Carroll County parents and parents-to-be will have a new source of support and guidance through a countywide initiative designed to help young children get ready to start school.
The program, called Parents as Teachers, seeks to promote school readiness and show parents how crucial a role they play in early childhood development.
Those early years represent a critical developmental period, and a child's learning before starting school lays a foundation for proper growth and educational success, according to research in the field.
"We the parents are the ones who are the priority teachers," said Jolene Sullivan, director of the Department of Citizen Services, during a presentation about the program last week. "We don't have instructions. We learn as we go along."
The internationally used Parents as Teachers program aims to equip parents with those instructions, and research-based strategies and training for working with their children and fostering their development. It caters to all families with children from birth to kindergarten age - and anyone expecting a child, said Susan Mitchell, the county's Judy Center Partnership coordinator.
The program has four components: home visits from parent educators; group meetings with other parents to create a network and share ideas and issues; links to community resources; and periodic visual, hearing and developmental screenings of the children to ensure they are progressing at an appropriate rate, Mitchell said.
About 80 families have enrolled in the program, she added.
"Every parent, no matter who you are, really has questions about what's going on with their child developmentally," Mitchell said. "If you get children early enough, you can work with them, and they're more apt to succeed."
The center is coordinating the efforts of several agencies that make up Carroll's school readiness committee - including Head Start, Families Learning Together and the Carroll Child Care Center, among others - to provide the services, which are funded through Carroll's local management board.
The board determined the need for such a program after noting how Carroll's kindergartners rated in terms of school readiness, said Mary Scholz, who manages the board.
The State Department of Education does an annual assessment of each school system's kindergartners to determine their readiness to start school.
The study looks at children's skills, behavior and knowledge in what are called the "seven curricular domains:" mathematical thinking; scientific thinking; social studies; social and personal; the arts; physical development and health; and literacy and language skills.
"Children entering school ready to learn is our area where we need the most improvement," Scholz said. "This one really stuck out as ... we've got to start doing something for our kids."
While 60 percent of incoming kindergartners in the 2006-2007 school year were fully prepared for school, about 40 percent needed support in all seven areas of learning to do kindergarten work, Scholz said. And although more than 60 percent of students from middle-income families were fully ready, only about 40 percent of their peers from lower-income backgrounds were, she said.
"That's a pretty big gap there," Scholz said. "We need to kind of close that gap."
"Entering school ready to learn" is one of eight indicators the governor's office lists to determine a child's well-being. The others: Babies Born Healthy; Healthy Children; Children Successful in Schools; Children Completing School; Children Safe in their Families and Communities; Stable & Economically Independent Families; and Communities Which Support Family Life.
Carroll ranked near the bottom of the state's 24 jurisdictions in the school-readiness category, compared with top rankings in the others, Scholz said.
With Parents as Teachers, the county hopes to respond to, and improve, those numbers.