Board’s parent tutor program off to a bumpy start

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On a sunny morning in mid-October, Harriet Alexander, one of the School Board’s new parent tutor-mentors, rings the doorbell to a brick bungalow on South Woods. Waiting inside is Alexandra Williams, the 4-year-old granddaughter of a Mays Academy Local School Council member.

“Do you remember me?” Alexander asks the youngster after they settle in on the living room couch. “Did you miss me?”

The 4-year-old ponders this for a moment before answering. “Alex …” she says tepidly, picking up on the likeness between her own name and her new teacher’s surname. A quick run through a “Hello” song and the two are reacquainted. Alexander moves on with the rest of her 45-minute lesson, which today includes reading a story and making a paper mosaic. Extavion Green, Alexandra’s curious 3-year-old cousin, nudges into the lesson, too.

Despite modest appearances, such meetings serve three important goals. They bring a modicum of preschool education into the homes of children who missed the cutoff for limited space in state prekindergarten programs. Parents and caretakers see how they can help their children get a head start on school. And tutors such as Alexander, who is 31 and the mother of two, acquire jobs skills and a little income. The program pays $6 an hour for up to 12 hours per week.

“Our goal is to serve 10,000 children in three years,” Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas says in a brochure touting the new program, called Parents As Teachers First.

However, the program is off to a bumpy start. The first-year goal is to serve 1,500 children, but only 562 families had signed up by late November. The first-year goal for tutors is 500. Some 600 signed up for training, but only 421 have completed it. And a backlog of paperwork has bogged down the hiring process for them. Frustrated by slow or no paychecks, some have quit.

Meanwhile, one of two not-for-profit educational organizations hired to work with the school system has pulled out. After the first month, the Ounce of Prevention Fund, which operates the “Beethoven Project” in Robert Taylor Homes, bowed out of its $69,000 contract to develop training kits on home visits and on welfare-to-work.

“It didn’t work,” says Executive Director Harriet Meyers. “We decided early on that it made sense for Chicago Public Schools to hire [their own staffer] to help move the program along.”

With a grant from the Chicago Community Trust, the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development remains on board to do the program’s first-year assessment. Their review will look at tutor training and family participation, and will provide guidance for the future.

Many educators, parents and child development experts applaud Vallas and the School Reform Board for addressing the multiple goals of Parents As Teachers First. But some fear that addressing all of them in a single program may prove its undoing.

“Our basic problem is we don’t think [the program] is well designed,” says Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), which has a two-year, $70,000 grant from the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation to monitor early childhood education in Chicago public schools.

“The whole package is out of line with the qualifications of the people being asked to do it,” says Woestehoff. “They’re taking people who aren’t educators and putting them into positions that require education and social service backgrounds.”

She notes, for example, that tutors are required to report suspected child abuse. PURE also questions the training program, which provides for only a one-day makeup for tutors who missed one or more sessions last summer.

But the program’s planners say Parents As Teachers First is not a difficult program for tutors to learn and that abuse reporting is required by law of all public school employees who interact with children.

“We’re not expecting a high literacy level,” says Kimberly Muhammad-Earl, the special projects director who manages Parents As Teachers First. “[Parent tutors] are not teaching the child to read. They’re not even teaching them real skills. It’s a simple program. We’re spoon feeding them.”

Last summer, tutors attended seven training sessions to learn the goals and curriculum for Parents As Teachers First. The sessions were designed and led by the school’s early childhood staff, with the aid of the Illinois departments of children and family services and of public aid. Tutors were also required to observe preschool classes for four days, and workshops will be held throughout the year.

One community activist argues that the target population will feel more comfortable with visits from women who have the same background as they do rather than from professionals. “It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and throw stones,” says Coretta McFerren, director of the parent empowerment group WSCORP. “The critics need to shut up since they didn’t put up anything.”

In October, McFerren led a group of more than 60 parents to the School Reform Board meeting to protest a Chicago Tribune article that highlighted problems with the program. WSCORP has been involved in Parents As Teachers First in an advisory capacity since its inception, McFerren says.

One problem the tutors themselves have seen is that the program’s standardized curriculum sometimes results in a mismatch between lessons and a child’s developmental level.

Others familiar with the program say that it has spread the district’s early childhood field staff too thin; the staff, composed of family resource teachers, social workers and parent coordinators, train and supervise the tutors.

Muhammad-Earl says a more flexible curriculum is in the works, but she rejects criticism that early childhood field staff will be overworked by the extra duties. “There’s zilch credence to that,” she insists. In her view, the program calls for field monitors to make, at most, minor schedule adjustments.

Some of the program’s problems are beyond its control—unsafe neighborhoods, for example. Raymond Elementary in the Douglas community had to put family visits on hold when a gang war broke out. And some parents are afraid to allow strangers into their homes.

The School Board’s Early Childhood Task Force had called for a pilot of the program instead of a full roll-out, says member Georgeann Marsh, also a PURE staffer. A test run would have provided a base of information to determine whether the program should be continued, PURE argues.

Initially, school officials intended to expand the HIPPY program that already is operating in a number of schools—HIPPY, short for Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters, is run by outside non-profit agencies. But that proposal was deemed too expensive, according to Lula Ford, director of school leadership development.

The board has budgeted $1.5 million for the first year of its program at 90 schools. If it had gone with HIPPY, the cost would have been about $1 million to serve up to 900 children at 15 schools.

Under Parents As Teachers First, each parent tutor is to serve three families, making home visits three times a week. On Mondays, tutors attend 3-hour sessions led by field supervisors to review lesson plans.

At some schools, the numbers have been easily achieved.

For example, Schubert in Belmont-Cragin and Ninos Heroes Magnet in South Chicago have recruited at least three families for each of their tutors. Price Elementary in Kenwood, Calhoun Elementary in East Garfield Park and Coles Elementary in South Chicago have three to eight tutors each; each tutor has at least one family to work with.

Many of the parent tutors are longtime school volunteers or have children who attend the school they work out of.

“The parents are wonderful,” says Loretta Cragin, a preschool teacher and the program liaison at Schubert, which has seven bilingual tutors. After a month of home visits, many tutors are improvising, bringing supplies and books of their own choosing to lessons, she reports.

Eight tutors at Ninos Heroes are juggling a complement of 29 families, says Donald Norwood, parent program coordinator. “Tutors are still hanging in there, doing what they’re supposed to do,” he says. “It’s just like a baby. You have to learn how to walk.”

By late November, Harriet Alexander is still visiting Alexandra Williams several times a week. But neither she nor the four other Mays tutors has a reliable base of families to call on. Principal Fannie Gibson speculates some families—those who are involved with DCFS—are wary of home visits because of the tutors’ reporting requirement.

But Gibson remains hopeful. “When we lose [a family], we do get some others,” she says.

Though she has not gotten a paycheck since she completed training, Alexander sticks with the program because she enjoys working with the children.