For a child, the back room of Letticia Habbal’s house is an inviting place. An ABC border lines the walls. Crayon-colored ladybugs hang from the ceiling. Outside on the patio, a swing set sits on a cushioned, rubber mat.
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But this child-care provider is concerned with more than whether the youngsters she sees regularly are enjoying themselves. With the help of a new training program—delivered live by satellite or on videotape and called HeadsUp! Reading—Ms. Habbal is also learning how to make her family child-care center here a place where children can take their first steps toward literacy.
Child care is “not just a babysitting thing,” said Ms. Habbal, who has been watching children in her home for more than 20 years. “The children are going home verbalizing more now.”
HeadsUp! Reading is a training course designed for Head Start teachers and others who work in early-childhood education. But the program has an unusual twist: Because many people who work in that field can’t get away to attend a traditional college course, HeadsUp! Reading comes to them. Ms. Habbal and several other family child-care providers meet at her house on Thursday nights with a class facilitator to watch the program on videotape and engage in group discussions about the topics covered during the two-hour show.
“What’s exciting about it for me is the possibility of getting a consistent message out there,” said Sue Bredekamp, the director of research for the Washington-based Council for Professional Recognition, which designed the HeadsUp! Network along with the Alexandria, Va.-based National Head Start Association, and RISE Learning Solutions, a nonprofit organization in Cincinnati, that produces educational programs for adults who work with young children.
States Support Program
Four states—California, Nebraska, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—are now part of the network, which requires a fee of $590,000 for large states and $350,000 for small states to participate for two years. States that pay those fees can offer the course at dozens of sites, receive training and other help for the facilitators who lead the class sessions, and have material presented during the course that meets their state standards for teacher preparation.
Individual sites in 44 other states also offer the program. And three more states—Illinois, Missouri, and Texas—plan to join when the second year of the program starts up this coming fall.
“It’s just a matter of having a [satellite] dish and subscribing to our network,” said Libby Doggett, the project manager for HeadsUp! Reading.
With a format similar to that of a local news broadcast, the on-air personalities—mostly experts in early-childhood education—mix principles of early reading development with a little humor.
The experts featured on the program talk about topics such as how to choose books for young children and how to teach children to write. They also use videos of actual early-childhood programs to illustrate the message, and respond to questions from viewers.
While certain segments of the show are scripted, Ms. Bredekamp noted that the exchange between the experts is unrehearsed.
While many providers watch the program live on Wednesdays, others gather to watch taped shows or even watch it at home. Some take the course simply to gather new ideas; others participate to meet state professional-development requirements; and still others use the course to work toward a degree.
In fact, 73 colleges throughout the country are now using HeadsUp! Reading as part of their course requirements for an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in early-childhood education. Some colleges offer it on campus, while others send instructors into the community to lead classes.
The network, which is supported by money from a variety of private foundations, was launched in part to address the requirement, included in the 1998 reauthorization of the federal Head Start program, that preschool teachers have at least a two-year degree by 2003.
But the organizers of the course also want to reach the wide variety of people who work with young children in different settings. Ms. Doggett said that in Ohio, for example, four Head Start school bus drivers are taking the course to learn how to make bus rides a more educational experience for children.
Because early-childhood educators are also an ethnically diverse group, HeadsUp! Reading, and the materials that come with it, will be translated into Spanish in the fall. “The message in HeadsUp! is very strong that home language is important to consider,” said Lori Reid-Waizman, who leads the class at Ms. Habbal’s house in Culver City.
With the first year of the course now complete, students who have participated in the classes also have a few other suggestions for how the training program can better meet their needs. For example, the family child-care providers here—most of whom care for infants and toddlers as well as older children—would like more tips on applying the program’s teaching strategies to the youngest children.
Evaluations Under Way
Other recommendations were gathered as part of a preliminary research project conducted by Susan B. Neuman, the director of the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Ms. Neuman is now President Bush’s nominee to become the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.
If her nomination is approved by the Senate, Ms. Neuman will be part of a bigger effort by the Bush administration to make reading instruction a more prominent feature of Head Start.
About the HeadsUp! Reading program, meanwhile, Ms. Neuman said, “I think what they have done is extraordinarily dramatic in the first year.” Still, some providers, who participated in focus groups in Ohio and Pennsylvania, said the program included too much talk and not enough video presentations showing how teaching techniques can actually be used with children. Some said the activities for the students taking the course were not specific enough; others said the format of the classes did not allow enough time for the students to interact with one another.
A study in Michigan with greater controls, also conducted by the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement, found that the immediate gain in knowledge among the adult students was “encouraging, but not dramatic.”
But Ms. Neuman said the results could be different if the providers are revisited again in a year.
And, even though HeadsUp! Reading has not produced dramatic results, she said the training program is addressing a critical need. “They have made people aware of the importance of early literacy, and that is very significant,” Ms. Neuman said.
Ms. Bredekamp said she and others involved in HeadsUp! Reading know where improvements are needed and plan to make some changes in the next academic year. “We don’t feel like it needs major overhauling, but we want to tweak it a little,” she said.
Over the summer, James F. Christie, an early-childhood professor at Arizona State University in Tempe, who will review class sessions from the past year, will conduct a more thorough evaluation.
Keeping Their Attention
For many early-childhood educators, HeadsUp! Reading is a new kind of training experience.
“I was worried that they would lose interest after the first 30 minutes,” said Donald Lewis, a teacher at Canoga Park Children’s Center, a preschool facility within the Los Angeles Unified School District where teachers from the San Fernando Valley meet on Wednesday afternoons to watch the live broadcast. “But it’s interactive, and they can call in questions.”
Some people in the field, however, wonder whether taking the course in one setting might be better than in another.
Connections for Children—a child-care resource and referral agency in Santa Monica, Calif., that is making the training available to providers like those at Ms. Habbal’s home—has asked researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, to evaluate the variety of places where the program is being received.
“We wanted to know if this is the right kind of training for family child-care providers,” said Ms. Reid-Waizman, who is the early-literacy project coordinator at Connections for Children.
The four models in the study are a traditional classroom environment, providers like those who meet at Ms. Habbal’s house, an individual student who watches the class at home on video but still interacts with a facilitator, and a student who watches the program on video but doesn’t have any contact with a facilitator.
Researchers visited the providers earlier this year and are now revisiting them to see how they are using the information they have learned from HeadsUp! Reading.
A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2001 edition of Education Week as Child-Care Workers Tune In to Early-Childhood-Ed. Show