Priming the Primary Educator
A Look at L.A. County's Parent Involvement Programs
By Nicole Ashby
This fall, visitors to the Del Amo Fashion Center in Southern California will find a new and unique mall attraction next to the food court and department store. Colorful floor stencils of numbers and letters will direct them to the "Early Advantage Center," a project by the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) and the Los Angeles County Education Foundation.
The center, which opens in November at the largest shopping mall on the West Coast, will serve as a one-stop shop for parents who want to learn what they can do to ensure their children's success in the primary school years. According to LACOE, the Early Advantage Center will be the first of its kind in the nation.
"What this office-its board and its superintendent-realized," says LACOE's acting superintendent Marilyn Gogolin, "is that if we really want to change student achievement, if we really want to stop playing catch-up or stop trying to change the life of a child after the child's already in school, we have to do something different."
The Early Advantage Center is the latest effort in a chain of initiatives by LACOE to prepare the parent as the child's first teacher and part of the county's strategic plan to improve school readiness for all children, particularly for those in the most need. The concept was born three years ago at local hospitals as an outreach program for expecting mothers and parents of newborns. But LACOE recognized that, in order to make significant change in a county of 1.7 million children, it had to go where the masses are.
"So we realized that the mall is a place of entertainment. It's a place to just go and look around when you can't afford to go to a skating rink or a $40 rock concert," adds Gogolin. Services through Early Advantage will be free to the public.
With negotiations under way for a second center, the Del Amo site will be a prototype for major malls throughout Los Angeles County, leading to greater community support for education, LACOE hopes. The Del Amo Fashion Center, a privately owned corporation, jumpstarted the project by donating 5,500 square feet of prime retail space.
"For the longest time, businesses that wanted to support education were left to maybe adopt a school or write a check," says Sophia Waugh, president of the Los Angeles County Board of Education. "But now we're talking about something much more sophisticated: businesses having real impact on a child's life at the very earliest stage."
Decorated with Sesame Street-like props and other visuals, the center will be organized into learning stations that will focus on activities for building children's skills, from cognitive abilities to physical development. For example, one section devoted to infants and toddlers will include a play area. There also will be two literacy rooms-one for pre-kindergartners, the other for children of all ages-which will contain books, audiotapes and an area for storytelling.
However, the Early Advantage Center will not be a drop-off facility. A sign reading "Every child must be accompanied by an adult" will be posted to remind visitors of the importance of parent involvement. A second component of the center focuses on training caregivers and parents, including grandparents who account for a large percentage of the child-rearing adults in L.A. County. There will be workshops and classes led by early childhood experts explaining, among other topics, the most recent findings on how a baby's brain is stimulated to learn.
"The more we share with parents about this type of research, the next time they do anything, let's say, go and grab themselves a bowl of cereal, the more they will start to ask themselves 'What am I teaching my baby?' just by pouring cereal in a bowl," says Early Advantage's coordinator Lisa Kaufman, whose research contributed to the development of the program.
In addition, through the project's Child Care Training Institute, childcare providers can take workshops on activities to help children learn, on health and safety issues, and on caring for special needs children.
Another feature of the center, which will operate on mall hours, organizes resources such as publications or contacts for families to learn about additional services, whether economic, social or health-related.
Trainer of Trainers
With the Early Advantage initiative, LACOE plans to bring under one roof several of its parent programs being offered at various sites throughout its 81 school districts. As the largest regional education agency in the country, LACOE is trying to build capacity at the local level by providing training to schools, which in turn train the parents, who then mobilize themselves to train more parents.
"To empower parents to be able to share key information with their own parent community is what this is all about," says Nancy Jenkins, a former school board member who translated her experiences as a mother of three into coordinating LACOE's Parent University. The program, which covers math and reading coaching, standards and assessments, and educational technology, has a Web site with more than 250 pages of instructional materials for parents and caregivers to use with children at home.
Another county effort for building home-school connections, the Parent Education Center, offers training to parents on topics ranging from college preparation to school safety. The center also trains school staff on how to communicate effectively with parents from diverse cultures.
Daniel Gil's extensive involvement in the education of his six children led to a position as coordinator of the Parent Education Center at Abraham Lincoln High School. As a Mexican immigrant who took adult classes at night while working full time, Gil can relate to the parents in his largely Hispanic neighborhood who work two or three jobs. He encourages them to stay involved both at home and at school in their children's education in spite of the workload. "I'm talking parent to parent, so they believe me," he says.
Los Angeles County serves one of the country's most diverse school systems, with some ethnic populations larger than those at the state level. Much of the parent training provided is translated into several languages, including Spanish, Korean, Chinese and Armenian.
Because the goal for each program is to develop the parent as a partner in their children's education, there is some overlap in topics covered, but each effort has a slightly different focus.
Five years ago LACOE adopted the initiative "Parent Expectations Support Achievement (PESA)," a parent version of the national long-running program for teachers. Instead of concentrating on student behavior to improve student achievement, the Teacher Expectations Support Achievement program looks at changing educators' attitudes towards children's academic potential to ensure all students are held to the same high standards. With a similar mission, PESA examines the interaction between parent and child to foster high expectations in the home.
Before her first PESA workshop, Daisy Ma says she thought she was doing a good job in spending time with her two daughters. Through the training she later learned that watching television is a passive activity that does not provide the same quality of interaction as, for instance, reading a book together or teaming up to do household chores.
"Being a parent is kind of a new job in our lives," says Ma, now a PESA parent facilitator and mentor for Chinese families. "Every year it's changing and we need to learn something new to be good parents." The Los Angeles County Office of Education is a member of the U.S. Department of Education's Partnership for Family Involvement in Education. For more information about LACOE's parent programs, visit www.lacoe.edu, or call Dee Nishimoto, director of the Division of Parent and Community Services, at 562-922-6381.
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Last updatedFebruary 4, 2003 (pjh)