By the time kindergarten starts, wealthy kids already have a major head start over their low-income peers. A novel program hopes to change that.
We are sitting in the cheerful, cluttered kitchen of Adriana Fuentes, a self-described Army wife and mom who lives in Woodlawn Village, a military housing complex near Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
Fuentes is holding two paper finger puppets mounted on popsicle sticks, one with a sad face and one with a smiling one. She’s pretending to be her four-year-old son, Santana, as part of a role-playing exercise aimed at helping her teach her son about emotions.
“How did you feel when you scraped your knee?” asks Brenda Richards, a home visitor for Fairfax County Public Schools who’s playing “mom.” Fuentes holds up the frowning puppet, matching her own expression to the puppet’s. Richards asks another question, and this time Fuentes holds up the smiling one. The thirty-something Fuentes is wearing a Batman logo T-shirt and a practical ponytail – standard weekday wear for a busy mom. She’s outgoing, enthusiastic and plays her part with gusto. “What would be a patient face?” Fuentes asks Richards. “We talk about that a lot when he doesn’t get his way.”
For months, Richards has been a weekly visitor to Fuentes’s home, which Fuentes shares with her husband and children – four-year-old Santana, two-year-old Gabriela, and two teenagers. Richards typically comes during Gabriela’s naptime, but Gabby is awake today. She plays in the adjoining family room while Paw Patrol plays on the flatscreen TV. A big pile of moldable pink kinetic sand sits in a cookie sheet on the kitchen table, along with spoons and a small plastic shovel. Big wooden letters spelling “E-A-T” adorn the kitchen wall.
Richards works for the Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY) program, a national home visiting initiative for low-income families that’s been offered in Fairfax County for more than a decade. A mom herself, Richards will visit half a dozen other homes this week, walking her clients through a tightly-scripted curriculum provided by the program, offering moral support and parenting advice. “What I love about my job is being a wife and mother and being able to support other mothers,” she said.
Richards pulls out a big plastic box she takes on all of her visits. The box is like Mary Poppins’ magical carpet bag, except it’s filled with props for this week’s activities, rather than a birdcage and a hat stand. On the agenda this week: making homemade “Play-doh” out of flour and salt, learning about gravity and recognizing shapes. Fuentes pretends to measure out salt and flour while Richards continues to play “mom.” “How does the salt feel?” Richards asks. “Rough,” Fuentes responds. “And how does the flour feel?” “Soft,” Fuentes replies.
Richards opens a container of pre-made clay to demonstrate math activities using the dough. They practice cutting the dough into two pieces, then four. “I wouldn’t have thought to do any of this,” said Fuentes, holding a plastic knife. “I wouldn’t know how to teach him.”
Like many of the roughly 285 families in Fairfax County served by HIPPY, the Fuenteses had initially applied for Head Start, whose waitlist in Fairfax County is 6 to 12 months long. Of the roughly 10,000 kindergarteners who started school in Fairfax County public schools this year, just 4,000 had preschool experience through state or federally supported programs, said Renee LaHuffman-Jackson, coordinator of the Office of Professional Learning and Family Engagement for Fairfax County Public Schools.
It’s an enormous gap that the county is hoping HIPPY can help fill, by teaching parents to ready their children for school, especially if traditional preschool options aren’t available. And it’s a concern that’s become increasingly urgent as the academic demands on students’ increase. “Kindergarten is what first grade used to be,” said Elisabeth Bruzon, HIPPY program leader for Fairfax County.
More broadly, programs like HIPPY could play an important role in shrinking academic achievement gaps between wealthier kids and poorer ones. While substandard schools, inadequate funding and indifferent politicians are all to blame for this inequality, growing evidence suggests the disparities also begin at home, with big differences in the kinds of resources and experiences kids get from their parents, depending on family income. Programs like HIPPY seek to level the home field — by teaching parents to be their kids’ first teachers — and evidence shows these efforts work. In the face of growing worries about inequality’s impacts, these programs could help create the opportunities low-income kids need.