Once a month, 2-year-old Ella Cleppe gets a visit from one of her favorite people. They sing songs, read books, play with toys and talk about their favorite things.
Ella’s friend is named Claudia Jensen. As a certified parent educator with Columbia Parents as Teachers, she’s been visiting Mike and Gretchen Cleppe since Ella was born.
When she visits, Jensen gets down on the Cleppes’ living room floor to play with Ella, introducing the couple to fun, age-appropriate activities they can play with their daughter to help her learn and grow. She conducts regular health and developmental screenings and lets the Cleppes know what to expect at every age level.
As teachers at Jefferson Junior High School, Gretchen and Mike Cleppe are happy to take a break from teaching and learn for a change.
“Ella gets really excited when Claudia visits,” Mike Cleppe says. “But it’s great for us as parents because it give us ideas, skills to work toward.”
Last year, Columbia’s parent educators visited 3,057 families in the school district. According to Parents as Teachers coordinator Belinda Masters, a parent survey conducted last summer showed 94 percent of those families found the support of their parent educator to be “very helpful.”
Parents as Teachers — for which Gov. Matt Blunt said he would recommend a $2 million funding increase for next year — offers parents like the Cleppes more than regular home visits and instruction.
The program has several components, including child health and developmental screenings, infant massage classes and outreach to teen parents in Columbia high schools, Masters says. In Columbia, Parents as Teachers hosts regular “big events” and group meetings for families and collaborates with several city departments and civic organizations.
The Parents as Teachers early education program is a Missouri original, one of the state’s most successful exports to other states and countries. It was piloted in four Missouri school districts in 1981 and since then has served more than half a million Missouri families and has been modeled in 44 states and several foreign countries, such as China.
On Jan. 9, Blunt, who participates in Parents as Teachers with his wife, Melanie, and 2-year-old son, Branch, , announced his recommendation for the $2 million increase in funding for the program. If the funding increase becomes law, Masters expects the state to designate the new dollars into expanded service for families. “Last year,” she says, “the $1 million increase meant we could give our 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds one additional visit per year, so I expect this year if we get an increase we will be able to reach more families or expand our number of home visits again.”
Columbia’s Parents as Teachers employs 40 certified parent educators, most of whom work part time. Two of them are fluent in Spanish and visit 80 Spanish-speaking families in the Columbia school district.
Parent educators go through extensive training in “Born to Learn” curriculum, participate in a mentoring program and make what Masters calls “quite a commitment, training-wise” before they are certified and ready to make home visits. After certification, parent educators must complete between 10 and 20 hours of continuing education each year.
Jensen is in her 12th year as a parent educator and makes about 15 hour-long home visits each week to families from pregnancy until kindergarten.
“As a parent educator, you get really close to these families,” Jensen says.
TEACHING THROUGH TOYS
Each time a parent educator visits a home, he or she brings a specific lesson plan based on the child’s age and needs, Masters says. The parents and the parent educator discuss the child’s development.
“The activity is designed to be appropriate for the child’s age, to stimulate development in a whole variety of ways,” Masters says. “It could deal with creativity, literacy, intellectual development, even motor skills. A lot of our activities use simple materials that most parents have. The materials don’t have to be expensive to be educational.”
When Jensen visited Ella this week, she used an ice tray, eye droppers and food coloring to make a colorful toy that captivated — and educated — Ella. Jensen asked Ella to pour water into the ice tray’s holes, to identify the colors of food coloring in the water and then to squeeze the colored water out of one hole and into another.
“This activity shows her sequencing, how to do things in a certain order and in a specific number of steps,” Jensen explained to the Cleppes.
“She loves this,” Gretchen Cleppe said. “We have all these things at home, and this is something she could just do for hours.”
BRIDGING THE GAP
Studies have shown Parents as Teachers programs can bridge the achievement gap between low-income and affluent students. “The Missouri School Readiness Studies of 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2002 showed that when low-income children are exposed to PAT and preschool, they enter kindergarten with readiness equal to that of affluent kids,” Masters says.
A common misconception is that Parents as Teachers is a program only for low-income families or only for high-income families, Masters says. “We’re for all families. Some think we only serve a certain type of family, but I visit 14-year-old teen mothers and I visit pediatricians.”
Of the 3,057 families served by Columbia Parents as Teachers last year, 37 percent were low-income, defined as families who qualify for social services like food stamps or Section 8 government-subsidized housing.
Columbia Parents as Teachers serves 65 percent of all eligible families in the Columbia district. That exceeds the state’s average outreach of 47 percent of all eligible families in school districts, a fact Masters says is possible because of support from the community and Columbia Public School District.
“It’s because of the support and resources given by our district and administration that we can offer more visits and also make them in the summer,” Masters says. “Child development doesn’t stop in May, so we’re glad we don’t have to stop making contact when school lets out.”
Columbia Parents as Teachers offers all families with children from birth to 3 years old eight contacts each year, even though the state only offers funding for five visits, Masters says.
She credits the Columbia district’s support and the creation of an Early Childhood Education Task Force as crucial in the success of Parents as Teachers. “(The task force) has been a great tool,” Masters says, “to present research-based information to the board that shows investing in early childhood education saves districts money later and helps children in the long-term.”