Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Energizing Children's First Teachers

Scott Ebright, Ohio School Board Association Journal

A story about Canton City and Minerva Local (Stark) School Districts, Ohio

Story posted August 27, 2008

Spark Ohio Nwslttr 1 WEB.JPG

• 84% of participating parents are now at or above the national median in terms of engagement in academic stimulation
• SPARK kids do significantly better on the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment for Literacy (KRA-L) than non-SPARK kids

"Who doesn't want their students to come to school ready to learn?" asked Joni T. Close, senior program director at the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Canton. What parent, what principal, what superintendent and what school board member would disagree? But what influence do public schools have on their future students before they enter the schoolhouse door?

A lot, if you ask folks at the Canton City and Minerva Local (Stark) school districts.

The two northeast Ohio districts are participating in an innovative high-quality pre-kindergarten program funded by a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Sisters of Charity Foundation. Called the Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids (SPARK) Initiative, it will serve 500 urban and 500 rural students and their families by the time the grant ends in 2009.

"When we started SPARK," Close said, "it was a very simple model: connecting with families...[to get a family member] to serve as the child's learning advocate."

The program provides parent partners, who hold monthly in-home meetings with families. Parent partners give the families activities and books with lessons based on Ohio's Early Learning Content Standards and conduct developmental screenings on the 3- and 4-year olds. They also help families take advantage of what is available to them, such as Head Start, public preschool or subsidized childcare.

"You don't want to wait until their children are in middle school to involve families," Close said. "You want to capture them when they are babies; when they are not intimidated by what you are doing.

 "Everything we do is geared toward helping families support their child's readiness for school," Close said. "We can't get involved in every issue families face, but if there are domestic violence, joblessness or poverty issues, we will link them with social services."

Spark Ohio Nwslttr 4 FINAL.JPG"We really focus our attention on what can we do with this family that would support this child's readiness for school...If the child needs speech therapy, we get them speech therapy. If they need to be linked to school services because their delays are that significant, then we link them to school services."

 Since SPARK's inception, two components have been added. The first is "Let's Talk," a program that meets for 30 minutes one night each week for seven weeks and brings parents and children into the kindergarten classroom in April and May.

 "The students complete activities while the parents gather in a separate group to share ideas, listen to speakers and receive suggestions of things to do with their child," Deborah D. White, Minerva's director of special services, said. "We then send home kits with activities to help parents teach their children oral language skills. The kits have a book, puppet, game, CD or DVD and explanations on how to elicit oral language from children."

Teachers encourage the parents to transfer the take-home lessons to day-to-day life. "We ask parents, 'If you can do this with the video, can you do this with a TV show as well?'" White said. "'What can you do while driving in a car (to improve language skills)?' We have ideas for parents and they share their own ideas with each other."

In August, SPARK offers another new component, "Get Ready for Kindergarten." Without the older students in the building, the almost-kindergartners can go into their school, meet the staff and begin a social-emotional development program that is based on content standards. Children attend for a total of 12 hours over six days, in the weeks before school starts.

Spark Ohio Pict OSBA FINAL.JPGWhite said that one side benefit is that this has reduced "criers" - both children and parents - at the beginning of the year.

Another effort to improve the move from pre-K to kindergarten is to bring those teachers together. Kindergarten teachers share their expectations with pre-K teachers, and vice versa. This has shaped curriculum issues to make a child's transition seamless. Stark County schools also developed a form that helps smooth the transition from preschool to public school. For every student, preschool teachers note information that will be important for the kindergarten teacher to know when planning student instruction.

Everything the SPARK program does is built around Ohio's pre-K standards. "Pre-K standards are somewhat intimidating to a parent, no matter what their literacy skills are," Close said. "We give families the standards in bite-sized pieces. Instead of saying 'There is a pre-K standard that says every child knows this, this and this, and rhyming books help that,' we give them a rhyming book with easy activity ideas. The activity makes use of things around the house that they can use to learn rhyming."

"We start with children, age 3. Every child gets a book and an activity each month. Everything is put together by early childhood experts, people who understand what are appropriate materials and activities for children that any family member can do, regardless of the parents' educational ability...even parents who can't read can still work with their children, using picture books."

Another novel approach to help parents work with their preschoolers is a series of pre-K backpacks that they can check out of the public library. Each SPARK backpack contains one themed activity, which could be puppets, puzzles, manipulatives or other materials, and a related book created around a standard, with the standard explained.

Spark Ohio Pict Backpacks FINAL.JPGThe Stark County District Library has about 180 pre-K backpacks in its main library and five branches. "These are so popular; we can't keep them in the libraries," said Close.

Dr. Peter Leahy of the University of Akron is studying SPARK's effects not only on SPARK and non-SPARK students, but also on parents. Using three subtests of the Home Observation Measurement to the Environment, he found that parents in the program are becoming more engaged in their children's education. The percentage of parents moving from below the national norm to the national median or above was 84% in the academic stimulation portion of the study.

Anecdotal evidence backs this up: One first-grade teacher told Close, "...I know who the SPARK parents are, because they know what their child needs."

 The students also are showing improvement. Close said that when comparing SPARK kids to non-SPARK kids, SPARK kids significantly do better, statistically, on the KRA-L (Kindergarten Readiness Assessment for Literacy), a test that the Ohio Department of Education now requires of kindergarten children.

In addition, White said that she has noticed a fundamental shift in attitudes in Minerva. Parents are learning about the importance of high-quality early childhood experience, and the program's growth is not fueled by fancy brochures, but by word of mouth, including young parents and grandparents talking in grocery stores, churches and at family gatherings.

White said that one woman, who was uncomfortable leaving her home, enrolled her child in the program. Through the course of working with the SPARK parent partner in her home, the woman began to overcome some of her fear of leaving the house. She worked to get a driver's license and her first driving experience was to bring her child to a SPARK meeting at the school.

For additional information, please contact:
Joni Close
Senior Program Director, Sisters of Charity Foundation of Canton

Shana Worley
SPARK Program Coordinator, Sisters of Charity Foundation of Canton

Or visit http://www.sparkohio.org/


This story originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of the Ohio School Board Association Journal.

Adapted for posting here with the assistance of Scott Ebright (editor, OSBA Journal) and Joni Close (Sisters of Charity Foundation of Canton).

For the full story as it appeared in the Ohio School Board Association Journal, click here.