INDEPENDENCE, Ky. — Taking a quick trip to the grocery store and measuring ingredients for a favorite recipe may seem like simple, run-of-the-mill tasks, but for parents with small children they can be teachable moments. That’s the idea behind United Way Born Learning Academy, a kindergarten readiness program that helps parents turn everyday moments into learning opportunities for their children.
A handful of local partners came together nearly a decade ago to create the very first academy at Beechgrove Elementary School in Independence. Its success has led to an ongoing expansion throughout Kentucky and beyond. While the successful school-based, early education workshop series can be slightly molded and shaped to fit different schools and their unique populations, each academy has roots to the original program in Northern Kentucky.
“It all started as a pilot project at Beechgrove Elementary, and we saw promising results right away,” said Helen Carroll, who coordinates the program for United Way of Kentucky. “It continues to expand to other communities and will be in 161 schools across the state by this fall.”
The expansion started in 2012 with a $1 million, five-year commitment from Toyota, one of the program’s original partners. The state subsequently invested an added $1.2 million using funds from its federal Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant. Additional partners also support the program – and with good reason, according to Carroll.
There’s a lot of learning that needs to take place well before children head to kindergarten, she said. Research indicates that about 90 percent of a child’s brain development occurs by age 5. Yet only about half of Kentucky’s children who start kindergarten each fall are prepared, according to the state’s Department of Education.
“Parents are their child’s first teacher,” Carroll explained. “That’s why it’s so important to give them the tools they need.”
Born Learning’s monthly workshops are hosted through schools’ Family Resource and Youth Service Centers. They’re free, hands-on and designed to be easy and practical for parents and caregivers, according to Julia Goodman, Beechgrove’s Family Resource Center coordinator.
“Sometimes it’s something as simple as teaching your child about measurements as you’re making dinner or helping them learn colors while you’re sorting the laundry together,” she said. “The important thing is that you involve your child in the activity… Don’t kick them out of the kitchen or the laundry room.”
Goodman helped develop and implement the initial Born Learning Academy at Beechgrove. The school’s program continues to serve as a model for others, and she offers support and guidance, including formal training in conjunction with United Way, to fledgling sites. She also shares resources, like flyers and parent surveys.
“Because we’re going into our eighth year, we’re able to share what has worked well and what hasn’t worked so well,” she said. “It’s a great program and our entire school has been involved in making it a success.”
Because of that success, Goodman can also share promising data from Beechgrove.
Since launching the first Born Learning Academy, scores from its annual BRIGANCE Kindergarten Screen — the state’s standardized test that assesses kindergarten readiness — show an increase in kindergarten-ready students, from about a quarter of its kindergartners to well over half.
Another benefit has been a steady climb in parent involvement, she said.
“Our staff and families are building lasting relationships at our workshops,” Goodman said. “Many of our parents from Born Learning get involved and become leaders at the school.”
In addition to its expansion in Kentucky, United Way Born Learning Academies have also cropped up in West Virginia and Indiana.
Goodman said the growth of the program is no surprise to the team at Beechgrove.
“We have seen the difference it makes in a school community. It’s an important piece of the puzzle,” she said of the program. “We need to prepare kids for learning and future success, and that starts at birth.
"This program shows parents that spending time engaging with their kids is more valuable than anything else.”
To learn more about the program, or to see a list of sites, visit the Born Learning website.