COLUMBIA — Missouri Sen. Kit Bond spoke to local leaders and early education providers Wednesday at Columbia’s second Early Childhood Summit, praising the importance of the Parents as Teachers program and emphasizing the long-term economic influence of early childhood education.
Bond and keynote speaker Tyler Nottberg, chief executive officer of U.S. Engineering, both proposed that business leaders take a more active role in early childhood education and become more involved in programs such as Parents as Teachers to ensure a strong workforce in the future.
Early childhood education can help everybody, leaders and participants agreed, because the years up to age 5, while the brain's architecture is being built, are critical for learning.
"Our goal is to make sure that every child arrives at kindergarten with the skills needed to have a successful experience at school," said Philip Peters Jr., chairman of the Boone County Coordinating Board for Early Childhood and executive director of First Chance for Children.
Parents as Teachers is designed to foster early child development from the prenatal stages until kindergarten, director Belinda Masters said. It brings child development specialists into homes to teach parents how to better interact with their children and prepare them for kindergarten.
Eduardo Crespi, executive director of Centro Latino, which helps families tap into area health, education and cultural resources, was enrolled in Parents as Teachers back when his 15-year-old daughter, Nicole, was younger. He said it showed him a different perspective on being a parent and recalled with pleasure a "Messy Night" event at which he and other parents got dirty playing in the mud with their children at a park.
As a director of Centro Latino and also a Latino immigrant, Crespi emphasized the “incredible benefits” that Parents as Teachers brought to his community. By hiring bilingual parent educators, the program became accessible to hundreds of Latino families, he said.
Crespi said that although Parents as Teachers is a "powerful and very successful program," he is concerned that the early childhood education system still encounters problems.
Parents as Teachers also tests children for developmental problems such as vision, hearing and learning disabilities. The program aims to prevent child abuse by helping parents better understand their children and bringing child care specialists into homes. Any family in Missouri with a child up to age 5 can use the Parents as Teacher service for free.
In Columbia, the Parents as Teachers program has grown substantially since its inception. According to its Web site, from 2007 to 2008 Parents as Teachers served 3,465 families with parent education services, compared with 230 families served from 1984 to 1985.
Nottberg, who has contributed to child development programs in the Kansas City area, agreed with Bond about the importance of business involvement in education, citing achievement gaps between the best and worst schools.
“Enlightened self-interest demands that business leaders get with the program because their communities and businesses depend on it,” Nottberg said.
Besides Boone County and Columbia officials and early childhood advocates, including new Columbia School Board member Christine King, the event attracted Kent Hayes, who was eager to learn about early childhood education programs for the purpose of teaching his granddaughter, Elizabeth. “She is in her early childhood,” Hayes said, flashing a picture of the 9-month-old Elizabeth on his cell phone.
Bond has long been an advocate of early childhood education. In 1984, with his influence, the Missouri General Assembly passed the Early Childhood Education Act creating the Parents as Teachers program. He called the act his “greatest accomplishment in my eight years in the governor’s office.” The program has since expanded nationally — all 50 states have a Parents as Teachers program — and to several other countries.
Earlier this year, Bond reintroduced the Education Begins at Home Act, which failed to go to committee in 2006. The bill would make $400 million available to states for programs like Parents as Teachers. Bond seemed more hopeful about the bill, citing the support of Democrats such as Hillary Clinton and Chris Dodd.
“I hope we can move it,” he said. “We have good bipartisan support.”