http://paloaltoonline.com/print/story/print/2013/01/04/preschool-closes-the-education-gap


Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 4, 2013

Preschool closes the education gap

Family Connections supports low-income families

by Lisa Kellman

Yadira Mederos de Cardenas arrived at the nonprofit Family Connections with her son, Issac, in 2006 looking for someplace to help with his early education. At the age of 2, Issac had been diagnosed with autism.

Family Connections, a bilingual preschool and parent-education program operating in Menlo Park, Redwood City and East Palo Alto, taught Mederos about autism and how to interact with Issac. The staff also referred her son to Golden Gate Regional Center, a state-run program for individuals with disabilities.

"Everyone here at Family Connections taught me how to work with him. He learned how to socialize with kids," Mederos said recently.

Mederos' younger daughter, now 4, also enrolled in Family Connections, where she learned to speak English and became interested in books.

"I can write a book about how Family Connections helped me and continues to help me," Mederos said.

Many studies have shown that a child's preschool experience can be formative for brain development and a good predictor of future success. But for low-income families, access to preschool is often unattainable.

Family Connections was founded to address the problem. The only tuition-free, parent-participation preschool for low-income families in California, Family Connections has served more than 1,000 children since its founding in 1993 and has 225 children enrolled this year, the most it has ever had, according to staff.

The Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund granted Family Connections $7,500 this year to support its math and science curriculum.

"We are a play-based preschool," Family Connections Executive Director Renee Zimmerman said. "However, we have found that there are lots of ways that you can bring to a play environment early literacy skills, early math and science skills, which have been shown to be a huge predictor of what children are able to do later on in school."

Zimmerman said the money is funding theme-based science kits and also supporting at-home learning programs such as "virtual Pre-K," which provides materials that parents can take home and use with their children.

"It allows the parents to really engage with their children and really learn with their child after they leave the classroom," she said.

Zimmerman said that these families continue to learn even after they graduate from the program. While there remains a large achievement gap between low-income children — and particularly English-language learners — and their peers, Family Connections is working to close it.

"Surveys show the children (who go) through the program are entering ahead of their peers that are English-language learners and low-income," Zimmerman said.

The preschool is as much for parents as it is for children. Each of the three Family Connections locations employs a teacher trained in both early-childhood development and adult education. At the preschools, parents are in charge of different stations for the day so that each parent serves as a teacher. For a portion of each morning, half of the parents attend a parenting class in which they can share experiences and ask questions. They also attend night classes once a month.

In the afternoon at the preschools, Family Connections partners with a private occupational-therapy group to run a speech, language and occupational-therapy program for children who have additional learning issues.

Research and surveys performed by the program show that almost all of the Family Connection parents stay involved in their children's education after leaving the preschool.

Through the program, parents also learn the importance of play to help a child's developing brain grow and learn, along with hands-on techniques such as positive parenting, positive discipline and how to best support their child as he/she nears kindergarten, according to the nonprofit. Parents also learn conflict-resolution skills, which they use with their children as well as in their own relationships.

Mederos now volunteers at the Family Connections preschool. With the nonprofit's support, she became a trained facilitator and leads a support group for parents of children with special needs and parents with maternal depression or other mental health issues.

The program also helped her complete several English-language classes. The Family Connections staff and teachers have encouraged her to go back to school, too. She plans on attending college so she can become either a teacher or a social worker.

"The person that I am now is thanks to Family Connections. I have dreams and I have many things to do," Mederos said.

The Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund is raising funds from the community to support local nonprofit organizations that serve children, families and adults. More information is available on page 26.

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