When Sarah Walzer was growing up her parents read to her every day until she was in middle school. Later, she came to recognize that as an "unfair advantage."
Research shows that by the age of 3, children living in poverty have heard 30 million fewer words than children from high-income families, she said, resulting in significant gaps in school performance. Walzer, CEO of The Parent-Child Home Program in Garden City, has made it her life's work to help correct the discrepancy by teaching parents to engage with their children in ways that foster learning. The program serves families in 12 states, including 280 on Long Island.
"It's really shameful in this country that there are children who start school never having held a book before, and it seems like something we should really, as a society, be able to change," she said.
Before coming to Long Island in 1997, Walzer worked on child and poverty issues at the national level at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
What do you teach parents?
How to stimulate the use of language in the home. Each week we bring a book or an educational toy, like puzzles and blocks [and model] how to sit and read a story with your child in a way that engages them and builds their language skills. That often means not spending so much time reading the words on the page, but talking about the pictures, asking the child questions about what they think is going to happen next . . . It's really about conversation and building vocabulary.
How do the skills translate later?
Playing a game is a way to model turn-taking . . . self-regulation for the child, working as a team on building a block tower, the ability to listen to and understand a story, the ability to have a conversation with someone.
How do you train professionals to train parents?
We do 16 hours of training before they set foot in anyone's home and two hours of group training every week [so they can] share experiences and brainstorm solutions.
How does your work prepare Long Island's future workforce?
For workforce development, the early years are the most critical so children are confident in school and move successfully into middle and high school.
You're also training parents to use tablets with their child?
At the end of the program, when the child is turning 4, we have a pilot program when we bring a tablet and demonstrate for parents how to use it -- not as a babysitter -- but how to sit together with their child and do a math game or an alphabet game, use it together as a learning tool or download and read e-books from the library.How can parents get their children into your program?
They can go to nwsdy.li/child and click on New York to see the listing for sites in the state. They can look for a site in a community near them.
How can companies help?
Think about the family that can't afford the list of school supplies the kindergarten teacher just sent home. Their child will walk into school the first day with none of those things. We love for companies to do supply drives and participate in stuffing backpacks, and come to a graduation at one of our sites and see how incredibly proud these families are at what is the first graduation in their child's life . . . setting this child on the road to what we hope will be many more graduations. And when those children walk across that stage and get their little blue cardboard graduation hat, and they put on their red backpack, you really can see them walking off to school, ready to be there.
NAME: Sarah Walzer, chief executive, Parent-Child Home Program Inc. in Garden City
WHAT IT DOES: Provides intensive home visiting to low-income families to help parents prepare their children for school success
EMPLOYEES: 11 full time ; 3 part time
LOCAL BUDGET: $1.9 million