Suffolk’s Even Start program featured at national conference

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 3, 2005

Staff Report

Suffolk’s Even Start was one of two eastern Virginia Even Start programs recently featured at the National Conference on Family Literacy in Louisville, Ky.

Partnering for Reading, Educational and Parental Preparedness (PREPP), Suffolk Public School’s Even Start program and Shore People Advancing Readiness for Kindergarten (SPARK-Plus), a collaborative effort between the adult education program at Eastern Shore Community College and Accomack County schools presented two unique models for effectively incorporating environmental education in a family literacy program.

Email newsletter signup

Darlene Wiggins Dockery, program director for the Suffolk Public Schools program, presented information regarding brain development research that suggests a link between lack of school readiness, too much exposure to television, computer games and other visual media.

She sought a way to equip parents in the most vulnerable families, such as those served by Even Start, to engage their children in activities that develop the brain’s deeper processing abilities such as imagination. Dockery saw a potential model in the SPARK program.

Grace Cormons, family learning instructor at the Eastern Shore Community College, started the SPARK family literacy program on the Eastern Shore seven years ago. The program uses their own SPARK Kids books, featuring SPARK families learning outdoors, to teach literacy skills and lay the foundation for reading, math and science readiness. Natural areas provide a &uot;level playing field&uot; where families from different backgrounds all find new things to learn.

Children and their parents are prepared to further their knowledge as they learn essential cognitive strategies through nature. Approximately 150 preschoolers and their families are involved. There are three components to SPARK: weekend Family Learning/Family Fun (FLFF) Days, weekly take home activity packets, SPARK Kids books. SPARK instructors meet weekly with parents in the workplace, at the schools or at the library. Parents learn how to use the SPARK materials so that they become effective teachers for their children. The program has received an Even Start grant to offer a bi-lingual version-SPARK PLUS to intensively serve Hispanic families.

Inspired, Dockery approached Julie Study, the Northeastern Regional Environmental Educator for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service with the idea of collaborating to create a family literacy curriculum around the Great Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge, which has headquarters in Suffolk.

After a year’s effort, this interactive literacy pilot curriculum was developed. It features four modules with lesson plans for each Even Start program component, adult education, parenting education, interactive literacy-PACT and early childhood education. The Adult Learner lesson plans are linked to Equipped for the Future standards, the National standards-based educational improvement initiative for adult basic education and English language learning. The early childhood education lesson plans are linked to Virginia Standards of Learning.

Adult and early childhood educators representing both North Carolina and Virginia Even Start programs and the Suffolk Literacy Council were trained in the use of the curriculum including Grace and Matt Cormons of SPARK-Plus who shared their experiences with family literacy in the natural environment. Suffolk Public Schools Even Start program’s pilot implementation was sponsored in part by the city of Suffolk Department of Tourism, Suffolk area naturalist, Pat Gorman, Wal-Mart, Chick Filet, the Great Dismal Swamp Coalition, and Project WILD through the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and Virginia Division of the Izaak Walton League of America.

The National Center for Family Literacy is recognized worldwide as the leader in family literacy development. NCFL works with educators and community builders through an array of services to design and sustain programs that meet the most urgent educational needs of disadvantaged families. Each spring, NCFL presents the premier National Conference on Family Literacy. Drawing nearly two thousand professionals from the literacy, research and policy fields, the National Conference on Family Literacy is an unparalleled professional development opportunity.

The conference annually features more than 100 special and general sessions highlighting cutting-edge strategies and initiatives that promote literacy and language development for children and adults. This conference’s theme was,&uot; Literacy Changes Lives.&uot; Grace Cormons represented SPARK in her session entitled,

&uot;Adding SPARK to Your Family Literacy Program.&uot; Dockery represented Suffolk Public Schools’ PREPP in her session entitled, &uot; ‘Go Outside and Play’ Family Nature Club: A Design for Environmental Education and Family Literacy.&uot;

For more information about SPARK, contact Cormons at Eastern Shore Community College, or (757) 789-1793. For more information about PREPP, contact Dockery at the Pruden Center for Industry and Technology, or (757) 925-5651.