Two-year-old Kar’Mon Coleman names the letters as his mother, Talia Coleman, points to each one. The toddler doesn’t miss a beat.
“What does that spell?” she asks.
“Hallelujah!” Kar’Mon exclaims.
When Kar’Mon reached about 1 1/2 years old, Talia and Kareem Coleman realized that their son recognized his written name. They mentioned it to Bianca Harris, a parent educator with the Parents as Teachers program (PAT) at the Elizabeth Upjohn Community Healing Center, in Kalamazoo. Upon learning that Kar’Mon identified his written name, Harris suggested that the Colemans create a word book for Kar’Mon, starting with simple words like “cat” and “bat.” Now Kar’Mon knows all the letters of the alphabet and reads a litany of words such as “juice,” “worship” and, of course, “hallelujah.”
PAT is a national program in which parent educators such as Harris visit the homes of parents and teach them ways to increase their child’s communication skills, intellectual development, socio-emotional growth and fine motor skills — in effect helping the parents become their child’s “best first teacher,” according to the Parents as Teachers National Center. The thinking behind PAT is that parents participating in the program become more knowledgeable in all of those developmental areas and can recognize their child’s developmental strengths and potential delays, ensuring that the child gets the best start in life. A hoped-for result of PAT is to raise a child’s school readiness and odds of future school success.
In Kalamazoo County, PAT parent educators visit with families of children from infancy to 3 years old. The families come from all walks of life, across the economic spectrum, and live in rural, suburban and urban settings.
When Harris first arrives at the Colemans’ home on this day, with her blue and black duffle bag full of tools – balls, color charts and other materials – Kar’Mon races over expectantly, peeking inside the bag and pulling out a ball. He’s eager to learn. So is his mom, who wants the best for her son. And Harris, extremely personable and knowledgeable in her area of expertise, is ready to get started, too.
Boots on the ground
Sally Reames — executive director of the Community Healing Centers (CHC), one of the community partners in the PAT program — refers to Harris and the other parent educators as its “boots on the ground.” Reames says that when Harris interviewed for the position, the program snatched her right up. But Harris almost missed the opportunity to wear those educational boots because she initially planned to don a stethoscope and white doctor’s coat instead.
“I kind of knew I wanted to do something in the teaching field,” she admits. “I tried to run from it because everyone in my family are teachers and professors. So when I was growing up, everyone said, ‘You’re going to be a teacher,’ and I said, ‘No, I’m not.’”
Harris attended Western Michigan University as a pre-med student, but becoming a doctor didn’t suit her. She switched her major to nursing, but that didn’t feel right, either. So, what did Harris do next?
“Honestly, I prayed on it,” she says, “because I’m a woman of faith, so I said, ‘God, lead me to what it is,’ and it just dropped into my spirit.’”
Harris changed her major — for the last time — to childhood and early development, with an emphasis in family studies. She enjoyed it from the start, she says, and now loves working with parents and with youngsters like Kar’Mon.
“I love building connections with the family, watching the child grow, and seeing that this program does help,” Harris says.
Harris visits the Coleman family once a month, as she does most of her clients. During this visit, she asks the family how things are going and if any new concerns have developed. They discuss the development of fine motor skills, such as the dexterity to display one, two, three and four fingers. Harris identifies ways to help advance Kar’Mon’s fine motor skills, such as coloring and drawing, which strengthen the muscles and promote coordination.
With her training, Harris recognizes where Kar’Mon falls in regard to fine motor skills and confidently assures Talia Coleman that he is right on track. Next, they all sit on the floor and roll a ball to each other, then stand and toss it back and forth, both underhanded and over their heads. Kar’Mon quickly follows suit.
Harris has been meeting with the Colemans since Kar’Mon was 2 months old, and the parents say they look forward to the visits. For families new to PAT, Harris first asks getting-to-know-you questions, including, “What would you like to gain from the program?” Each family presents different concerns and areas of interest, she says, requiring an understanding of a wide range of topics. Occasionally a question pops up that Harris might not be able to answer. She says she doesn’t shrink from admitting it and will then seek out the information.
“I try to keep an open, honest relationship with my clients,” Harris says.
Harris believes traits including openness, sincerity, flexibility and a sociable nature make for a successful parent educator. Another important quality is liking to smile, because it helps set clients at ease and let them know that she is there as a support, not a critic.
About the program
Reames emphasizes that PAT uses an evidence-based model. This is important, she says, because it means that the program is measured on its success rate.
“We measure where kids are when we go in developmentally and where they are as we move along,” Reames says. “We measure parent satisfaction with their experience and how many visits.”
According to the Parents as Teachers National Center, state governments, independent school districts, private foundations, universities and research organizations have conducted research on PAT, collecting outcome data from more than 16,000 children and parents. Published studies reveal that PAT achieves its goals and makes a real difference in the lives of children and their families, according to the center.
Reames also emphasizes that PAT has achieved fidelity, meaning that the model is taught the same way at every location across the country — with parent educators applying the same measures, language and approach at each home visit.
“The fidelity of the model says that the PAT staff is not there to tell the parent what they’re doing wrong,” she says. “But the staff is there to support the parent and enhance what they’re doing right” and to help the parent engage the child, Reames says.
