Getting Ready for School

Last year the city launched “City’s First Readers,” a program composed of eight organizations that share the collective goal of better preparing children under 6—and especially those from low-income families—for school. Though a few of the programs send specialists to child care centers, most see working with kids and parents together as central to their mission, aiming to increase both the quality and quantity of their interactions.  In June, "City's First Readers" received an endorsement from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The program reached 200,000 families in Fiscal Year 2015 and is slated to receive a renewed commitment of $1.5 million from the City Council in the current Fiscal Year.

“It’s a program designed to help parents and caregivers be their child’s first teachers,” says Daniel Nkansah, the coordinator of children's services for the Queens Library system, which is a participant of City’s First Readers. “Most immigrant parents have told us they want to get their child ready for school but they don't know how. They don't know that reading and things they can do at home will lay the foundation for school.” 

It’s a back and forth where the child has heard more words and also has practiced how to use them. If you come to class without those language skills, you are likely to be less comfortable trying.

Nkansah’s program engages families at libraries with cozy, inviting areas for parents and babies to read and play together and workshops where mothers new to the country can pick up English as they receive specific instruction on how to read to toddlers and preschoolers in ways that encourage them to ask and answer questions—skills important to school success. Two other “First Reader” programs reach families during routine pediatric exams. 

The most intensive program under the City’s First Readers umbrella is the national research-based Parent-Child Home Program. It sends literacy paraprofessionals directly into families' homes for 30 minutes two times a week over a two-year period. Bearing books, toys and games, these home visitors model for parents how to read, play, and converse with young kids in ways that get them talking.

"It's all about not only using quality language and asking open-ended questions when you're reading a book and engaged in a game, but also about using positive language instead of negative,” explains Sarah Walzer, the program’s CEO. “It’s a back and forth where the child has heard more words and also has practiced how to use them. If you come to class without those language skills, you are likely to be less comfortable trying.” 

Critical to the program’s success is that home visitors speak the same language and are typically from the same neighborhoods and communities as the families they visit—something that studies suggest may be key to establishing trust with families who are isolated and wary of anyone resembling a social worker. 

"Their lives are hard and chaotic and they’re struggling just to keep a roof over their child’s head and food on the table and to keep their kids safe," says Walzer. "This positive interaction and happy bonding with their child is something that sometimes they just don’t have time and the emotional bandwidth to do." 

One study found that children in the program who were at higher risk of being unprepared for school than a comparison group had caught up on social-emotional and early literacy skills by kindergarten.

Another study suggested that young adults who had who completed the program as toddlers were less likely to have dropped out of school and more likely to have graduated from high school than young men and women in a control group.

Walzer says she has seen the ripple effect of a harried mom spending just a half-hour a day of fun learning with her kids. When a child learns how to, say, recite Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? or recognize colors, parents "feel a sense of agency because they understand that they’re the person who makes that happen. It's not the home visitor coming in twice a week, it's them riding the bus and going to the grocery store with their child, and talking about what they're seeing, and it's a wonderful thing," she says. "You see this amazing change in your child that lights up parents and kind of inspires them to do more." 

Find more information about "City's First Readers" here.