Chispa teaches parents to teach

Chispa AJC

By H.M. Cauley, For the AJC

The pandemic has turned parents into teachers who have to handle the challenges of online and distance learning at unprecedented levels. It’s a tough job, and one that can be even more difficult if the parent faces language and economic barriers.

Families from Beaver Ridge, Berkeley Lake and Norcross elementary schools in Gwinnett County are learning ways to support their young students at home, and it starts well before those tykes take a seat in a pre-kindergarten class. Through the Chispa Parent as Teachers Early Learning Program, low-income, Spanish-speaking families with children from a few weeks to 5 years old are developing skills around about literacy and being proactive leaders for their kids’ education. The services are offered under the umbrella of the nonprofit Families First.

“We provide tools for families to be the first teachers at home,” said Chispa coordinator Soledad Ruiz. “This program gets families ready for their children to start school and encourages them to become leaders in their homes and communities.”

Ruiz and fellow parent educator Carla Correa-Hernandez connect with families from school, church and health services referrals. The program has a waiting list since the two can only manage 40 families between them.

“When we started about 11 years ago, we used to knock on doors and say, ‘We have this program to engage families because staying home and watching TV is not progressive for the kids,’ ” said Ruiz. “The schools have opened doors for us. We also have play and learn events at Norcross United Methodist and St. Patrick’s Catholic church in Norcross, which gives us the ability to reach out to these families.”

Ruiz and Correa-Hernandez, both bilingual, go into homes, meet in public spaces or sit outside for one-on-one, hour-long parent-child sessions that focus on recognizing letters, colors and shapes. Older kids work on writing their names and reading. The program provides activity books the parents and little ones can work on together after the session ends.

Feedback from the three schools where youngsters eventually enroll has been positive, said Ruiz.

“We get a lot of compliments from pre-school teachers who say the kids are exceptional; the kindergarten teachers say the children know their numbers and shapes,” said Ruiz. “Moms tell me their students (children) are doing well. They aren’t behind on motor skills, and we haven’t detected any language problems.”

Correa-Hernandez herself is part of the program’s success story. In 2004, she and her 5-year-old daughter were among the first participants. Eight years later, she rejoined with two young sons who met with Ruiz weekly. The experience motivated her to earn a college degree.

Along with the educational component, Chispa connects families with organizations such as Gwinnett Cares and the Latin American Association that provide a range of support services.

“Especially since COVID has come, we’ve gotten more connected,” saidTroya Jackson, the Chispa program manager. “There’s an overwhelming need for these services.”

Information about Chispa is online at familiesfirst.org/early-learning.

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