ECFE expands and evolves

Parents chat about potty training, eating quirks, and sleep issues. Kids learn to take turns, get to play with a bunch of neat toys, sing songs, and do finger plays. That's (ECFE), right?

Yes and no. While it's still a great resource for new parents, today's (ECFE) looks very different than it did when it began in 1974 as a pilot program in six school districts - or even in 2002, when my husband and I took our toddler daughter to a class. In the face of daunting budget cuts, the teachers, managers, and parents who believe in this unique program have helped it to survive, change, and even thrive. While important pieces have had to be retooled or even eliminated (many districts have had to cut out or severely curtail hospital and home visits), today's ECFE is a dynamic program that's earned the respect of educators and the loyalty of families.

Nowhere is that loyalty more apparent than among parents enrolling their children in the Edina district's ECFE. Local publications have even featured stories about how some parents camp outside district offices overnight in order to register their children for favored classes and teachers.

Why is the program so popular? Laurie Denn, coordinator of the Edina Family Center, cites the longevity of and loyalty inspired by the teachers ("There are a couple of teachers parents would drop on a sword for," she says), the popular preschool program, and adds something quite telling about the program's philosophy: "We are designed to meet the needs of all kids. If we don't know how, we find out in a hurry."

Serving diverse populations

Debbykay Peterson of the Minnesota Department of Education, which oversees ECFE programs statewide, says that one of the most exciting things about ECFE is how individual districts tailor programming to fit the needs of their families. And nowhere is this truer than in Osseo.

The Osseo ECFE serves about 2,200 children and parents from the northwest suburbs of Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park, Corcoran, Dayton, Hassan, Maple Grove, Osseo, and Plymouth. Recognizing the needs of the district's increasingly diverse population, Osseo ECFE offers a Hmong-speaking open play program. "Typically, Hmong childcare providers come [with the children they care for]," says Gayle Southwell, Osseo's early childhood programming coordinator. The open play is staffed by a parenting educator who speaks Hmong.

The district also offers a Spanish-speaking open play program, and Southwell and staff were a bit surprised by some of the families who showed up. "We thought that the program would be for Spanish-speaking families," she explains. "We ended up with children who were adopted from Mexico; their parents want to keep their language [skills] going."

Osseo's program also honors different kinds of diversity. The district also runs a class specifically for families formed through adoption. "We use the typical ECFE model, except we discuss issues surrounding adoption," says Southwell.

In contrast, although the populations of the Bloomington and Richfield school districts are even more diverse than Osseo's, "We don't get much diversity [in the families attending ECFE]," says Kay Miller, the early childhood family center coordinator for the combined ECFE district. "The truth of the matter is, there's difficulty because of language barriers. All of our programming is in English," says Miller, who adds that the districts just don't have the funds to offer multilingual programming in ECFE, though they do offer it in school-readiness programs. Forty-three percent of Richfield families (and somewhat fewer in Bloomington) speak a primary language other than English. "We kind of 'triage' the families," Miller explains. "They tell us their circumstances, their needs, and we can usually direct them to something."

Partnerships help stretch scarce resources. In the northern metro, the Anoka school district ECFE partners with the county to offer to offer parents in court-ordered visitation the opportunity to bond with their kids in a comfortable, child-safe ECFE classroom, rather than the typical supervised-visitation environment of a downtown office building.

Anoka offers other innovative programming. Marilee Christenson-Adams, the district's ECFE coordinator, is proud of the classes designed for parents of multiples and for parents with developmental disabilities. "It was created for parents who need a class offered at a bit of a slower pace," she explains. Some of the parents are recruited through the district's home-visit program. Christenson-Adams notes, "These parents did not have great success in school, but they want to give their kids a great start - they want them to like learning."

Districts don't have to be large to be innovative. The tiny west central Minnesota school district of Fergus Falls partners with the United Way and uses an Otto Bremer Foundation grant to bring ECFE educators into family-based day cares once or twice a month. According to Beth Achter, the district's ECFE/School Readiness coordinator, "We don't use ECFE dollars, but our ECFE program's credibility in the community created this opportunity." In the in-home program, teachers follow a typical ECFE routine. "Whenever I've gone to observe [the teachers], there are kids lined up, waiting, little noses pressed up to the window. When I walk in the door, they say, 'She's not the Toy Lady!'"

Achter says that the program is successful because the teachers respect the work the daycare providers do. "We are in their homes to provide information, education, and support." The teachers are able to point out potential issues - a child who may have a speech or hearing problem - and the providers are able to ask about resources. Achter tells the story of a childcare provider who wanted to find county resources for a family who'd lost their health insurance.

One measure of the success of Fergus Falls' program is the way it is embraced by the providers. "We ask for a donation of $7 per visit," Achter says. "We turn no one away if they can't pay. But we have times when someone will pay twice as much. Or where a longtime provider participant will say, 'I really want to participate, but I'm giving up my spot so a new person can have it.'

"We have a wonderful community that's very supportive of children and families," she adds.

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