Early Childhood Initiative Helps Parents and Children with an Early Start to Education – Part 1
By Lyndsey Schley
Children growing up in poverty have a different set of challenges than their more affluent peers. One local housing authority believes their access to these children gives them a unique opportunity to help.
The Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority, or AMHA, provides housing subsidies to about 20,000 people in Summit County. They own and manage about 10,000 units themselves and provide Housing Choice Vouchers for the rest.
AMHA has many programs that are typical to housing authorities, such as job training, but their Early Childhood Initiative, or ECI, has gained national attention for their innovative approach to helping children within their system.
Richelle Wardell, Early Childhood Initiative manager at AMHA, said the group started a program focused on kids ages 0 to 5 years in 2007 because studies show this is a good investment. She said return for every $1 invested in these kids is between $8 to $17.
“We thought the best way to go is to catch people while they’re young,” she said, “All the research says if you start out on-track to be successful in kindergarten, everything just kind of snowballs and you’re more likely to be not on public assistance, graduate from high school, be employed, all these things down the road, if you invest in early childhood”
Wardell said the issues people in poverty face every day can make education fall to the wayside.
“If you’re concerned about where food’s coming from, you’re not necessarily as concerned about making sure your kid is doing their homework,” Wardell said. “There are so many things that people in poverty face that, from an outside perspective, may not seem like such a big deal. But they’re constantly in crisis mode, and they’re constantly figuring out how they’re going to get the next meal, or how they’re going to get Christmas Gifts for their kids, or where’s the formula coming from.”
To combat these issues, her group focuses on three programs: Parents as Teachers, Mom-ME Time and Family Outreach Events
Parents as Teachers: Getting Children on Track for Formal Education
AMHA’s first forays into early childhood education began in the precursors to Parents as Teachers.
In 2007, they received seed money from the H. Peter Burg Fund for a program through the United Way to visit homes and provide children with books.
However, they soon realized just giving some books or activities to a parent was not enough.
“We can be giving people books and we can be giving these moms activities to do with their children but if the mom is worried about keeping the lights on or feeding her child, or if the mom doesn’t have a crib for her child to sleep in, she’s not really going to be focusing on reading to her child and getting the child ready for kindergarten,” Wardell said.
Since 96 percent of the households in the ECI program have a female head, Wardell often refers to parents as “moms.” To help these parents, they started to provide more intensive home interventions. Instead of just giving the parent a book or activity, they started providing referrals to organizations that might be able to give them support – like donated furniture or food.
In 2010, ECI decided to adopt an evidence-based curriculum for their home visits called Parents as Teachers. She said the goal is to show the parents they are their child’s first and most important teachers. The program has served over 250,000 families in the U.S. and more internationally.
The program provides an activity a month to help children learn from prenatal to five years. Wardell said the activities are designed to be accessible to people of all incomes and use household objects.
“One activity they do to work on motor skills is they will take a magazine and put some shaving cream in places and get the mom to work with the child to wipe off the shaving cream in certain places just to work on motor skills,” she said. “Or they’ll take a can or a jar and some potato chips and work to put the chips in the jar, to work on those motor skills.”
She said the program provides flexibility so if a child is behind, they can start on easier activities, while advanced children can work on more complicated activities.
During these visits, they also periodically screen the children for various issues. The Ages and Stages Questionnaire screens for developmental issues. The same group provides a Social-Emotional questionnaire to screen for those skills. Lastly. All kids receive a health review, where their hearing, vision and general health status is determined. If they find any issues, they refer the parents to services that can help them, Wardell said.
Parents seem to respond very positively to the program, she said. Every year, they send out a survey. They get a high 20 to 30 percent return rate and positive results. Some parents even write notes on the back telling them how much they enjoy the program.
Wardell said a lot of this has to do with their home visitors. Each is assigned a different housing project and area, meaning the families see the same person every time. They also have a lower turnover than most home visiting services. Two have been there longer than Wardell’s five years. They hired two new visitors this year, one to expand the program and one to replace an employee who left to be a nurse.
“They really form a strong bond with the family,” Wardell said.
This year, the program has reached their goal of administering the program “to fidelity,” meaning they met all 17 of the program’s essential requirements.
“We learned at the Parents as Teachers conference last month, they said, I think it was Kansas, they had 66 programs doing Parents as Teachers in Kansas and only 16 were doing it to fidelity,” Wardell said. “So we’re really excited about that because we worked very hard to get to fidelity and to know it’s obviously not easy if only 16 of 66 in a whole state can do it. We’re pretty proud of that.”
This story will be continued next week.
For more information on AMHA go to: akronhousing.org/