, Salem, MA

April 12, 2014

Walsh: A return on investment for Salem schools

Brendan Walsh
The Salem News

---- — A recent piece in this newspaper, authored by Elizabeth McGovern (“Salem’s best-kept secret,” April 3), called attention to the current good work and great potential of the Salem Early Childhood Center. I could not agree with her more in regard to the ECC’s potential. I know from experience that, for many children in our community, this is not early enough. I also know from experience that we have in place in Salem an even earlier intervention program that is, as demonstrated in longitudinal studies, even more effective than preschool.

A little history might help. Before there was an Early Childhood Center, there was a publicly funded preschool in Salem. It was the Title 1 Pre-School, founded in 1987 in a break from what had been a rigid state rule that said that Title 1 funds could only be used from kindergarten up. (Title 1 was/is a federally funded program designed to help struggling children in schools affected by poverty to succeed in school.)

In the first year of the preschool’s existence, the teacher called the Title 1 director and asked him to come to the preschool. She pointed out a little boy whose language was extremely limited. She then explained that this 4-year-old boy did not know what a book was. It was not that he couldn’t read or didn’t know all the letters or didn’t connect the pictures with the text — he did not have the concept “book.” He did not know what a book was! He had never seen a book!

It happened that the Title 1 director had just become aware of a program then called the Verbal Interaction Project, which had been created by Phyllis Levenstein, a clinical psychologist on Long Island. She had discovered that many of the young mothers with whom she worked had some things in common, and so did their children.

The mothers’ commonality was primarily lack of education, usually complicated by poverty and single-parent status. The children’s commonality was failure to thrive in school. Dr. Levenstein noted the tight correlation and set out to do something about it.

The program that she created, now known as the Parent-Child Home Program, consists of home visitors who go to a home twice a week to work with a mother and a 2- or 3-year-old child. On the first visit, the home visitor demonstrates the use of a book or educational toy for the mother to observe. On the second visit, the mother uses the materials and gets feedback from the home visitor. All the while, the child is being exposed to the rich vocabulary of children’s literature and the variety of both commonplace and unusual words associated with the carefully selected toys. Participants in the program get to keep the books and toys at the end of the program. This is particularly helpful in the event that other siblings arrive.

Why is this stress on verbal interaction so important? Much research has shown conclusively that children of professional parents have twice the vocabulary as children of welfare parents on entering first grade, with children from “blue collar” homes somewhere in the middle. The gap generally widens over time. High-performing high school seniors have vocabularies about four times those of lower-performing classmates. High-performing third-grade students’ vocabularies are about equal to low-performing high school seniors.

The Parent-Child program changes this situation dramatically. In kindergarten screenings, Parent-Child grads do twice as well as preschoolers who did not have the program, including those with preschool experiences. Even more importantly and beyond test results, Parent-Child participants graduate from high school at an 84 percent rate, as compared to the 64 percent of low-income children and 83 percent for middle-class children.

In addition, multi-state studies have shown a statistically significant reduction in the need for special education services on the part of Parent-Child graduates as opposed to similar students lacking the program (14 percent Parent-Child vs. 39 percent others).

The great news about Parent-Child is also that it is relatively inexpensive. In Salem, the cost for one family to participate is currently about $2,500. This means that a one-time $2,500 expense currently reaps an ongoing $10,800 annual savings for each child not referred for Special Education services. Talk about a return on investment!

Program coordinator Joyce Parent currently has seven home visitors, two of whom are able to provide the program in Spanish. Three of the current home visitors are former program participants who bring an evangelical fervor to bringing what worked for them into the lives of people whose situation is just like their own was. Interested readers can visit the Parent-Child website,, to learn more.

Salem could probably double or triple the size of this “little engine that works” if we exercise the will to fund it. The drama currently affecting our city is over radical “cures” that may or may not pay off in the long run; “cures” that are test-score based to the virtual exclusion of all other factors that separate “education” from “training.” Perhaps, we need to devote more resources to preventive early childhood programs such as Parent-Child and expanded preschool opportunities that make many expensive “cures” unnecessary.

That would be the long view and, in my opinion, the wise view.

Brendan Walsh is a member of the Salem School Committee.