Yesica Gonzales was an inexperienced teenage mother watching her high school friends go off to college and work when representatives from a San Antonio-based family-services organization,, literally came knocking at her door.
Avance was launching a program for parents living in the Del Rio, Texas colonias—impoverished rural settlements built outside city limits that often lack access to such basic services as electricity, paved roads, and water.
Ms. Gonzales, now 23, did not hesitate to sign up for assistance that she was told would help her son, Alessandro Martinez, now 4, who was identified as having a speech delay. “Anything for my child, I wanted to do it,” she said.
The weekly services did help Alessandro—he is now thriving in a federally funded Head Start preschool program. And the nonprofit Avance, like many early-childhood organizations that work with low-income families nationally, also provided skills that helped Ms. Gonzales become a more effective and assertive parent, something she now hopes to pass along.
First hired as a custodian and a bus driver in the program’s office, she is now a home educator, working with other families. She has gone on to earn an associate degree from Southwest Texas Junior College, in Uvalde, and is working toward a bachelor’s degree in bilingual education from Sul Ross State University, which has a campus in Del Rio.
Her goal is to be the director of a social services program, working with families in a situations similar to hers.
“I was a very shy girl in school and high school and everything, and [the program] did help me to speak out,” Ms. Gonzales said. “It was helping me to be more outspoken, more involved in everything. I stopped being a little teen and just grew up.”
President Barack Obama’s proposal to assure high-quality early-education services to low- to moderate-income families, unveiled in his State of the Union address this year, have generally framed the discussion in investment terms, saying that a dollar spent in early education can provide returns of up to $7 once those young children grow up. (Feb. 27, 2013.)
But many preschool programs also have a specific focus on parent engagement and empowerment, and those involved in that work say such an element can be as important as providing services to children.
For example, Head Start programs, which provide services to children and pregnant women from low-income families, all have parent-policy councils that help with such matters as hiring and firing administrators, conducting a yearly fiscal self-evaluation, and making programmatic decisions.
The, which have been studied extensively for their effect on child participants, also have an emphasis on parent education. The program is financed through federal Title I money for disadvantaged children. Each center has a parent-resource teacher to connect families to high-school-completion programs and social services.
And in 2011, the U.S. Department of Education awarded a $15 million Investing in Innovation competitive grant to the Human Capital Research Collaborative, based at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, which plans to expand the Chicago model to other cities in the Midwest as well as in Chicago itself.
The president’s budget proposal would also devote $15 billion over 10 years to home-visiting programs, which have a strong parent education component.
Forming a Core
Supporters say such efforts are intended to create a core of involved and assertive parents to advocate for their children and to partner with educators.
Ann Herbruck is a trainer for the St. Louis-basedprogram, which explicitly teaches parents in programs that it runs nationwide that they are in the driver’s seat when it comes to their children’s health and well-being. Often, the parents the program works with have been told their parenting skills are lacking because they’re young, or poor, or do not have a strong educational background themselves, she said.
“Parents they don’t know how much they know,” said Ms. Herbruck, who trains both in her home state of Pennsylvania and nationally.
But once they learn about their own power, they often start to take steps to improve their lives, she said.
“I see this with some of the teen parents, who were able to not only learn how to parent their child, but were able, in addition, to take the steps to become the person they wanted to be,” she said. That might mean attending college or becoming the first person in their family to graduate from high school.
“They felt like, in order to take care of this child, ‘I need to do this for myself first,' " Ms. Herbruck said.
Aimee Alderman, the coordinator of the Parents as Teachers program in the 2,500-student Center school district in Kansas City, Mo., started out as young single mother receiving services from the organization. Her children, now in their 20s, were ages 3, 2, and 1 when she started getting monthly visits from a home educator.
The information she learned seems simple, but proved vital to her as a young mother, Ms. Alderman said. For example, she learned that her daughter, dropping food again and again from her high chair, was not being naughty. She was just learning, in a child’s way, a lesson about cause and effect.
“For every behavior we find frustrating, I learned that there is a developmental purpose,” Ms. Alderman said. “It gave me a fresher, calmer perspective.”
The parent-empowerment piece of her current work manifests itself in small but powerful ways, she said. A 15-year-old couple she worked with raised two daughters who are excelling in school. Other parents have formed social groups to share parenting experiences and advice.
Some parents, without a sense of self-worth, give up too easily on themselves and on their children, Ms. Alderman said.
“If we can address that sense of low self-esteem, create a sense that you can do it, you are worth it, and your child is worth it, then all of a sudden we’ve re-engaged that parent,” she said.
The Herzl Elementary Child-Parent Center on the west side of Chicago, one of 16 in the city, educates 100 3- and 4-year-olds in a half-day program. Like all the other child-parent centers in the city, it also has an extensive program for parents, including parenting, health and fitness, and job-skills classes. Each center has a kitchen, washer and dryer, and parents’ room to meet the needs of its community.
Latorie Sanders, whose 4-year-old son attends the center, participated in a workshop that helped her put together a résumé that has led to a job after a year spent looking. And “when me and my child go home from school, we do math flashcards, we do cooking together,” Ms. Sanders said.
Those sorts of changes in a family are counted as a success, said Kelsey Flaten, the head teacher at Herzl.
“We only have students for two and a half hours a day, and then they go home and they’re with their parents,” she said. “The more capacity we have to influence all these stakeholders, the greater the synthesis of our work.”
Coverage of parent-empowerment issues is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2013 edition of Education Week as Preschools Aim to Better Equip Low-Income Parents