Giving Children An Even Start

The hallways of the Agassiz building teem with teen and adult learners each weekday. Tucked away in three classrooms at opposite ends of the building, however, Agassiz also is home to some of the youngest learners in the District, participants in the Even Start Family Literacy Program, age infant to five.

Even Start serves the children and their parents who are enrolled in GED, English Second Language, Woodrow Wilson, and literacy education classes on the campus of Agassiz while those adults are in class. The program is comprehensive; it integrates early childhood education, adult literacy, parent education and interactive parent-child activities into a single half-day program, offered twice a day.

The program’s biggest impact is arguably on its biggest population: new Americans and refugees. Even Start helps those children begin an educational journey in English. (Research shows that adoption of a second language is easiest in childhood, the younger the better.) For parents, it allows them to access adult education, which facilitates the parent’s path to education and self-sufficiency. Even Start is also an immersion into learning the commonly accepted principles and best practices of (American-style) parenting, and the U.S. education system. Many come from countries where parenting roles and styles are gender-defined, and based on tradition.

Basic principles and topics covered by Even Start (for all of its parent participants) include supporting positive behavior, child safety, diet and sleep, behavior, emotional, social, and motor development, early literacy skills, integration into school, learning what children are taught (and why), and how to support those principles at home through simple activities – all to create a safe, nurturing environment in which the child is able to grow and learn. Those lessons are integrated into the daily class schedule of the participant, and include interactive parent-child time. On a periodic basis, Even Start staff members make home visits to participants, evaluating child and parent progress in specific areas of child development and pre-academic skills, and providing coaching to further assist them in reaching the positive, nurturing environment goal.

Fargo’s Even Start program began in 1994 with a federal grant, serving 17 families. Today it serves 45, and has a waiting list of 60, some who wait up to a year to be admitted due to staffing levels. (Even Start’s staff is small, and includes two full-time positions, part-time paraprofessionals and other staff.)

It’s hard to fathom, but only a year ago Even Start’s survival was in question. Federal funding for the program – through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – ran out earlier this fall. Board members and the administration, seeing the writing on the wall, worked together to get District funding approved in June to sustain the program. (The North Dakota Department of Adult Education also provided funding.) In 2013, Even Start will receive funding as a new United Way partner.