GOSHEN — Bernita Johnson, a parent educator, was direct with those assembled for her workshop Friday.
Parents are “the child’s first and most important teacher,” she said.
“By the time a kid gets to kindergarten,” she said, “they’re lost if the parent hasn’t worked with them.”
As a parent educator for the program Parents as Teachers through Community Coordinated Child Care, Johnson visits homes to help parents learn how to connect and engage their babies and young children.
Sometimes that means Johnson reads a book to a child, then has the mom or dad read the child a book, with Johnson giving tips on how to engage the child more with the story. She told about times she had to teach how to correctly hold the bottle for a newborn or talk with a mother about why she had to help her kids with their homework.
Johnson’s workshop was a part of a full morning of activities for local educators and agency leaders to learn about and discuss early childhood education at the second annual Success By 6 Summit at Goshen College.
Darren Bickel, vice president of community investment for the United Way of Elkhart County, explained at the start of the event that United Way intends the summit to be a time for different groups to come together and experience a “smorgasbord” of programs and learning about early childhood education. Along with several schools, the Goshen Chamber of Commerce, Boys & Girls Club, Child and Parent Services, Horizon Education Alliance and other local agencies participated.
The day opened with an address from journalist Dennis Ryerson, who was editor of The Indianapolis Star when the newspaper began its “Our Children Our City” series examining education.
He shared stories about what he learned and people he met or heard about through The Star’s projects, including a little boy who arrived at his first day of kindergarten not even knowing his first name. His mother had always just called him “buddy,” Ryerson said.
He spoke about his “little brother” in the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization, who he sometimes can’t contact because the boy’s family can’t always pay its bills, resulting in his mother’s cell phone being shut off or the power turned off at their home, causing the family to live out of someone else’s house.
“It’d be nice to think that the mother could spend all of her time reading to her kids, answering to her kids, coaching her kids, but she’s trying to survive,” Ryerson said.
“So many people think, well, we just point our fingers at parents and say ‘just eat your peas and be a good parent, we could solve these problems’,” he said. “People need to know that if you’re on welfare, then you’re just concerned with survival.”
After hearing Ryerson, the approximately 200 educators, community leaders and other attendees divided into small groups to go through each of the six workshops. The sessions included learning about Parents as Teachers, kindergarten readiness programs at some Elkhart Community Schools, the Early Childhood Alliance, WNIT and PNC Bank’s partnership to help teach young children basic financial concepts, and Chris Rodda’s Books to the Beat program that combines reading, music and movement. Two of the sessions included interacting with children from Goshen College’s Campus Center for Young Children as well.
After going through the sessions, the entire group assembled to set goals with others from their particular school or agency that they could work on the next year to help meet some of the challenges discussed during the day.
Some talked about wanting to develop literacy programs or had ideas to get parents more engaged with their children. Others had more specific ideas about providing books to parents and newborns at local hospitals and on those babies’ first few birthdays, or putting together videos about good child care to show in area doctors’ waiting rooms.
Last year’s conference inspired Michelle Atayde, parent resource coordinator at Mary Beck Elementary, and Diana Liptak, parent support coordinator at Mary Daly Elementary, to both start kindergarten readiness programs their schools, where they work with future students and their parents. This year, they together presented their stories during a workshop session.
Bickel said he hopes several agencies setting goals Friday will be able to tell their stories at next year’s summit about their progress.
The group also discussed the need for more child care facilities in Elkhart County. Bickel said that according to the Indiana Association of Child Care Resource and Referral, 56.8 percent of all Elkhart County families with young children need some form of child care. That comes out to be 10,962 children in need of some form of child care, Bickel said, while there are currently 88 providers in Elkhart County with a capacity of 4,031. The group raised $860, plus a $500 match from Old National Bank, for learning kits, including clay, crayons and markers and other art supplies to go to quality childcare providers.
Bryan Waltz, Concord’s director of elementary curriculum, said that the networking with other groups is what makes the Success by 6 Summit unique.
“They encourage the community to come together to ensure our students are as prepared as they can be to start school,” he said.