Ernest Hooper: Early-childhood education investment provides big dividends

Published August 30 2017
Updated August 31 2017

The 5-year-olds marched in holding their parent's hands and paraded down the aisle to the tried-and-true graduation theme Pomp and Circumstance.

They wore blue caps and gowns, trimmed with white sashes, and they sported kind of adorable facial expressions only a 5-year-old can summon. They wave to the well-wishers videotaping with smart phones, and one little girl has managed to balance both a cap and a tiara on top of her tiny locks.

She is, after all, a queen.

Those images from the Hillsborough HIPPY Parent Involvement Project's commencement on Aug. 26 resonate with program manager Brenda Brinson, but she also holds in her memory the faces of the moms and dads who came to the University of South Florida's Gibbons Center for this most special ceremony.

"It's a special day for the parents," said Brinson, who started with the early-learning program in 1991 as a volunteer and has served as program manager since 1997.

"The kids are the beneficiaries, but it's the parents who put in the work. There's pride, a sense of accomplishment, happiness — all of that."

Why wouldn't there be? These parents know that the work they put in with their kids has them better prepared for the rigors — and I don't use that word lightly — of kindergarten. The school readiness program allows parents to begin the process of instilling lessons in the home.

It's such a critical component when you consider that some parents don't have the access to daycare because of hurdles set in their way by time, transportation and money.

Thanks to the tools offered by HIPPY, parents come to realize, as Brinson says, that learning begins at home.

Parents are provided with a set of developmentally appropriate materials, curriculum and books designed to strengthen their children's cognitive skills, early literacy skills, social/emotional and physical development.

Activities run about 15-20 minutes five days week. A home visitor, often a parent who already has enjoyed the program, spends an hour once a week offering peer to peer guidance from a source that can honestly tell a new mom or dad, "been there, done that, I know what you're going through."

A social component also helps parents with other challenges. So often, people think apathy rules in homes. Many parents do care but don't know what to do because they didn't grow up in a home that stressed education.

Even today, Brinson says, some parents think their children will get all the education they need once they start kindergarten, not before.

HIPPY helps show them the light, and when Brinson describes the curriculum, it's apparent that it's so much more than alphabet songs and primary-color flash cards. She spoke often this week about how HIPPY parents teach math and science concepts, critical thinking and reason to their kids. You know, some of the things us adults could use a refresher on.

"They're learning in a fun way," said Brinson, who mentioned that parents and children meet once a month to engage in STEAM activities — science, technology, engineering, art and math. "The parents appreciate the simplicity and depth of the lessons, and it really builds a stronger bond."

There's more at stake with such early learning efforts than parent-child relationships. If we can get more children to arrive for kindergarten with structure and an understanding of important concepts, we could change the world. That's not hyperbole.

According to the Ounce of Prevention Fund, at-risk children who don't receive a high-quality, early-childhood education are 25 percent more likely to drop out of school, 40 percent more likely to become a teen parent, 50 percent more likely to be placed in special education, 60 percent more likely to never attend college, and 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime.

Yet only 47 percent of the Hillsborough School District students arrive for kindergarten with some experience in a formal program. HIPPY can help bridge that gap, but right now the funding it receives from the Children's Board of Hillsborough County allows it to serve only 300 children and families.

That's a nice number, but I challenge every elected local and state official to recognize that if we could double or triple the children and families benefiting from HIPPY, this paper just might be able to print a few more headlines about high school scholars and few less about juvenile car thieves and teen drug abuse.

That's all I'm saying.