Supporting Parents as Their Child's First and Best Teacher

For the past 10 years, the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven (CFGNH) has been at the forefront of involving parents in their children’s educational and cultural development through its support of Parents and Communities for Kids (PACK). Launched in 2002 after the community foundation and William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund received a four-year grant from the Wallace Foundation, the new initiative was designed to enhance family activities with young children by nurturing a love for learning within the community. When the funding from the Wallace Foundation ended, the community foundation continued to invest in the program through multi-year grants and has awarded more than $500,000 from unrestricted and preference funds.

Initially PACK reached out to families with children up to the age of 8 because research shows that children in those developmental years are still interested in having their parents involved—a known factor for a child’s future academic success. In the early years of the program, trusted neighborhood sources, known as Community Messengers, volunteered as liaisons to break down barriers between families and their participation in fun, out-of-school family learning activities at area organizations. Social marketing was also used to engage parents and support their role as their child’s first and best teacher, encouraging them to begin to see and subsequently utilize the community as a “classroom.” In addition, a federal grant was received to produce a documentary with Connecticut Public Broadcasting to raise visibility and further encourage family participation.

PACK operates in some of the lowest income neighborhoods in the greater New Haven area, including parts of Ansonia and Hamden, where 3 out of 5 students do not meet state literacy goals in third grade. In the Hill and Newhallville neighborhoods, almost 4 out of 5 students do not meet the same literacy goals. The need for PACK is as important as ever in New Haven, as 34 percent of children under the age of six live in homes with incomes below 100 percent of the Federal Poverty Level—a reality that has a profound effect on children’s development and their performance at school.

Today, PACK is a consortium of 14 local nonprofits and community centers engaged in family educational programming designed to combat the literacy divide and limited accessibility of cultural opportunities to underserved families. It has been embraced by the community and is now administered by the Connecticut Children’s Museum.

In addition to coordinating their programming and collaborating on marketing strategies, the consortium members meet regularly to share best practices and discuss how to include as many families as possible. Statistics from 2010 indicate that more than 10,000 individuals from diverse socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds participated in PACK programming that year alone.

PACK’s reception in the community has been positive. Parents enjoy doing activities with their children and most see a positive effect in their child’s behavior and engagement in the classroom. The Connecticut Department of Education suggested: “Family learning is an essential strategy for reversing Connecticut’s widening achievement gap.” PACK programming additionally seeks to encourage children to develop non-academic skills like musical, naturalist, bodily, or spatial-kinesthetic intelligences.

Allowing children to explore these other intelligences is particularly important as Meredith Philip, a contributor to the report Whither Opportunity, has found that between birth and age six, wealthier children will have spent as many as 1,300 more hours than poor children on child enrichment activities such as music lessons, travel, and summer camp. This massive gap reinforces already existing disparities in education and development. A program like PACK that provides access to diverse educational experiences is helping to bridge that gap.

PACK also distributes picture books to the children to combat the literacy divide. According to First Book, a Washington D.C.-based literacy project, the only measure that correlates with increased literacy is the number of books in the home. To close the literacy gap, PACK has distributed thousands of books in English and Spanish to children and their parents, encouraging families to read together.

Tricia Caldwell
Communications Manager
The Community Foundation
for Greater New Haven
70 Audubon Street
New Haven, CT 06510
Main: 203-777-2386
Direct: 203-777-7090
Fax: 203-776-3872
Twitter: @cfgnh