SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

June 14, 2013

Column: A winning combination

Joyce Parent
The Salem News

---- — The Parent-Child Home Program recently celebrated 25 years of service to parents and young children in Salem. The program is a win-win-win situation for the children and parents it serves and for the Salem Public Schools.

What is the PCHP?

PCHP is a program based on the undeniable evidence that children of poor and/or poorly educated parents generally have smaller vocabularies than better-off peers. Lack of vocabulary is a major drawback to school success. The Parent-Child Home Program sends people trained to demonstrate verbal interaction between parents and very young children through books and play into the homes of 2- and 3-year-olds. It seeks out parents whose socio-economic profile and/or the experiences of a child’s older siblings indicate that the child would be very likely to experience difficulty in school. Simply put, it seeks to give poor children something that otherwise would separate them from better-off peers in regard to schooling. It gives them words.

How did this program come to be?

Program founder Dr. Phyllis Levenstein was a clinical psychologist on Long Island, N.Y. She noticed similarities among many of her poor and less-educated clients: They did not speak to their children with anywhere near the frequency of middle-class peers. They almost never read to their children and seldom played with them. Almost all of their children struggled in school.

All of Dr. Levenstein’s findings are supported by later independent research. Consider that:

First-grade children from higher income groups know about twice as many words as lower-income children (Graves, Brunetti and Slater, 1982; Graves and Slater, 1987).

“Once established, differences in vocabulary knowledge are difficult to eliminate and as a result continue to manifest themselves as students move through school” (Coyne, Simmons and Kame’enui, 2004; Hart and Risley, 1995). As Blachowicz et al. (2006) contend:

“There is a gap in vocabulary knowledge between economically disadvantaged and economically advantaged children that begins in preschool and is an important correlate of poor school performance.” (p. 526)

Does the program work?

Data and observed developments over the years support the win-win-win description offered earlier:

CHILDREN: While test scores are useful, and program graduates do well on them, there are indicators some would consider more powerful. This advantage could be seen among children of low income entering kindergarten. Program graduates who then attended a preschool tested 10.2 months above chronological age. Similar students who attended preschool but not the Parent-Child Home Program were 4.2 months ahead.

One of the questions that should be asked about any intervention is whether it has a lasting effect. Independent research showed that 84 percent of the children who completed the PCHP program graduated from high school. That figure has significant meaning when looked at in comparison to non-participating peers and national averages; 54 percent of the non-participating peers of the children studied graduated high school. The national percentage of high school graduation for low-income children at the time of the study was 65 percent. The national percentage of middle-class children was 84 percent. Thus, it can be successfully stated that the program makes middle-class parents out of poor parents in regard to preparing their child for school.

On the local level, as part of my advanced degree studies at Salem State University, I compared test performance of children participating in the program with local and state scores and also compared referral histories on the local level.

I found that 77 percent of the children were still in the Salem public schools six years after having the program. In third grade, 95 percent of program grads were passing MCAS. This compares with figures for all students of 91 percent locally and 93 percent statewide. Similarly, grade four ELA testing showed 100 percent program passage as compared to 75 percent locally and 79 percent statewide. Fourth-grade math scores revealed 80 percent PCHP passage compared to 71 percent locally and 72 percent statewide. This is strong evidence of PCHP overcoming the largest recognized barrier to test performance.

SCHOOLS: Of great fiscal importance to the district were findings regarding referrals for special education services, the single most expensive services in the budget. Among Salem preschoolers screened in the year studied, only 14 percent of PCHP students were referred, as opposed to 27 percent of the general population. What does this mean? An example is found in an independent report, produced by the city of New York Office of the Comptroller. Savings, calculated over the course of a child’s education, were $210,000 per child. This was due to reduced need for special education services resulting from home visiting programs that demonstrate reductions in the number of children entering school with developmental delays and subsequent decreased need for school-age special education services. PCHP is precisely that kind of program producing those referral results.

It can thus be concluded that PCHP contributes mightily to a child’s chances to succeed in school throughout his/her career and graduate from high school. It can also be concluded that the meager annual cost of PCHP (approximately $2,800 per parent-child combination) saves enormous amounts of money in unneeded remedial/special education costs.

PARENTS: Another unseen plus of the PCHP is its effect on the parent participants. They gain confidence in themselves, lose their fears of school and continue to participate in their children’s schooling. In fact, of the current seven home visitors in the Salem program, five are former program parents. They bring to the program both the absolute knowledge that it works and a personal understanding of the situations faced by current parents. A shining example is Kelly Welsh, who entered the program as a young mother of four who had herself struggled in school despite her obvious native intelligence and who doubted her ability to help her child. Kelly has been a home visitor for 18 years and is pursuing a degree in early childhood education, something beyond the dreams of the young mother I met 20 years ago.

Much more data from national and regional studies can be found at the PCHP website www.parent-child.org.

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Joyce Parent, is co-coordinator for the Salem Parent-Child Home Program. This is one in a series of columns from the Community Advisory Board for the Salem schools.