Has Championed Early Childhood Program
Since Its Inception
By Bill Beggs Jr.
Twenty-five years ago, when Ronald Reagan was in the White House, the Missouri legislature passed a bill requiring Parents as Teachers (PAT) to be offered in every school district in the State. One of the main reasons for that was the efforts of U.S. Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond, R-Mo., who was at the time serving his second term as Governor.
Oh, what a difference a quarter-century can make. PAT has blossomed from four Missouri pilot sites in 1981 to more than 3,000 sites located in all 50 states, several U.S. territories and countries including Australia, China, Germany, Mexico and the United Kingdom. Parents as Teachers (which encompasses in-home visits with families, group meetings, developmental screenings and community referral services) is often folded into more comprehensive federal programs such as Head Start and the Bureau of Indian Education. Family literacy programs such as Even Start also use Parents as Teachers’ approach to fulfill their objectives. Today, Parents as Teachers programs can be found everywhere from faith-based institutions to correctional facilities. In Missouri, the Parents as Teachers programs still operate within individual school districts.
Bond will be the guest of honor at the program’s
25th-anniversary benefit gala Nov. 7, 6:30 to 10:30 p.m., in the Khorassan Ballroom at the Chase Park Park
Plaza. (Visit www.ParentsAsTeachers25.org for tickets or more information.)
Bond takes great pride in his role as a champion of the program. On his Senate website, near the top of his bio page, it reads: “Among his greatest accomplishments as Governor was to take the Parents as Teachers program statewide.”
And he has been a fierce national advocate of the program since his Senate career began in 1986, says Susan Stepleton, Ph.D., CEO of the National Center for Parents as Teachers. The center is located in St. Louis County.
“When he went to Washington, he took Parents as Teachers with him,” Stepleton says. “He has been very instrumental in its spread to other states. He has made sure that the program has been included in other legislation. He unabashedly says that targeted earmarks are very appropriate.”
The program also credits its success to a dedicated group of volunteers and donors, and has benefited from significant private grants along the way.
Parents as Teachers is a parent education and early childhood development program serving parents throughout pregnancy until their child enters kindergarten, usually age 5. Through its curriculum called “Born to Learn,” the goal is for children to start kindergarten ready and eager to learn. The program has served nearly three million kids since 1985; among them, two million have been screened for developmental delays and problems with speech and hearing.
PAT’s services are free to all parents of infants, toddlers and preschoolers. Research shows it fosters parents who are more involved in their children’s schools, request more conferences, and volunteer more in the classroom. More than a dozen independent studies since the program’s inception have verified the efficacy of the “Born to Learn” model. Studies show that Parents as Teachers children have higher levels of school readiness and continue to outperform their peers in 1st through 4th grades.
The program is split nearly 50-50 between rural and urban populations.
In a way, Joanne Busch represents both. She grew up in Warrenton, and is now raising her family in west St. Louis County. She could not have imagined the benefits she and her two girls—Alexandra, 4, and Madeline, 3—have enjoyed since parent educator Jane Lindberg started visiting when the oldest girl was only three months old. Today, the youngsters can’t wait to see what Lindberg has brought in her bag.
“There’s always a fun activity, things you can do around the house,” Busch says. “The things we do stimulate growth and push them to the next level.”
Busch, a self-proclaimed “paranoid parent,” wouldn’t have let her daughters near a pair of scissors until later, say 4. Lindberg, however, showed that the girls’ fine-motor skills had advanced to the point where they could handle cutting paper with supervision between 2 and 3 years of age.
Lindberg also showed her mettle when Busch’s mother passed away: “Now that I’ve lost my mom, she’s like another confidante.” She has the expertise and sensitivity to help toddlers deal with death, as well as nightmares. Madeline kept having a bad dream that featured a blue horse.
Busch avoided having to pay a physician for a hearing screening when the little girl kept asking her to turn up the car radio. Lindberg started the process by ringing a bell under a table to see where the toddler would turn her head, and a formal screening through Special School District confirmed that everything’s fine. Madeline just loves her music loud.
“She’s just a plethora of resources,” says Busch. “Jane will always suggest a book, an idea, an activity to coincide with what’s coming up. She had a book recommendation for when relatives were coming to visit.
“It’s a good bond to have, whether you’re college-educated or a teen mom.”
Nearly 14,000 parent educators work within the program, whether through school districts, Head Start or in other settings. Penny Britton has 15 years under her belt; two with Ritenour and the last 13 for Pattonville.
She points out that diversity has shifted in her district to include many new Americans; many of the non-Caucasian families are from India or Mexico. They may be from Bosnia, or Somalia.
“A lot of these families are here because they value education,” says Britton. But they may be so busy dealing with “front-line” necessities—food, shelter, transportation to and from school or work—that Parents as Teachers is hard to squeeze in. Also, the language barrier may make it hard for school districts to inform them. Still, they may avail themselves of the program once learning of it through word of mouth in their ethnic communities.
While the program succeeds on many levels, in education results are measured by three things: Data, data and data. Britton points out that elementary-school youngsters who are Parents as Teachers grads score 15 percent to 20 percent higher on standardized tests.
For Stepleton, the program is as essential to early childhood as good nutrition and a nurturing home environment… and can, in fact, address either if there are deficiencies.
“All young children need a pediatrician, and all young parents need a parent educator,” she emphasizes. “We’re an extra set of eyes and ears.”