Children from some of the most impoverished areas of Tulare County are gaining literacy skills and becoming better prepared for school thanks to the Early Steps to School Success program funded by First 5 Tulare County.
The program is provided by Save the Child Federation, an international organization, and offered through public schools in Alpaugh, Farmersville, Poplar, Strathmore, Terra Bella and Tipton.
According to data in the most recent First 5 Annual Report, 80% of 3-year-olds in the program scored at or above the normal range for vocabulary acquisition.
On average, literacy improvement among the children in the program equates to an additional 3.4 months of schooling.
“School readiness is a focus for First 5 Tulare County, and literacy is a hugely important component of that readiness,” noted Janet Hogan, First 5 Tulare County’s executive director. “Many factors impact the ability to read, including physical development, motor skills and the ability to detect patterns visually.”
The push for school readiness begins at the beginning, in home visits with pregnant moms, explained SaRonn Mitchell, who oversees the local program for Save the Child Federation.
Most of the Tulare County families in the program are monolingual, low-income Spanish speakers, and participation is largely through word of mouth.
Staff members, who are employed by the individual school districts, teach the moms about child development and nutrition, and encourage participation in the parent-child groups to network and learn.
“We coordinate home visits to help parents because they truly are the first teachers,” Mitchell said. “We provide the tools and demonstrate what they can do at home to encourage healthy development in their children.”
The program next focuses on children from birth through age 3, and then from age 3 to 5. Staff helps the parents understand the importance of encouraging fine motor skills, language and social-emotional development, all of which are important to school success, Mitchell explained.
A key component of the program is a book bag exchange, in which parents receive a bag with books that they are encouraged to read to their child and then exchange with other parents. Books are offered in English and Spanish, and in both languages.
“We encourage parents to read to their children, so they develop a love of reading and a culture of literacy,” Mitchell explained.
“We help them talk to their child about what they see on the page, even if they themselves cannot read. They make up their own stories and talk with the child. Telling stories builds vocabulary.”
Each parent is tasked with tracking how much time they spend reading to their children, with a requirement of at least once a day. Sharing stories, singing and talking while cooking or doing laundry all contribute to building vocabulary.
Each child is tested using the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, so growth in vocabulary can be documented.
“Without this program, many of these families would receive no services from birth through age 3,” Mitchell noted. “Teachers are seeing the difference. Children in first grade who went through the program are reading at grade level and that had never happened before. We are making an impact and raising the bar on parents’ expectations for their children.
“It used to be that parents would be satisfied if their child completed eighth grade – that’s the level of their expectation – so their children didn’t complete high school. But we are changing that. I have invested my life in literacy development because I really believe it makes a difference.”
Throughout the program, staff members also evaluate each family’s level of risk in terms of resources and refer families for additional services.
“If the parents are worried about how to feed their children or they have substandard housing or there are mental health issues, the children are affected,” Mitchell said. “We provide resources and referrals to reduce risk, help them worry less and become more successful in life.”
For information about First 5 Tulare County, call 622-8650 or visit www.first5tc.org.