Parents as Teachers program celebrates 25th year in Missouri

Sunday, November 15, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST

KANSAS CITY — The news was spilling from journals on neuroscience.

Children were born to learn from the cradle. Their brains thirsted, and parents had to be their first and best teachers.

But parents weren't exactly reading scientific papers, so in the early 1980s Mildred Winter set off like a self-described missionary to take the message into the homes of Missouri parents.

Selling the notion that parents should allow educators into their homes to train them to teach their newborns and toddlers wasn't easy, said Winter, Missouri's first director of early childhood education.

It's easier now.

Nov. 7 marked the 25th anniversary of legislation in 1984 that forced all Missouri school districts to offer the experimental Parents as Teachers program to families living in their boundaries.

Not just to targeted families. Not just for low-income families. But any family in every district.

The universal mandate, inserted into the bill at the 11th hour, probably was intended to kill it, Winter and others said. Such scope, it seemed, would render the program unfundable and unmanageable.

But Parents as Teachers, with the backing of Gov. Kit Bond and Education Commissioner Arthur Mallory, forged ahead.

And it grew far beyond its Missouri roots.

It is international now, with more than 3,000 programs in all 50 states and six foreign countries, according to the Parents as Teachers National Center in St. Louis. Last year, state records showed, the program reached 43 percent of all families in Missouri with children ages 3 and younger.

The program still faces some challenges.

A school district using Parents as Teachers will spend $1,400 to $1,500 a year per family, according to program estimates.

Earlier this year, Missouri legislators, needing to cut state expenses, trimmed 10 percent from the $34 million budget for Parents as Teachers.

Some critics question whether such early childhood programs are worth the cost, especially when achievement gaps between races and socioeconomic classes persist as students move into high school.

The balance of research has supported the impact Parents as Teachers has on a child's readiness for school.

The Promising Practices Network, a project established by the Rand Corp., rates Parents as Teachers as "promising." It found that several studies generally have agreed that children in Parents as Teachers outscored their peers in measures of language skills, cognitive abilities, physical development and social development.

Evidence of the effects of early childhood programs diminishes through the upper elementary grades, but that doesn't mean the home visits aren't worth the costs, said Edward Zigler, the director emeritus of Yale University's Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy.

"You shouldn't oversell these programs," Zigler said. "We have to dovetail these programs together" with stronger elementary school education.

Zigler said Parents as Teachers works in part because it strives to reach out to all families.

"There's no stigma to being in the program," he said. "I'm supposed to be a world authority (on child development), but when we brought my son home from the hospital, I didn't know what to do. We all need this service."

Cathy Lee, a mother of three from Independence, agrees.

Her two sons, ages 2 and 4, ran to the window last week watching for Shannon Shelton. Shelton is one of 20 parent educators in the Independence School District who visit more than 100 families each . But Lee's sons only know that Shelton always brings something fun to do. Homemade toys. New games.

This time they made chef hats out of tissue paper, then worked together following a recipe to make trail mix. Lee joined in, and she and Shelton took turns holding Lee's 6-month-old daughter where the infant could watch.

So many lessons were at play, Shelton said. There was math in measuring the recipe and social interaction in the family teamwork. The recipes and an accompanying children's book connected reading to everyday activities. And everyone learned a bit about nutrition, too.

The teachers usually bring handouts. This time, Shelton brought advice about child temperaments.

The program also screens children, assessing physical and cognitive development. Lee said that when one of her sons had early speech problems, Shelton helped the family get assistance.

"The kids really enjoy it," Lee said. "I like the tips checking behavior and development and how to manage three at the same time."

Independence was one of four Missouri school districts in the early 1980s to participate in a pilot Parents as Teachers program with support from the St. Louis-based Danforth Foundation. The other districts were Farmington, Ferguson-Florissant and Francis Howell.

Advocates for the program then lobbied the legislature for state funding, which led to the statewide mandate. Meanwhile, consultant and researcher Burton White of the Harvard Preschool Project produced an analysis that said the pilot program helped prepare children for kindergarten.

In October 1985, The New York Times reported on the program's success.

"And that brought the world to our doorstep," Winter said.

In 1987, the state established the Parents as Teachers National Center to help provide training and support for far-flung school systems to import the program.

Missouri is still the only state that requires all its school districts to participate, and it is by far the largest user, serving about 150,000 families. Other states that are heavily involved include Kansas, Michigan and Illinois, which serve 12,000 to 20,000 families each.

The program has served 12 U.S. military installations and is expanding to 36, said Sue Stepleton, the director of the Parents as Teachers National Center.

Programs have started in Australia, Canada, China, Germany and the United Kingdom. New Zealand's program serves about 7,000 families.

Overall, the center reports, Parents as Teachers has served more than 3 million children since 1985.

Programs such as Parents as Teachers have helped lead the United States out of the days when many people didn't even think they needed to talk to their babies, Zigler said.

"Children are born preprogrammed to learn," he said. "They're born to learn the same way birds are born to fly."

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