By Meg O'Neil
For the past three years, a toddler enrichment program called Baby Steps has stressed the importance of cultivating a strong bond between parents and children ages 0 to 3. The group will celebrate its educational achievements with a fundraiser at the Atlantic Beach Club on Thursday, April 19 at 5 p.m.
Started in 2009 by Newport School Committee member Dr. Charles Shoemaker and 10 local volunteers, Baby Steps was founded with the goal of increasing literacy and social skills in young infants and children while instilling the idea that parental involvement is key to children’s future academic success.
While the program targets families from low-income housing, all families are welcomed to the group’s monthly Saturday sessions at the Florence Gray Center in the city’s north end.
Whether it’s through reading, singing, creating, or visiting the zoo, beaches, and going on train rides, Baby Steps provides opportunities to create an early, but lasting educational foundation between parent and child.
From the first meeting nearly three years ago where only six families showed up, the group experienced a surge in attendance to 30 families in the second meeting, with today’s core group consisting of roughly 75 active families. Since its inception, over 300 families and 450 kids have participated in Saturday sessions.
Shoemaker explains that the concept of Baby Steps did not originate from a single event or idea, but rather a “confluence of several observations and findings.” After the federally mandated “No Child Left Behind” required testing in every state, test scores and student progress were easy to document and compare – especially In terms of observing achievement levels amongst minorities.
According to the results of the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) test, Latinos, African-Americans, and economically disadvantaged students lag behind their counterparts in Newport. For instance, at the third grade level in the 2010-11 school year, only 53-percent of Newport’s students are proficient in math. Breaking it down further, 78-percent of white students are listed as proficient; compared to 33-percent of Hispanic students; 31-percent of African-American students; and 36-percent of economically disadvantaged students.
Besides low proficiency scores, two other factors led toward the development of the Baby Steps program - alarmingly high dropout and absenteeism rates in Newport’s schools.
According to data provided by “Kid’s Count of Rhode Island,” the state’s “Core Cities” (Central Falls, Newport, Pawtucket, Providence, West Warwick, and Woonsocket) 4-year graduation rate is 65-percent; with a dropout rate of 35-percent. Those numbers fair slightly better in Newport where the graduation rate is 78-percent, with a 22-percent dropout rate – a number that Shoemaker believes Baby Steps can change for the better.
In examining “chronically absent” students, which is defined as any student who is absent 18 or more days of the school year, 19 percent of Newport’s kindergarten through third graders are considered absentees. Once students reach Thompson Middle School, that number jumps to 25 percent and then skyrockets to 42 percent of all Rogers High School students considered truant.
Shoemaker says that due to the “greater use of information technology, researchers … have concluded that potential dropouts and absenteeism can be identified at the elementary level and back as early as age 3; implying that birth to 3-years are a critical period of a child’s education.”
In August 2009, Shoemaker and 10 Newporters, including educators, social workers, and medical professionals visited Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) in New York. While there, the group saw first-hand the effectiveness of Canada’s “Baby College,” a pilot program that involved parents of infants to become involved in their baby’s earliest developmental stages of education.
Inspired, the group returned to Newport, and by November 2009, held the first Saturday session of Baby Steps.
Stressing the importance of creating a bond between parent and child, Baby Steps believes that special relationship is the “cornerstone” of developing the necessary skills for learning. For instance, Shoemaker explains, “Parents need to sing and read to their child even before the child can speak, because this is when the ‘circuits’ in the brain are being connected.”
Education experts suggest that if a child is not part of a trusting relationship with a caregiver, the negative effects could be long lasting. The goal of Baby Steps is to have a child’s brain be “hard wired” in a positive manner.
While currently solvent, a program like Baby Steps needs money to continue to operate and achieve their goals of toddler education. The group has received no aid from the government, but has been supported by grants from the John Clarke Foundation, The Rhode Island Foundation, Bank Newport, and donations from area churches and two previous fundraisers. Their third fundraiser will take place on Thursday, April 19 at 5 p.m. at the Atlantic Beach Club. Tickets are $25 per person and include a pasta dinner as well as a raffle. For more information, contact Linda Finn at 258-6851 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Tickets can also be purchased online at www.babysteps-ri.org.
Baby Steps hopes to continue to make aware the importance of educating the youngest age group and their parents and encourages all those interested to attend their fundraiser and Saturday sessions. The next regular session will be held on Saturday, April 14 at the Florence Gray Center, 1 York St., in Newport with a family breakfast from 9 – 10 a.m., followed by the program’s activities from 10 a.m. – noon.
“We’ve come a long way in three years,” Shoemaker said. “There wasn’t a roadmap for a program like this, but people now understand the importance of education for 0 to 3 year olds, and we’re finding our way.”