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Rod Watson: On-the-job training for society’s most important task

It is the hardest – and most important – job in the world.

Yet there is no instruction manual and there are no minimum qualifications.

Instead, parents are left to figure it out for themselves when raising a child – a hit-and-miss approach whose shortcomings are all too apparent.

That is what makes the King Urban Life Center’s Parent-Child Home Program so invaluable.

The initiative – a national program that the King Center adopted in 2002 – sends trained "home visitors" for a half-hour twice a week during the school year for two years to help parents learn how best to help their kids. The visitors bring a book, educational toy or game and model for the parent how to use the tool to help the child progress.

"These books or toys become the center of an educational environmental in the home," said program coordinator Lisa Alexander. That’s critical because a lot of homes in Buffalo don’t have such teaching tools.

The materials also reflect the family’s culture so that the children can see themselves in the stories, Alexander said, which is particularly important because most in the program are families of color.

"She learned a lot," Yesenia Santiago said of her 4-year-old daughter, Yamilette, who dashed into the living room of the family’s West Side home to demonstrate her reading skills and then disappeared. Yamilette has already graduated from the program, and her mother said, "the teacher in pre-K at Frank Sedita (Academy) said she’s really advanced."

Santiago is hoping for the same kind of boost for her 2-year-old son, Jomar Perez, who has learned colors and shapes while working with home visitor Vanessa Birmingham.

The program currently serves about 40 families per year, but has reached as many as 60, depending on funding, which comes from such disparate entities as the United Way and the Community Foundation, to the City of Buffalo and even the Erie County District Attorney’s Office, which kicked in some asset forfeiture funds.

The target population is toddlers 2 to 3 years old because most brain growth occurs by that age, Alexander said. They are in families challenged by poverty, low educational levels or language barriers and one of the key goals is helping such kids overcome the "word gap." Experts say kids in low-income homes hear about 30 million fewer words by age 3 than kids in affluent homes, a deficit that can plague them for life. In an impoverished city like Buffalo, that word gap has dire economic consequences.

The home visitors help close that gap, modeling for the parents how to read to their children and engage them with educational toys so that they learn sight words, shapes, colors, numbers and other basics before ever entering school. The goal is for parents to eventually take the lead, though some may be hesitant at first.

"The parent is our true target," said Alexander.

It can be a delicate process. Home visitors have to build trust, model rather than lecture and make clear that they are not there to call social services or any other authority.

"We’re not there to preach or judge," said Alexander, herself a home visitor.

Families are sometimes referred to the program by teachers or other community programs, but most come via word of mouth – a testament to the program’s value.

The home visitors are often retired teachers or social workers, or parents who went through the program themselves. Birmingham, for instance, was a nurse for 23 years who also drove a school bus and taught with Head Start. She considers being a home visitor a way of "giving back" after her own five children all graduated from college.

The home visitors go through a 16-hour course plus weekly training. But their key attribute is having what Alexander calls "a good footing in the neighborhood" and a knack for "looking at the strengths in the home and building off of that."

The program is free to parents; the only requirement is that they are committed, which means turning off the TV during the half-hour visits and engaging with the child instead of doing household chores.

One indication of the program’s success is that a lot of parents – like Santiago – who went through it with one child return with other children, said home visitor Anna Rivera, an intern from Daemen College’s School of Social Work.

Another is data compiled by the program showing that participating children outscore their peers on kindergarten measures like the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test as well as on the state’s third- and fourth-grade English and math assessments and have higher high school graduation rates.

In addition to the King Center program on Genesee Street, there is one at Jericho Road Community Health Center in the Grant-Ferry area and some members are contemplating starting one at St. Joseph University Parish near the University at Buffalo South Campus.

Given the need in Buffalo, the more the better, because the evidence is clear: Kindergarten or even pre-K is way too late to put kids on the right educational path. We need to help parents learn to help their children way before then.

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