Parents as first teachers: The cornerstone of a healthy society

Porter-Leath, best known for its Head Start Preschool programs, is addressing the needs of Memphis children long before they enter their first Pre-K classroom. Through Cornerstone, a home visit program that educates parents in high risk areas, they are impacting children from conception to age three.
Founded in 1850 as Memphis’ first orphanage, Porter-Leath now provides a wide range of community services to aid children in need.  Most famously, the nonprofit helms the Head Start Preschool Programs in Memphis. Head Start targets young children from low-income families to deliver all of the essential building blocks necessary to be successful in school.

Most people see the value in a good preschool education. Data shows children who attend preschool do better in school, and that those who succeed in their K-12 education are successful adults. The end result is a stronger workforce and fewer social ills in the future. 
But what about that critical time before preschool?  Or even that critical time before birth, when children are in utero? 
Porter-Leath understands the impact of reaching children at an even younger age and for the better part of a decade the organization has worked to address pre-preschool needs. Its Cornerstone Program may be the lesser known component to Head Start, but it is vital. Cornerstone gives newborns and preschool children the best start in life by helping pregnant mothers and parenting families in their homes, thereby reducing infant mortality and improving literacy and language skills.

“With over 85 percent of the brain developed before age three, this is a critical time for parental engagement to stimulate their child's development. This continues until the child is five, or more commonly, enters a quality early childhood learning facility, such as our preschool program,” explained Shmeka Gray, the Supervisor of The Cornerstone Program.

Under Cornerstone, parent educators trained by Porter-Leath are assigned to selected pregnant women in impoverished areas.  

“They receive bi-weekly home visits from their assigned parent educator, who shares information with them centered on having a healthy pregnancy. This continues until the baby arrives, then phase two of the program begins. The parent educator begins to help parents become their child's first teacher, engaging their child as he or she grows,” Gray said.
A multi-faceted program, Cornerstone works with low-income and at-risk children and families to increase healthy birth weight outcomes, prepare parents, and promote economic stability. The program provides a box full of information for new moms across Shelby County. Cornerstone is described as "highly entrepreneurial" as well as cost-effective, utilizing AmeriCorps members as the backbone of the home visitation pieces.

Cornerstone educators follow a national, research-driven curriculum called Parents as Teachers (PAT). The program has received some national attention recently, when the National Journal followed a Memphis educator on a home visit. The subsequent article was highlights the PAT curriculum and is stunning, painting a picture of what some Memphis families are up against—and how this local program is making a difference.

"To me, this family is really emblematic of what this program is all about,” said Demeatrise Givens, a parent educator, of the featured family. “Their life includes lots of sad realities, rolled into one. But the same love and hope that so many people have for their children is there. They just need the tools, a little something to get Junior where he is perfectly capable of going.”

“Givens is visiting Bowen, baby Darnell, and his mom, Markita Logwood, 25, to talk parenting skills, brain-building activities, and basic life coaching. She's armed with a black binder and what looks like a half-ream of worksheets. The multicolored zip-top bag she carries into the apartment is stuffed with oversized, connectable plastic blocks that are irresistible to toddlers,” wrote Janell Ross in the National Journal.

While Gray, Givens, and a whole team of professional educators routinely visit homes across Shelby County, they are always seeking volunteers to assist in their centers.  They also host an annual baby shower in September for their Cornerstone moms. “And we always need help collecting new items to give our attendees,” added Gray.

“We've been doing this [conducting the Cornerstone Program] for over ten years, and while the infant mortality rate is improving in Memphis, there's still major work to be done. On top of that, brain development is critical to future academic success. Engaged parents stimulate their child's development, resulting in better academic performance down the road, which leads to a better equipped workforce. Long-term impacts from programs like PAT are tremendous,” Gray said.

Read more articles by Kate Crowder.

Kate Crowder is a freelance writer and veteran educator who has taught for over a decade in public schools. The longtime Memphian and mother of three is frequently found on the stage as musician, actor, or director when not filling her role as contributor and Assistant Editor at High Ground News.
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