EDGEWOOD, Ky. – When Patsy Carter heard about a program at Caywood Elementary that could help her prepare her four-year-old daughter for kindergarten, she and her husband resolved to go just once.
But after the Erlanger couple and their children sat down to a community dinner followed by separate sessions for parents and kids, they were hooked.
"We were just going to come for the first night, but the kids made sure we came back a second time," she said. "It's nice. You don't feel alone, like you're the only one going through whatever challenges a preschooler with too much energy brings."
Carter, an Erlanger resident with two daughters, 10 and 4, ended up completing the six-part program that has helped give her and her husband big and small tips on ways to convert everyday interaction into learning opportunities.
The program is called Bornlearning, which was created by Northern Kentucky University, United Way, and a workshop model developed by Tim Hanner, retired Kenton County school superintendent, to help parents of pre-kindergarten children engage them in educational and healthy ways.
An ever-growing avalanche of research indicates that kids have a much smoother path to academic and career success if they start kindergarten with essentials like getting along with other kids, knowing their colors and being familiar with the alphabet.
"For Northern Kentucky, Bornlearning is one of our key kindergarten-ready strategies," said Amy Neal, Northern Kentucky Success by Six manager.
The program has been so successful that Gov. Steve Beshear has dedicated another $1.4 million to expanding it into 150 more schools over the next four years.
The straightforward idea behind the program is to invite parents of pre-kindergarten children to participate in six, two-hour evening programs. The first portion of each night is a family dinner, where parents, children, educators and volunteers mix and eat.
Gathering around the dinner table to talk and socialize is a model for learning in itself, a ritual for childhood development that is often lost in the hectic nature of contemporary life.
After dinner, parents participate in an hour-long program led by educators during which they learn about ways to incorporate learning into everyday life, like setting aside reading time every day.
At the same time, children have their own programming, engaging in taekwondo one night, clay work another and dance another.
"We don't want it to be just babysitting. We want them to be engaged," said Leah Langdon, Caywood's Family Resource coordinator.
Finally, children and caregivers reunite for 30 minutes to give parents a chance to apply what they learned and for all the participants to socialize.
Organizers have a larger goal in mind – building community, engaging parents with children families with other families and businesses with schools.
"It's not supposed to be a lecture. It's supposed to be interactive," Neal said. Parents swap advice.
Carter and her family love to cook, so she passed along cooking and meal-planning tips to other families. Other parents taught her strategies for occupying her children on long car rides, like playing license plate games, expanding on old versions to include things like making words out of the letters on a given plate or adding up the numbers.
"It was a welcoming environment with everybody. The door prizes were fun, and there was a good level of moving around for the kids without getting too crazy," Carter said.
Caywood enlisted the help of multiple businesses and agencies, like Joseph Beth Booksellers in Crescent Springs, which donated a turkey dinner.
"I saw the families that were there. I saw how excited the kids were," said Cori Smith, assistant general manager at Joseph Beth. "I was very impressed with the atmosphere and the spirit of everyone who was there. It was really nice to see."
Smith said Joseph Beth is eagerly anticipating participating again in the coming school year.
Campbell County YMCA, which helped Ryland Elementary develop its Bornlearning curriculum, helped Caywood find other partners, who readily helped, including Cincinnati Zoo, Cincinnati Ballet, Five Seasons health club, and Garzelli's Grinder & Pizza.
"They donated some really neat little prizes for the families," said Ann Stahl, Campbell County YMCA's grant administrator. "And it was fun because the kids were there. We were able to give out zoo passes. Toys R Us donated diapers."
Caywood has about 720 students enrolled in its preschool through 5th grade classes. Thirteen families completed the Bornlearning course in the initial year, a number that made Principal Kelly Conner very happy.
"I would like to see 20 families here on a consistent basis next year," she said. "Even if they only come a few times, I still see that as giving them a chance to become more familiar with the staff and school," which can only help with their children's education.
The program is open to all families. This year, one family from a parochial school and one mom with an infant joined Caywood families.
The new $1.4 million investment, funded by Kentucky's Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Federal grant, builds on Toyota manufacturing's $1 million in seed money that has been pledged through 2016.
Toyota hopes to expand the model nationwide. It has already supported a five-year statewide expansion of academies beginning in 2012, having launched 21 Bornlearning academies with plans to fund 70 more.
"We have learned that workers prepared for college and career start out as children prepared for kindergarten. And that starts with parents," said Helen Carroll, manager of community relations at Toyota. "That’s why we are focusing our investments getting kids ready for school through parent education and engagement.”