Right from the Start is an early-learning parent resource center that drives home the following message loud and clear: A child’s education begins at birth, and it’s critical for parents to realize and act on the fact that they are their child’s first teachers.
Since its inception three years ago, the school-readiness project has reached more than 300 low-income families through parent classes and workshops, bilingual story time events twice monthly at the Rochester community center, family events with an early-literacy focus throughout the school year and referral services for families in need of social services and health care.
The motor that keeps this well-oiled machine humming along to success is Bella Mendez, a 26-year-old Rochester native who was drawn to early-childhood learning while studying for the bachelor’s degree in psychology she received in 2008 from the University of Washington.
From her tiny office at the Rochester Primary School, Mendez reaches out to low-income residents with compassionate instruction, support and empathy that her own experiences growing up provide. If she’s not conducting a parents-as-teachers workshop, the bilingual coordinator can be found at the community food and clothing banks and community events – and even door-to-door in low income neighborhoods – spreading word of the program.
“The families I work with are very similar to my family background,” Mendez said just before a workshop Thursday afternoon with Spanish-speaking moms who had their infants and toddlers in tow. “I remember how much I struggled when I got to school.”
We were joined in the conversation by Julee Durham, a former kindergarten teacher and elementary school principal who serves as United Way’s director of community impact and investment. Both a mentor to Mendez and one of her biggest fans, Durham is armed with compelling facts about the importance of early-childhood education. For example:
• A child’s vocabulary ranges from 3,000 words to 15,000 words by the time he or she reaches kindergarten. The higher word count belongs to children who are talked to early and often before reaching school age.
• Children who know the alphabet when they enter kindergarten are 20 times more likely to read simple words at the end of kindergarten. Sing the alphabet to them. Read to your children constantly. Show them how to hold books and turn the pages from front to back. Before too long, they will be reading to you.
Physical health and wellness also are critical to a young child’s ability to learn. Mendez spends a lot of time referring families to resources throughout the South Sound area. Since the program launch in 2010, she has made more than 1,000 referrals.
Rochester Primary School principal Kathy Keyes, also a former kindergarten teacher, is a big supporter of Right from the Start.
“We’re definitely seeing families with a better sense of kindergarten readiness since the project began,” Keyes said. “We’re getting families and kids familiar with the schools and building relationships and trust. They’re seeing our faces and they know who we are.”
Rochester is a good fit for the program for several reasons, Durham said. With a large population of Hispanic and low-income families, more than half the students in the school district are living at the poverty level and eligible for free and reduced lunch rates.
Rochester Primary School serves all the kindergarten through second-grade students in the school district, making it a good laboratory to measure the program’s success over time.
Teacher surveys countywide show that about 25 percent of the children entering the public school system are struggling with basic school-readiness skills.
“The Rochester community was ready for our program,” Durham said.
The $100,000 annual budget for Right from the Start comes from donations and grants and has the support of the Thurston Early Childhood Coalition, which represents 14 South Sound agencies serving children and families.
Recently, the Gates Foundation awarded a $34,000 grant for Right from the Start.
To advance the cause of early-childhood learning, the United Way of Thurston County is hosting a community breakfast from 7:30-9 a.m. Oct. 31 at Indian Summer Golf & Country Club. The featured speaker is Dr. Sarah Roseberry, an outreach specialist with the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington. She’ll share some of the latest research that shows the importance of a child’s first 2,000 days of life. Breakfast sponsorships are available by contacting Durham at 360-943-2773, ext. 14, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Back at the Rochester Organization of Families center, Mendez kicked off the afternoon parent-support group where all the mothers conversed in Spanish.
My Spanish is rusty, so I asked Mendez to ask one of the moms, Gabriela Gomez, what Right from the Start has meant to her.
Her eyes sparkled as she told me how much she has learned about how a young child’s brain develops and how she is not just a mother, but a teacher, too.
One parent at a time, one family at a time, the youth in Rochester are getting ready for school.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444