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School districts across the state have had to adjust their Parents as Teachers program after lawmakers reduced its state funding. Some districts have chosen to focus on families with developmentally delayed children, while others have started charging fees for home visits based on a sliding scale. KSMU's Missy Shelton examines how Parents as Teachers in the Springfield Public School District has adapted to the budget constraints.
Susan Uffman sits on the carpet in the living room where she’s playing with six-month-old Rowan. The silky reddish threads of Rowan’s hair catch the light as his father, Randy props him into a sitting position while Susan watches.
Susan says, “He’s really trying to sit, isn’t he? Has he been doing that for a while?”Randy (Rowan’s father) says, “Just since last week, actually.”
Susan is a parent educator with the Parents as Teachers program for Springfield Public School. On this day, she’s screening Rowan to determine whether his development is age appropriate. She tests his hearing by making noises on each side of his head to see if he will turn and look.
Sound of bell and rattle
She asks Rowan’s parents lots of questions about the kinds of things Rowan is able to do. When the screening is complete, she begins to explain the results.
Susan says, “You can see little boxes, so that’s the whole time span we’re looking at for different skills to come in. This line is the age line. He’s six month olds, so we’ve got a line there.”
After the assessment, Susan continues to talk to Rowan’s parents and address questions they have for her about how much he’s sleeping, whether he should be trying to stand, and his reluctance to stay on his tummy during play time. Susan explains that tummy time is critically important to Rowan’s long term development.
Susan says, “We need to remember to put him on the tummy to play because a lot of those developmental skills develop from having the pressure on the shoulders, on the chin, the neck to build that strength. You can see…look at that strong neck there. He’ll also begin to push. That helps with not only motor skills, which we think of, but will help with our swallowing, language and speech. We have to develop those muscles too, don’t we little Rowan?”
Besides answering questions, Susan Uffman also provides handouts to the Joanna and Randy Havis on age-appropriate activities for Rowan and their three year old daughter Keela. For Rowan, Susan tells them peek-a-boo is a game that helps with his cognitive development.
Susan says, “Besides just a game, it also teaches us object permanence. That means when I don’t see something, it still exists. We have to get to this age or a little bit older before we really make that connection. That’s why when you all would leave the room and he couldn’t see you, he’d totally lose it—because you were GONE. It’s not like, ‘I know they’re in the other room.’ Now, he’s getting older and sometimes, just by the sound of your voice, he can know mom and dad are still around whereas before, he couldn’t.”
It’s likely Susan will have at most two visits with this family this school year. This is one of the major changes for Parents as Teachers in Springfield after two years of cuts in state funding. Missy Riley is the Director of Early Childhood Education and Parents as Teachers for Springfield Public Schools.
Riley says, “We managed our cuts through attrition. We lost 8 or 9 positions through attrition. We did have some layoffs with our least experienced parent educators and we lost our screening team. So, our parent educators are absorbing most of those screenings now.”
While some school districts have opted to charge parents for visits using a sliding fee scale that’s based on family income, Springfield chose to keep the visits free for all families and offer fewer visits to families with children who are developmentally on target. Riley says she knows of at least one school district that only offers Parents as Teachers to children with developmental delays. She says that more focused approach may create problems down the line.
Riley says, “What they’re finding is that families don’t tend to identify themselves as high needs. So, without that initial visit, that well child check each year, they’re not finding the children who need the extra help. So, what in turn that’s going to mean is that those children are going to show up in kindergarten or first grade and won’t have been identified as someone who needs a little extra assistance before kindergarten and that burden is going to be placed on the kindergarten through 12th grade system.”
There is bi-partisan support for Parents as Teachers in Jefferson City, and lawmakers are looking at possibly restoring some of the revenue that was cut for the next fiscal year. Republican Representative Eric Burlison of Springfield serves on the Budget Committee. His two daughters are in the Parents as Teachers program. He says education ought to be a funding priority.
Burlison says, “We’ve been able to utilize an educator to come in and work with us. So, I’ve seen directly how effective they can be. Certain programs are our priorities. And with these difficult budget times, it causes one to pause and think about what is the role of the state and what should we really be focusing on.”
In the way of adjusting priorities, Democratic Representative Sara Lampe of Springfield, who also serves on the Budget Committee, says perhaps it’s time to think creatively about how state funds are used to educate students.
Lampe says, “I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to say we’re going to rob from higher education and place that in k-12. But I do believe that the k-12 discussion ought to come about in a way that says, ‘We would have greater success in k-12 if we worked with students at an earlier age.’ I not too much jokingly suggested that perhaps our more productive years would be 0-5 years with children, as opposed to the last two years in high school. So, what if we proposed that we would take our junior and senior years of high school and move the funding we presently have for that, swing it around and put it into preschool education.”Lampe has not proposed legislation to do that, and she suspects there would be opposition to such a move from a variety of sources. But she says her aim is to start a serious discussion about the importance of early childhood education and whether it ought to be better integrated into the public school experience. In the meantime, the Parents as Teachers program in school districts across the state will continue to look for the best ways to use state funding to serve the families in their communities.