June 8th 2013

When we think of the most influential teachers in our lives, we often remember a special middle school or high school teacher, a first boss, or someone else who entered our lives at a pivotal moment.

Yet our first and most important teachers are often overlooked. They are the primary caregivers who care for us as babies and guide us through the first five years of life. Because they are our first teachers, their influence will be more important than anyone who comes later.

Scientists now know that the fastest learning and the most brain development occurs from birth through the first five years of life. All future learning is built on this foundation. Yet parents may not recognize their role as their child’s first and most important teacher.

First Teacher–Ready for Kindergarten, a new project in Las Cruces, addresses parents’ need to know about child development and provides tools to promote their children’s future success in school.

Parents with preschoolers are now “playing with a purpose” in 70 households as a result of unique parenting classes offered at three Las Cruces schools. Moms, dads, and grandmothers participated in a pilot program conducted by Children’s Reading Foundation of Dona Ana County.

Families with three and four year-old children residing in the enrollment districts of Conlee, Valley View and Jornada Elementary Schools were invited to enroll in a six week early literacy program. Parents learned how their interactions with their preschoolers affect future success in school. Each hands-on session focused on a specific area of literacy and provided tools and books for the parents to use at home.

“Some parents assume that learning begins in kindergarten,” Explains CRF vice-president Terry Miller. “Actually, a child is expected to enter kindergarten knowing numbers, colors, shapes and the names and sound of letters. Without these skills and without the shared experience of reading books at home, a child is at a disadvantage on the first day of kindergarten.”

With funds provided by a grant from the Stocker Foundation, Terry Miller, Ann Rohovec, and Rorie Measure created First-Teacher—Ready for Kindergarten specifically for parents in Dona Ana County.

Principals and teachers at the three elementary schools joined forces with Miller and Rohovec to work around parents’ schedules by offering the classes on Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings. Participating teachers were Elizabeth McDonald, Kim Ortiz and Clara Lopez at Conlee, Amanda Armijo and Courtney Degler at Valley View, Martha Mathews-Benavidez, Patti Armstrong, Filo Rigales, Barbara Rhodes, Jennifer Mora, Nicole Scott, Sarah Johnson at Jornada. Classes were taught in English and Spanish.

Knowing that some parents may be unfamiliar with the expectations their children will face in kindergarten, the Children’s Reading Foundation of Dona Ana County is committed to reaching parents who don’t speak English or may have had only limited contact with schools in the past.

Veronica Carmona, a veteran community organizer, created a family focused campaign that includes home visits, follow up phone calls, and informational gatherings.

“We are determined to reach all parents including those facing challenges that interfere with making education a priority,” explains Ann Rohovec, CRF Board Secretary. “While the First Teacher program does not attempt to solve or even ameliorate the life problems of parents, the program was developed with a decided respect for the powerful forces in our parents’ lives,” Rohovec explains.

Parent Maria Mendoza attended First Teacher sessions at Valley View. “My child is using her imagination more and we are making reading more fun.  She is learning shapes, colors, numbers, words and even sounds of the letters.  We really make it fun when we read. I have enjoyed every class.  And I think this really benefits parents and shows us how to be more of a teacher to our children by making reading fun for them. The teachers made this class fun and interesting.”

Children’s Reading Foundation of Dona Ana County continues to grow throughout the community. There are many ways to get involved. Right now we are looking for warehouse space, volunteers to work with inventory and various office and computer tasks, people with strong backs to move boxes of books, as well as skilled fundraisers, grant writers, and people who would enjoy reading to children this summer.