Missouri budget cuts threaten Parents as Teachers program

Monday, February 15, 2010
Olivia Schuchart, 27 months old, lifts flaps as Maryiln Schlosser, a Parents as Teachers parent educator, reads her the book, "The Great Valentine's Day Surprise." In Missouri, the PAT program has taken a 28 percent cut in funding in the last 18 months. (Leonna Heuring ~ Standard Democrat)

SIKESTON, Mo. -- Parents as Teachers parent educator Maryiln Schlosser raised a plastic block and asked 27-month-old Olivia Schuchart if she would put it on top of the table.

Olivia, who was in her family's living room, took the block from Schlosser, ran into the kitchen and placed the block on the table. She ran back to Schlosser, who then asked Olivia to retrieve the block. The toddler thought for a second and then happily followed the instructions.

Schlosser, who works for the Sikeston School District, was conducting the "Ages and Stages Questionnaire" during a home visit with Olivia and her mother, Kristin Schuchart of Sikeston. The developmental screening tool is designed to use with families as a quick overview of their child's development.

Other tasks Schlosser asked Olivia to perform included drawing vertical and horizontal lines with a crayon; step up the stairs with her right foot and then her left; and using a fork when she eats.

"A lot of the things Miss Maryiln asks are things you don't really think about," said Olivia's mother, adding that's why she likes the program -- because it helps her to ensure her daughter is meeting developmental milestones.

Schuchart said she also enjoys the home visits every four to six weeks because Schlosser provides handouts of age-specific information and activity ideas to use with her daughter.

"I like how they give us projects and activities we can make with ingredients and items we have here," Schuchart said.

By age 6 months, a child's brain is developed 50 percent, and by 3 years, their brain is developed 80 percent, Schlosser said.

"There are so many windows of opportunity in children from ages birth to three years," Schlosser said. "We help parents to provide a nurturing and stimulating environment."

But the future of PAT in Missouri could be in jeopardy as cuts have been made to the state budget.

Last month Gov. Jay Nixon proposed a $4.1 million cut to PAT next fiscal year, and Feb. 3, he announced an additional $2 million cut from this year's budget as part of his additional withholdings of the state funds. In addition, $3.4 million in cuts were previously enacted by the state legislature for a 28 percent decrease in the last 18 months.

Cindy Griffin, Sikeston assistant superintendent for elementary/special services, said she wasn't surprised about the funding cuts, but she was surprised by the amount of the cuts.

"My reason for that is Parents as Teachers was founded in Missouri, and research and data have shown that it's beneficial [to the early development of children]," she said. "There's a push at the federal level to extend services to preschool-age children. These [state] cuts seem to be contradicting to the overall goal," Griffin said.

At one time, PAT -- now in its 25th year -- was a self-funded program, the administrator pointed out.

"We pick up 25 percent locally now," Griffin said.

Districts receive state funding based on quotas, which keep increasing, Griffin said. Because of the cuts, implementing the program will be difficult without having to increase the use of local dollars to fund it, she said.

"We try to look at every possible way we can keep this program going,"Griffin said.

Jenny Hobeck, principal of Sikeston Kindergarten Center and Early Childhood Center and PAT parent educator, said she worries about how funding cuts will affect preschool screenings that gauge children's development and assess their health.

"If we catch these delays at an earlier age, it makes such a bigger difference for them," she said. "You can correct it. For the early intervention, these screenings are wonderful."

Previous funding cuts have affected professional development training for parent educators, Hobeck said.

"Our school budget for the district overall is very limited to what we actually need, and that's it," Hobeck said.

Hobeck and Griffin said they're unsure how the latest cut for this year and proposed cut for next fiscal year will affect the local program.

"We do have a parent educator retiring this year, and we won't replace her next year," Hobeck said, adding that will take the number of educators down to three.

The Sikeston district isn't alone. PAT programs across the state are grappling with similar circumstances.

More than 156,000 Missouri children are currently served by PAT programs with access to personal visits, developmental screenings, referral services and other parent education services that help prepare children for school and encourage parents in their role as the child's first and best teacher.

"We really do want parents to recognize they are the first teacher in their children's lives," Schlosser said. "We want parents to realize how important their role is as a parent."

According to PAT National Center headquartered in St. Louis, studies show that PAT children have higher levels of school readiness and continue to outperform their peers in first through fourth grades.

"It's really sad," Hobeck said about the funding cuts. "Because it's a program that introduces families into the school district and gets them to buy into why education is important to a child."

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