High/Scope.

But for those running the program, Ms. Woelfle suggests, the most powerful validation comes from unplanned moments when a parent, such as Ms. Bitner, sees a child take fledging steps toward literacy.

"So often in schools as a teacher you have opportunities where you say, 'I wish Mom could see this,' '' Ms. Woelfle says. "Now she can.''

Vol. 11, Issue 31, Pages 1, 20

Published in Print: April 22, 1992, as Even Start Teaches a Parent To Reach a Child
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