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To Bridge Development Gap, Educators Are Reaching Children Before They Enter School

Parent educator Ana Abad speaks to Guillermina Galvan and her son Jersain about an activty they will do that day.

Most of the children enrolled in Texas’s public pre-k programs last year were considered economically disadvantaged. Just under half of them were English language learners. Children like this can be at the greatest risk when it comes to being ready for school. But for years now, Waco Independent School District’s “Parents as Teachers” program has reached out to these families before their children even start school.

Inside Guillermina Galvan’s East Waco home, the family fish tank gurgles while her 3-year-old son Jersain plays with a puzzle. 

Galvan sits next to her son, asking him in Spanish about the pieces. "Que color es este? Blue. Y este otro? Yellow. Y este?"

Typical scene for families with young children, but this one’s a bit different. There’s another person here with them whose goal is to teach Jersain and his mother. Her name is Ana Abad and she’s part of the Parents as Teachers program at Waco ISD. For the past year, she’s met with the Galvans every 2 weeks, bringing different activities geared towards developing Jersain’s cognitive and non-cognitive skills. She works with Jersain’s mom, introducing her to different teaching techniques.

Today’s activity: sliding objects down a ramp.

"[C]ognitive and noncognitive skills are least developed among those with the lowest socioeconomic status."

"This activity," Abad says in Spanish to Jersain's mom, "is going to help his cognitive development,, help his thinking, reasoning and also his memory."

Abad's goal is to get Jersain’s mom to keep doing these exercises, even when she’s not around.

"I say you can choose things that you have at he house, choose a phone, choose keys," Abad says. "Have him get them down the ramp and see what he does. Ask him ‘well how do you think it will go?’ Ask him those questions that are more to get him thinking, predicting what’s going to happen.” 

At the end of every visit, Abad leaves behind books in Spanish and English. For Guillermina Galvan she says all of this has helped her son. 

“I’ve seen him become more interested in school, in colors, in letters and numbers," Galvan says of her son.

By next fall Jersain will be entering J.H. Hines elementary school. The school serves a predominantly African American and Hispanic population. Nearly 40 percentof families in the area live below the federal poverty line. According to research by the Economic Policy Institute, “cognitive and noncognitive skills are least developed among those with the lowest socioeconomic status.” And for English language learners, that developmental disparity is even greater.

But reaching children at an early age can change that, says Mary Konrad. She’s Waco ISD’s early childhood coordinator.

“When we look at the data, which drives our decision making, when we pull just the data out of all of pre-k readiness, our scores are very strong for our children who have gone through the Parents as Teachers program," Konrad says.

Jersain watches as one of the objects Abad brought slides down a ramp.

When a child enters the Parents as Teachers program they’re screened for developmental needs. This determines the types of activities they’ll go over and allows instructors to focus on each child’s specific needs. Equally important, says instructor Ana Abad, is creating relationships with the families in the program.

“Building that relationship to where they understand we’re here to work as partners," Abad says. "I mean they know their children best. I always try to, be like you know, ‘you are here with them 24/7.’ I’m only here twice a month, so every day things that you do with him are helping him.’”

That’s how Guillermina Galvan understands all of this. Her son, Jersain, is always by her side. She says every minute is an opportunity to teach him and she’ll take it, because ensuring Jersain would be ready for school has been one of her biggest concerns.

"Yes, I was worried," Galvan says, translated from Spanish. "That’s why I was interested in the program so he can be ready when he enters pre-kinder, so he can be more aware of the things they’re going to teach him in pre-kinder."

Once Jersain enters elementary school next fall, he wont be eligible for the program. But Galvan is confident she and her family can continue with what they’ve learned, providing Jersain with an intellectually stimulating home life for years to come.