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Getting Philadelphia children “ready to learn”

When philanthropists Otto and Phoebe Hass established the charitable William Penn Foundation in1945, their vision was simple: to improve the quality of life for Philadelphia by strengthening its dynamic and diverse communities.

It was a prescient vision, to the say the least.

A lot has changed in Philadelphia over the past 50 years. The city's demographics and ethnic landscape have evolved while its population has shrunk considerably—more than 500,000 people have left Philadelphia since the 1950s.

The result is an urban center that is one of most diverse in the country. And to Patricia Manz, assistant professor of school psychology with the College of Education, that urban environment provides rich opportunities to form research partnerships with families and educators.

Building trusting relationships with parents

This semester, Manz is beginning a three-year evaluation of an important—and rarely publicized—community program called the Philadelphia Parent-Child Home Program (PCHP). She'll be joined in the effort by school psychology doctoral students Ernesto Barnabas, who is the project coordinator, and Catherine Bracaliello, the project's research assistant.

A national program started in 1965, the PCHP is a unique offering in which paraprofessionals, recruited from local communities, visit the homes of families challenged by poverty, low levels of education, language barriers, or other difficult family circumstances.

During the visits, the paraprofessionals model reading, play and conversation activities for parents and children together. Essentially, the program teaches parents how to create a supportive home environment that fosters a desire to learn.

Manz' research and evaluation of the Philadelphia PCHP is being fully funded by The William Penn Foundation. The School District of Philadelphia and the National Center for the Parent-Child Home Project will collaborate on the effort as well.

“By establishing trusting relationships with the families, paraprofessionals help young children and their parents to work together, to create a strong bond during a very transformative time in their lives" Manz says.

Typically, the program provides intensive home visitation to families with children ranging from two to three years in age. Twice-weekly visits over the course of two years are not uncommon.

"The program is really committed to fostering a 'ready to learn' attitude, both on behalf of the parents and their children," Manz says. "For many of these families, there are a lot of cultural or economic challenges they must find ways to overcome. Research indicates that this program has been successful in doing just that by creating a stimulating and rich home environment."

Creating a lifelong passion for learning

The program's personal touch is its hallmark. Along with a high level of interaction between the families and their dedicated paraprofessional, all curriculum materials—books, toys, and learning materials—used during the visits become gifts to the families.

“Children spend more time out of school than in the classroom, so it’s critical that the home environment supports opportunities for learning,” says Sally A. White, dean of Lehigh’s College of Education. “Parents are not always equipped to provide their children with activities to promote reading, math and language development. This project helps.”

The Philadelphia PCHP is the largest program in the United States. Currently, the program has 151 sites spanning 12 states, serving more than 5,000 families a year. A majority of the families involved in the Philadelphia program are Latino, but African-American, white and Asian families are also included.

Manz' research will investigate the impact of the program and how well it promotes early learning and family involvement. Just as important, Manz and colleague Ageliki Nicolopoulou, associate professor of psychology, will also examine the impact of Latino family-child interactions and dialogue on young children's early language development.

"Latinos are the fastest-growing ethnicity in Philadelphia and are becoming a critical segment of the community," Manz says. "But they're usually concentrated in very urban, inner-city communities. If we give them the tools to succeed at such an early age, we can create a lifelong passion for learning."

But focusing on the children isn't the only objective.

"Parents have so much to gain, too," Manz adds. "So many of them go on to pursue a GED, or to improve their own language skills, or eventually become active in their children's schools.

"But here's the interesting thing: Up to half of the program's current paraprofessionals are former parent participants themselves," Manz says. "This program is often an entry point into the workforce—and a successful one at that. It allows them to share their own experiences and make a real impact in their communities."

--Thomas Yencho

Posted on Friday, November 03, 2006

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