State programs in Midwest aim to get entire family involved in early-childhood education

In North Dakota, the parents of many soon-to-be kindergarten students in the state are getting some early education of their own — up to 16 weeks of programming on child development and the importance of school readiness.
In Minnesota, meanwhile, nearly 113,000 children and their families took part last school year in the state’s Early Childhood Family Education program, which offers everything from local parent-discussion groups and learning activities for children, to home visits and health and child-development screenings.
And this year, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn highlighted a new Birth-to-5 Initiative for his state, an early-childhood program that focuses in part on improving families’ access to community services and training opportunities.

These programs, and others like them across the Midwest, focus on the importance of early learning for the whole family — a goal that goes hand-in-hand with the current push among policymakers to ensure that more students are ready for school and don’t fall behind.
Debra Gebeke, who helps lead and coordinate North Dakota’s Gearing Up for Kindergarten program, says the idea “is to get parents at the forefront of their child’s education.” She works at the North Dakota State University Extension Service, which oversees the state-funded program that now has more than 60 sites around the state.
With Gearing Up, parents and children typically spend half of the time in the program doing activities together, and then the adults participate in a class led by a parent educator that covers topics such as social and emotional development, learning styles, early literacy and math, and brain development.
“It is most important to address social- emotional growth,” Gebeke says. “It is the basis for success in kindergarten.”
In addition to making parents better aware of their children’s needs and ability levels, she says, the program gets them prepared to work with K-12 schools and educators.
The North Dakota program is 5 years old and growing rapidly — the participation of 2,000 families in 2014 marked a nearly 70 percent increase over last year’s numbers. This year, Gearing Up will serve about 20 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds, Gebeke says, and there are still waiting lists of families wanting to participate.
Minnesota’s Early Childhood Family Education programbegan in 1984, making it the oldest such initiative in the nation.
The basic program, available to all families at low or no cost, is two hours per week and runs throughout the school year. As with North Dakota’s Gearing Up, children and parents spend half the class time together, and then parents work with a parent educator.
ECFE programs are designed by local advisory councils to match the needs of the community they serve. The programs are offered through local K-12 public schools and tribal communities, and serve the families of children until they enter kindergarten.
Minnesota statute requires that these state-funded programs have certain components: for example, parent education about children’s learning and emotional development; structured learning opportunities for young learners; information on local family resources; and a community outreach strategy that ensures diversity in program participation.
Stateline Midwest ~ March 20141.71 MB