Even Start program focuses on adult, early-childhood education

By Kathy Walsh Nufer • Post-Crescent staff writer
August 3, 2011

APPLETON — Yolanda Bedolla sat on a park bench smiling her encouragement as she watched her daughters Daniela, 12, and Natalie, 8, take swimming lessons in Erb Park Pool’s turquoise waters.

For Bedolla, 34, the moment was bittersweet.

Swim lessons — the finale of the Even Start Family Literacy program’s summer session — would also be the end of her three-year participation in a program that enabled her to learn English and earn her high school equivalency diploma. It also gave her youngest daughter, Abigail, 23 months, a jump-start on acquiring language skills she will need later in the classroom.

Even Start, which is based at McKinley Elementary School, puts a premium on adult and early-childhood education so low-income and “second-language” parents learning to master English can improve their lives, and their young children are prepared for school.

The program received a big boost last week when it was awarded a $19,888 Focused Funding grant from the United Way Fox Cities board.

“If we didn’t have a program like this, I don’t think I would have been able to accomplish what I accomplished,” said Bedolla, who relied on friends and TV to learn English after she moved here from Mexico 13 years ago.

“That’s just not the same as learning English from a teacher, and this program has also allowed me to bring my children with me to school so they are learning at the same time.”

Even Start was one of five programs to receive United Way’s special funding in the first grant cycle of 2011.

“Focused Funding gives us an opportunity to look at innovative and evidence-based programs we don’t ordinarily fund in our partner agencies, yet fit priorities that we have established for our work in the community,” said Gayle Hardt, United Way vice president of community development. “It gives us another chance to get upstream on some of these critical issues.”

Even Start is a great example, Hardt said.

“We know early learning is so critical, particularly where there aren’t the English language skills. This program is proven, there is research to support it and we know it has a long and successful history. We wanted to make sure it could be sustained for a longer time since it lost government funding. It’s a terrific program and it would be a shame if the community lost it.”

Donna Hodges, Appleton Area School District’s Even Start coordinator, said the United Way funding came at the perfect time.

“We’re just thrilled to get that support,” Hodges said. “When the funding was eliminated at the federal level, we didn’t know what we would do.”

The discontinuation of federal funding in March led many Even Start programs to scale back or end. The United Way funding will go toward paying early-childhood assistants and materials, said Hodges, who wants to keep the program’s emphasis on early literacy.

“These are crucial years when they acquire so much vocabulary, which puts them in much better stead for being successful in school,” Hodges said. “Developing their literacy is just as important as their parents’ literacy.”

The program, which also will receive nearly $50,000 from J. J. Keller Foundation, is a partnership between the school district and Fox Valley Technical College.

It serves a second-language population in the Fox Cities that has grown 300 percent over the last decade, Hodges said. Many of these families also are poor and their young children may start school unprepared.

Even Start’s full federal grant for 2010-11 was $148,906, which represented 24 percent of the program’s budget.

“The other 75 percent is in-kind, like room space at McKinley, the cost of educating a number of 4-year-olds in Head Start and Title I, home visiting, most of which is paid from Title I, and FVTC funds one full adult educator,” Hodges said. “Title I funds home visitors and most, but not all, of the early-childhood educators. We are trying to make up as much of the $148,906 as we can without having to cut services.”

A total of 56 families, including 125 children, participated in the program last school year.

In Even Start, parents can work toward a General Education Diploma (GED) or High School Equivalency Diploma (HSED), plus take English and citizenship classes.

While they learn English, learn to read or get their GED, their children participate in early-childhood activities stressing literacy.

The program also includes basic skills training for parents, including home visits, so they can support their child’s development.

Kris Clouthier, who has been a teacher since Even Start began 14 years ago, cited its successes in getting families on their feet with a strong foundation in literacy.

“If I look back at the families we started with in the beginning, primarily Hmong families, many now have homes and are working,” Clouthier said.

She noted that the program’s diversity has grown and last year Hispanic families made up more than 86 percent of the participants.

Children who enter the program are doing well, too, she said.

“They are much better equipped language-wise when they enter school, and their parents have learned to work with them and the schools,” Clouthier said. “They are not as afraid as they once were to get involved.”

She said the swimming lessons offered a perfect opportunity for the children to overcome their fear of the water, learn to swim and be safe in the water. It also expanded their vocabulary through new experiences.

Clouthier said it presented the parents, mostly moms, a challenge to use their English with the lifeguards.

Bedolla highly recommends it.

“This would be very beneficial for parents who got here the same way I got here from Mexico — knowing nothing,” she said.

Bedolla said the program has had a big impact on her youngest daughter’s language and social development.

“Teachers tell me she’s advanced for her age,” Bedolla said. “My older children did not get that opportunity.”

She said Even Start also taught her how to play and interact with her children to further their language acquisition and “teach them without knowing they are learning.”

Bedolla plans to further her own schooling at FVTC, largely because of the confidence she gained in Even Start.

“Now I know I can do it,” she said.