In 2014, The Learning Network of Greater Kalamazoo received $300,000 in funding and wanted to focus on children age 3 and younger. The United Way of the Kalamazoo and Battle Creek Region contributed another $250,000 toward that cause, Reames explains. Five organizations — the CHC, Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency (KRESA), Comstock Community Learning Center, Advocacy Services for Kids (ASK) and Catholic Family Charities of Kalamazoo — joined forces to offer the PAT program and called their unique consortium Seeds for Success. ASK is currently unable to participate, but the YWCA of Kalamazoo has recently come on board as a full partner.
“Many of us knew each other’s agencies from before,” Reames says. “We already had commitment to the cause. Several of us in the field had been waiting for someone to say, ‘You guys are doing a great job of collaborating. Let’s give you some money and see what you can do with it.’ So we really were eager to try it.”
‘Building the airplane while flying it’
Reames laughs when asked what it took to get Seeds for Success off the ground. An immediate launch was required or the funding would have been lost, she says. It was like “building the airplane while flying it.”
“We had 30 days to hire and train,” she says. “And we did it. In 60 days, we were on the ground and taking referrals.”
During this short time, the collaborators realized there were many details to hammer out, such as deciding that one person should oversee the consortium’s finances. This issue, along with many others, Reames says, taught the group what it really meant to share a budget and develop standards of operating.
Despite this fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants liftoff, Seeds for Success reached 480 children in its first year. The program now has almost 20 parent educators, with five of them based at the CHC.
Seeds for Success partners meet each week to sort through referrals and match families with parent educators. These matches aren’t guided by a family’s home location, but by who is the most natural fit. Each parent educator possesses certain strengths, and each organization at which parent educators are based has special expertise. One parent educator speaks fluent Spanish and is trusted in the Hispanic community, so she’s a natural fit for Hispanic families, Reames says, and KRESA, for instance, might best understand developmental and physical issues for parents of babies born prematurely.
Seeds for Success has also swiftly expanded its outreach. Reames recalls meeting one day with Grace Lubwama, YWCA chief executive officer, and mentioning the PAT program. Lubwama immediately inquired, “Well, why aren’t you here?” Reames says the question stopped her in her tracks.
The YWCA provides safe shelter for women with children who suffer from domestic violence, and Reames wondered, ‘Yes, why wasn’t PAT there?’ That situation was soon remedied, and a parent educator is now based at the YWCA. The educator works with women and their children not only when they move into the facility, but also when they move out and into their own homes, Reames says.
After adding a parent educator at the YWCA, Seeds for Success evaluated where else PAT might be needed and decided the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission was a fit.
“The women and the kids were especially welcoming and eager,” Reames says of the Gospel Mission’s clientele. “Before I knew it, she (the parent educator) was taking a whole group of them to Reading in the Park. I think now somebody is there (Kalamazoo Gospel Mission) every week.”
People like Kath Paul, owner of Kalamazoo Stripping and Derusting, in Portage, help parent educators do their jobs better.
During an appearance on WWMT, Reames discussed PAT and its ongoing need for diapers. Seeds for Success clients falling in a low-income bracket often need assistance with diapers and baby wipes, which can’t be purchased with a Bridge card. With dry bottoms, youngsters are more comfortable and ready to learn, Reames explained.
Paul saw the telecast and called the station to leave a message for Reames:“Tell that woman that the Kalamazoo Strippers are going to do diapers.” Reames received the message in a handwritten note from the station, and Paul and her employees made good, donating an entire truckload of diapers.
“She was so straight, come at you. I really liked her style,” Reames says.
The PAT model places a strong emphasis on reading. By age 5, Reames says, a child should have been read 1,000 books. According to the PAT National Center, 75 percent of PAT parents say they regularly take their child to the library. They also are more likely to promote reading at home.
“Brain development is a lot more about the bond and the experience and the cognition that goes along with stimulation,” Reames says, “and that’s not happening in front of a television set.”
But some parents don’t have enough money to buy books. Reames tells a story of riding along on a home visit with a parent educator. The family’s apartment was extremely barren, lacking in furniture and other typical home furnishings. A small boy wearing diapers came to Reames and the educator dragging a little sack. Inside the sack he kept a book, which he proudly showed to Reames.
“It was his prized possession,” she explains. “That made a huge impression on me that this mattered. It wasn’t a matter of where he lived or what he had. It was a matter of the fact that he connected that this book was important, and it was his.”
The Kalamazoo Literacy Council, Friends of the Kalamazoo Public Library, church groups and other organizations and individuals have helped by donating new books. These donations allow the parent educators to provide books to children who might otherwise not have any.
During Seeds for Success’ second year, the funding from The Learning Network wasn’t available. That funding gap was filled by the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, which donated $220,000, and the United Way provided a second year of funding. The United Way is a strong supporter of the PAT program, Reames says, especially because Seeds for Success is a shared project.
Seeds for Success collaborators are currently working on securing funding for its third year. “There isn’t a guarantee, but our intention is that (funding) will be ongoing, and we’re behind the scenes working on that,” Reames says.
Once that funding is secured, the collaborating organizations, parent educators and parents enrolled in the program will likely breathe a sigh of relief, and they might even mirror little Kar’Mon with exclamations of “Hallelujah!”