Hundreds of children from low-income families in the Seattle area have graduated from a program that aims to level the playing field well before students enter kindergarten.

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Nearly a decade before Seattle voters agreed in 2014 to subsidize a preschool program for the city’s families, a small, pilot effort for even younger children debuted in 106 living rooms across King County.

Organizers approached parents with a simple sales pitch: Did they want help preparing their children for school? If so, the Parent-Child Home Program would send trained visitors to spend 30 minutes with them twice a week, demonstrating how to get the most educational value out of playing and reading with their 2- and 3-year-olds.

The visitors brought a book and a toy to use in each visit, which the families kept for free.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab 

The hope was that these short, frequent sessions, spread over two years, would keep many poor children from falling far behind richer peers before they even started kindergarten.

New research suggests that’s just what’s happening.

Last February, Parent-Child released the first study of the program’s effectiveness in King County. It tracked 200 children over five years and found that, after completing the program, they were better prepared for kindergarten and, even more important, those gains lasted. By third grade, the participants’ scores on state reading and math tests were still higher than those of classmates from similar backgrounds.

As Seattle joins a growing crowd of cities rushing to provide high-quality preschool for their neediest 3- and 4-year-olds, those results back the argument that it might be smart — for the families and society as a whole — to support even younger children, too.

At first, I didn’t think I needed to learn how to parent, but that changed.” - Nemerly Alfred

Parent interest in Parent-Child is strong — the program now serves 1,200 families a year in King County, and has a waiting list filled largely by word-of-mouth.

The program is costly — between $8,000 and $9,000 per child over the two years. And a Washington-based think tank, based on studies in communities outside the state, concluded that Parent-Child yields a relatively low bang for its buck compared with similar home-visitation programs in the state.

United Way of King County, the primary local sponsor of Parent-Child, disputes that analysis, highlighting other research, some of it new, that shows Parent-Child saves money — for parents and society — because fewer of its participating children end up needing special-education services, and more graduate from high school.

“For a community that’s trying to make success in terms of educational disparity, this model is really a strong approach,” said Jason Gortney, director of policy and innovation at the Children’s Home Society of Washington, one of the nine agencies that offer Parent-Child.

“I have to be honest. I was very skeptical when we first started doing this five years ago. It just seemed so simplistic with books and toys,” Gortney said. “Now I’m a complete convert.”


The catalyst

Parent-Child came to King County in 2006 after a coalition of business leaders started looking for a way to help children from low-income families.

A consultant recommended Parent-Child, created four decades earlier by a clinical psychologist who concluded the best way to reduce the number of high-school dropouts was to start when children are 2 and 3.

Parent-Child targets families that live in poverty, don’t speak English or are new to the U.S. That’s because research shows children from poor and at-risk families, on average, start school behind their peers in preliteracy and language skills.

A 2015 report from the U.S. Department of Education, for example, calculated that gap at one year to 14 months.

On a recent rainy Tuesday in Kent, home visitor Siao Leaoa knocked on the door of the Alfred family, who immigrated to Seattle from the Marshall Islands in 2000.

Once inside, she handed Nemerly Alfred a new puzzle box for her 3-year-old son, Edwin.

Edwin, sitting between the two women on the living-room floor, emptied the box to reveal a pile of colored tiles that Leaoa used to make the shape of a flower displayed on a card.

Suddenly, Leaoa pulled her hands away.

“Sorry for taking it over, Mom!” she said. “You know what you’re doing.”

Edwin giggled as his mother launched ahead, asking him to say “bird,” the shape on a new card she let him select.

Alfred switched between English and Marshallese as she then prompted Edwin to identify the color of each tile.

“At first, I didn’t think I needed to learn how to parent, but that changed,” Alfred said.

As Edwin’s attention shifted to drawing wings on a paper turkey — an activity to help with his penmanship — his mother said a friend persuaded her to sign up for Parent-Child, so she could make the most of the time she spends with her son while juggling other family responsibilities.

Alfred since has referred three cousins to the program, and has kept nearly all her appointments, even when her family was homeless for seven months.

“It’s just so important,” she said. “We came (to the U.S.) to get the best education before starting a family. I want Edwin more prepared when he gets to school. He will be more prepared when he gets to school.”



Creating bonds

Back in 2006, the business coalition started small, with just three agencies— Atlantic Street Center, Neighborhood House and Southwest Youth & Family Services —  in part because it knew they could recruit and train home visitors who spoke the same language as the families, and often shared similar cultural backgrounds.

“I’m a white woman and can know as much as anybody about early childhood and have all sorts of degrees,” said Karen Howell-Clark, United Way’s director of early learning. “I could not go in and be an effective home visitor for probably any of the families that we serve, because I cannot make that connection and build that level of trust.”

When United Way took the reins of Parent-Child in 2010, it added six other agencies, which tailor the program to their clients.

El Centro de La Raza, for example, serves a lot of Spanish-speaking families and expanded its book selection to include more titles originally written in that language.

And now many of the home visitors are former parent-participants, which also helps them make connections with families.

Perla Campbell, a home visitor with El Centro, used to work as a preschool teacher but says she prefers to work with even younger children and one on one with parents.

“We show parents if you only have five minutes, you can do so many things in that little time to help your child,” she said.

Parent-Child has not worked in every community, said W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research.

“The hard thing to know is why,” Barnett said, noting the training and support for visitors can make a big difference.

Even King County’s positive results come with caveats.

The February study, for example, did not compare the experience of children in Parent-Child with a randomly assigned control group — the gold standard in research design. Instead, Seattle-based ORS Impact, which conducted the study, compared participants with other children from similar backgrounds. That means the study may simply show the difference motivated parents can make.

There’s also the question of whether Parent-Child is worth the cost.

The study that questioned its value, by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP), estimated Parent-Child only has a 43 percent chance of producing a public benefit greater than its costs.

But WSIPP’s research is more than 4 years old and doesn’t include the King County results or other papers that show, in multiple places, that only 14 percent of Parent-Child’s graduates needed special-education services, compared with 39 percent of a control group. And graduation rates for participants were 84 percent, compared with 54 percent for their peers.

And last week, economist James Heckman, a Nobel laureate, released new research suggesting that a mix of high-quality child care with support for families has an even greater public benefit than initially thought. His team, for example, found children in such programs grow up to earn much more over their lifetimes and live much healthier lives.



New funding sought

Parent-Child in King County is undergoing another transition, with United Way now at the end of its five-year, $25 million commitment.

As partner agencies search for funding, Seattle has pledged more than $1 million to support the program, and the county is expected to pitch in, too. Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee also has included a boost in support for home-visitation programs in his proposed 2017-19 budget.

Parent-Child’s national organization also is looking at expanding in Washington to other counties.

Sarah Walzer, executive director of Parent-Child’s national center, says part of its success is simply helping parents understand their children’s strengths.

“When you think of how many upper- and middle-income kids are told they’re brilliant every day, walk into a classroom thinking they’ll succeed and then succeed because they’re told they will — now immigrant children (and) poor children will have that opportunity too,” she said.

Campbell, the home visitor with El Centro, is so enthusiastic about Parent-Child that she’s become a self-appointed recruiter.

“If I’m driving and see families on the street, I’ll stop the car and ask if I can tell them about my program,” she said.

“If I’m at the grocery store, wherever, I ask parents how old is their baby and how I can help,” she added with a laugh. “Sometimes mothers are startled by the approach.”


Information in this story, originally published Dec. 21, 2016, was corrected Dec. 21, 2016. A previous version of this story misstated the name of ORS Impact.