Legislators look to parent-teachers

Trained in education, they offer a low-cost preschool alternative

Posted: Thursday, February 12, 2009

With falling oil prices leading to dwindling state revenues, plans for boosting student achievement by improving early education are being scaled back.

Liberal Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, and conservative Gov. Sarah Palin both have plans for improving pre-kindergarten education, but the plans they're proposing are still less than they really want to do.

Gara has long sought support for universal pre-K, but acknowledged that might not be feasible now. Instead, he said, the new Parents-as-Teachers program might help.

"As much as a proponent I am of pre-K, there are ways to do it that are as effective, and not as expensive," he said.

One of those is the Parents-as-Teachers program, which began in Hoonah in 1984, where parents prepared children for school in their own homes.

"Our bid to fame is we were the first program in Alaska, and we've adapted it to the area," said Nicki Shelton, a national trainer for the program.

The local Hoonah twists to the program involve engaging children by referring to things they know, Shelton said.

"We use a lot of fish, whales bears and eagles," she said.

House Bill 69, sponsored by Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, Gara and others would expand the current Parents-as-Teachers programs in several Alaska Communities, including Haines, Kake and Ketchikan and Hydaberg.

State officials estimate it would cost $17 million, said Aurah Landau, a member of Tuck's staff. That estimate was likely high, she said, because it assumes more children would enroll than the actual number likely to take part in the voluntary program.

Many eligible students are already in programs funded by federal grants, she said.

The proposal has stirred an e-mail campaign from the National Home School Legal Defense Association, asking "Do you want the government to become your child's nanny?"

Government employees shouldn't enter private homes, even on a voluntary basis, some writers said.

Tuck, a former member of the Anchorage School Board, dismissed those concerns.

"Enhancing parental involvement in the homes of children who could benefit from it is consistent with the view of many Alaskans, across the political spectrum," he said.

Shelton said one of the programs strengths is that the parents are taught how to recognize learning disabilities, such as hearing problems, and get them addressed before children fall behind in their development.

"Any problem that might interfere with their learning can be taken care of," Shelton said.

Communities with the Parents-as-Teachers program receive funding through federal grants, but the program is mostly available in rural areas. Shelton said she'd like to see it available in cities like Juneau, and elsewhere, but it would only be possible if state funds were made available.

The estimated cost per child is about $3,000, one-third to one-fifth the cost of other education efforts, according to Landau.

Palin has her own proposal, a $2 million pilot program to serve four and five year olds who are not yet in kindergarten, with a voluntary, half-day preschool program.

The Alaska Pilot Pre-K Project will provide a framework and guidance for the creation of local programs, said Eric Fry, spokesman for the Department of Education and Early Development.

It was originally proposed as a $5 million plan, but in its current form would serve about 500 students, and develop guidelines for expansion, he said.

Tuck and Gara also have House Bill 59, which would establish a statewide early childhood education plan.

Gara said that of all the plans, Tuck's Parents-as-Teachers may have the best chance of success in a tight fiscal year.

"It's the easiest program to get moving at the lowest cost," he said. "The expansion of pre-K, given the opposition in many quarters, is going to take longer."

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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