News

A Head Start on Head Start


By MICHAEL WINERIP

A LITTLE HELP Maria Lopez, standing, a caseworker for the Parent-Child Home Program, guiding Darianne Ramos, 3, and her mother, Elsa, 27, through a play session. 

BRENTWOOD, N.Y.
IT appeared to be a single-family home, but like so many houses in this high-poverty area, this one had been split into several apartments. Maria Lopez, a caseworker for the Parent-Child Home Program, unlatched the backyard gate, crossed the patio and knocked at a double-glass door.
Elsa Ramos, 27, was quick to answer, and while she was plainly happy to see Ms. Lopez, even happier was her 3-year-old daughter, Darianne, who knew exactly what a visit from Ms. Lopez meant. “A new book,” Darianne whispered.
For the next half-hour, while Ms. Lopez looked on, the mother and daughter read “Moo, Moo, Peekaboo!” featuring farm animals that Darianne could view through flaps and windows, making them that much more exciting. “What’s a cow say?” Ms. Ramos asked.
“What goes quack?
“How many ducks?”
After reading the book twice, they cut out eight paper ducks Ms. Lopez had brought in her carry bag, and Darianne used a glue stick to paste them onto a blue-construction-paper sea.
And then it was time for Ms. Lopez to go. The half-hour was up.
In all the world, the Ramoses own 42 books, which they keep on a shelf above the kitchen table. Each one was brought by the Parent-Child Home Program.
“My daughter learn so much,” said Ms. Ramos, whose first language is Spanish. “She learn everything. All night she tell me, ‘Mommy, we have to read the book.’ ”
And that pretty much is the entire Parent-Child Home Program — which is now operating in 150 poor communities in 13 states. The program aims to foster literacy and teach parents how to prepare their children for school. It may well become a national model as the effort to close the achievement gap focuses on how young children are being raised at home.
“The key to the program is its simplicity,” said Beatrice Gifford, the Brentwood coordinator. “Parents don’t have to do any homework to prepare, so it doesn’t intimidate or become an obligation. The visit’s short, and we come whenever it’s good for the mom — from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.”
Her staff makes two half-hour visits a week for the two years between the child’s second and fourth birthdays. One visit, the family gets a book, the next, an educational toy. When Ms. Gifford visited Jamie Connelly’s basement apartment recently, she brought “Corduroy Goes to the Doctor” for Jordan, 3, and Jayson, 2, and the next time she gave them a toy doctor’s kit.
“Most people don’t want someone coming into their home,” Ms. Gifford said. “But if you bring a book or toy, it’s a hook to get in.” While the home visitors are there, they gently model parenting skills that demonstrate how to educate through play. (“What color is the chicken?” “Let’s count the dogs.”)
The program is not new — it began in the mid-1960s, on Long Island, at the same time Head Start was created for 4- and 5-year-olds. But while Head Start has grown to serve 900,000 children with a $6.8 billion federal budget, the Parent-Child Home Program has had to stitch together funding from states, school districts and foundations. It now operates with a $15 million budget and serves 6,400 children 2 and 3 years old.
A growth spurt may be coming. Studies indicate that struggling families need more support, earlier, if the achievement gap between rich and poor, and between black, brown and white, is to be eliminated. According to a recent Educational Testing Service study, starting in kindergarten average scores for black and Hispanic children on reading and math assessments are 20 percent lower than for white children, and that gap persists through high school.

Another caseworker, Ana Larios, far left, doing the same for Keyli Galeas, 19, and her 3-year-old son, Christian.

The E.T.S. report points out that 2-year-olds from poor families are twice as likely to be in low-quality day care as middle- and upper-class children, and the Parent-Child Home Program is an attempt to improve the odds for those children. “There’s a growing understanding of brain development and the fact that children are significantly influenced in their homes long before they get to school,” said Sarah Walzer, the national director of the program, who is based in Garden City.

In the last decade, the program has been the subject of several favorable academic studies, has quadrupled the number of sites nationally and has won support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation is part of the Seattle-based Business Partnership for Early Learning, which in 2004 financed the Parent-Child Home Program to do a five-year test project in that city’s poor neighborhoods.

Results elsewhere have been promising. A study released last month by LaRue Allen, a New York University professor, found that 135 Long Island kindergarteners from low-income families who went through the program performed as well as their middle-class peers in tests measuring early literacy and classroom readiness. A 2002 South Carolina study in The Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology found that even though children who had gone through the program were among the poorest in the state, they scored above average for school readiness at the start of first grade. And a 1998 study, also in The Journal, reported that 123 children who went through the program in Pittsfield, Mass., in the late 1970s and early 1980s were far more likely to graduate from high school than a control group (84 percent versus 54 percent).

Only Massachusetts and Pennsylvania finance the program through their state budgets. In New York, it’s up to local school districts like Brentwood. There are 17 sites on Long Island, 6 in Westchester County and 5 in Rockland County, as well as 3 in New Jersey, but none in Connecticut. In tough times, the program is often the first cut by a school district. “In Central Islip the budget failed and they eliminated the program,” Ms. Gifford said. “Recently, they just took it back. Hempstead cut most of it out. Roosevelt, we’ve been there and lost it. Sometimes we get cut midyear.”

Ana Larios, a home visitor, went through a backyard to get to the basement apartment of Keyli Galeas, 19, a single mother. Ms. Larios brought a magnetized barnyard sticker set for Christian, Ms. Galeas’s 3-year-old son. For the first 15 minutes, the mother sat quietly, watching her son and the home visitor play. Then slowly, she began to join in. “What color is the horse?” said the mother, and when Christian answered, “Black,” she took over. “What’s the rooster say?” the mother asked. “What color is the duck?”

E-mail: parenting@nytimes.com

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