Empowering Educational Success at Home

Empowering Educational Success at Home

This hospital program promotes kindergarten readiness for disadvantaged youth by training parents to become teachers in the home.

Studies have consistently underscored the influence early childhood education has on future health outcomes, and the earlier the better — data shows that children who demonstrate the skills necessary to succeed in kindergarten are more likely to earn better grades, have higher high school graduation rates, and demonstrate fewer behavioral problems.

Traditionally, not all children have the same opportunities to engage in these crucial preschool and early education programs. "We know that children of color tend not to test as well in kindergarten readiness assessments as their white peers," says Mary Kay Irwin, EdD, senior director of school health for Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. "We have to focus on affected neighborhoods to create an equitable experience for children to enter kindergarten ready to learn."

Nationwide Children's is working toward that goal through its Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids (SPARK) program, which has helped hundreds of children in under-resourced communities over the last decade prepare for kindergarten by empowering parents to take a more active role in their child's preschool education.

Of the children who participate in SPARK, 98% demonstrate kindergarten readiness by graduation, which is measured by Get Ready to Read scores.

How it works

Each month, a SPARK teacher — called a parent partner — visits the child's home with materials to teach math, reading, and writing. The visits focus on training parents how to use the tools and foster their child's learning.

"The strategy is to teach the caregiver to be that child's first and forever teacher," says Marcie Rehmar, director of community education.

A grant in 2023 enabled the program to grow in several ways:

  • Professional development teachers take Spanish classes to better communicate with Spanish-speaking families who do not want an interpreter, which is common.
  • Children have access to devices for developmental learning games to help improve in specific areas of struggle.
  • SPARK teachers receive professional consultation through Nationwide Children’s Behavioral Health Services, especially when they have children with autism and severe behavior problems.

During the pandemic, the SPARK team rewrote the curriculum for virtual adaptation, delivering learning materials to family homes and conducting training and tests virtually. Post-pandemic, most families choose to participate in person, but having a virtual option has given the team and families flexibility.

“It allows us to pivot during inclement weather, if a family is out of town, or if someone in the household is ill. That helps us avoid cancellations and rescheduling, making it easier for families to stay on track.” Rehmar says.

Keys to success

Staying consistent is essential to meeting developmental goals. "At every office visit with my families, we talk about what they can do at home with their kids in their free time together as a family to build their educational, social, and emotional skills in those critical early years," says Sara Bode, MD, the medical director of Nationwide Children's Hospital's Care Connection School-Based Health and Mobile Clinics. "When they are thinking about those at home, they become habits and help kids continue to build on their skills and get to the next developmental level."

Bode says it's important for health care providers to prioritize educational progress along with more traditional benchmarks of patient well-being. "Kindergarten readiness is critical,” Bode says. “If we keep you physically healthy but you get to school and you're not ready to learn, struggle academically, and don't graduate high school, what is your ultimate outcome? Pediatricians and health care systems need to focus our attention on education as equally as we do physical health."

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