Program to better parents' abilities turns 20

Sunday, March 21, 2004

At a time when the importance of early childhood education was just beginning to be recognized, Missouri established one of the first programs designed to improve parenting skills.

That program, dubbed Parents as Teachers, celebrates its 20th anniversary this month and also the possibility of a major expansion under a funding proposal made Tuesday by Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo.

Since forming in the early 1980s, the PAT programs in Jackson and Cape Girardeau have grown considerably. Jackson's PAT currently has 540 family enrolled, and Cape Girardeau has 270. The programs serve children from birth to age 5.

The overall aims of PAT are to educate and support early childhood parents through home visits, group meetings and screenings.

"The first three years are such an important learning time," said Deena Ring, who supervises the Cape Girardeau program. "You learn to talk, walk and move. Parents play such a pivotal role in the development of a child during that time."

Before becoming the program supervisor in Cape Girardeau this year, Ring worked with PAT in Perryville, Mo., and also participated in the program as a parent in the early 1990s.

Ring said when she first encountered the program, very little was known about the importance of early childhood education.

"No one worried about early intervention in the past until a child reached kindergarten, and by then they were 5 years old," Ring said. "I think the program has a much stronger knowledge base now, and respect for the jobs and services provided. When I started, it was a guessing game."

In 1999, the program's curriculum was overhauled to a more user-friendly version with a focus on research-based education and increased professional development for those working with parents.

Danna Lape has worked with the Jackson program as a parent educator for the past 10 years.

"Parents can get information out of books just about anywhere, but having someone coming into the home and really caring about the children makes a difference," Lape said.

The new curriculum, Lape said, emphasizes that a child's learning begins at birth.

"We start teaching children to read when they're big enough to look at a book," Lape said. "People are amazed at what we do."

Parents as Teachers is funded through the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and local school districts. On March 16, Sen. Bond proposed a $500 million federal funding plan to expand PAT, which he estimates would allow some 2.7 million families nationwide to receive services.

Over a three-year period, his plan would provide $400 million for states to expand access to programs; $50 million for local partnerships to expand programs in communities with limited-English proficiency; and $50 million to expand the program for military families both domestically and abroad.

Stephanie Ellinger, PAT coordinator in Cape Girardeau, said she feels the proposals would be a great boost for the program. Ellinger said her program hasn't grown the way officials had hoped in recent years, and currently has room for many more families.

"I think time is a factor. People are busy. But we work around their schedule, and make evening visits as well," said Ellinger, who is also one of four specially-trained PAT parent educators in the Cape Girardeau office.

Ellinger said people may think PAT is only for parents with problems, but that's not true.

"It's for everyone," she said. "We help parents be their child's best first teacher."

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