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Baby Steps Toward Educational Success

Baby Steps Toward Educational Success
Noted columnist launches program to help poor parents guide their children’s learning

By Eleanor Lee Yates

Last year, Washington Post Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist William Raspberry attended a reunion at the small, private Episcopal school he graduated from in Okolona, Miss, population 3,500. “The school was a run by Black faculty who equipped us for life. It was a way out of poverty for many students,” he says. “An incredible array of people came out of that place.”
Though the school closed in 1965, alumni and faculty gather regularly to reminisce. However, Raspberry realized that nostalgia has its limits.
“We look back with wonder and gratitude at those who made life better for us. I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if 30 years from now people in Okolona were thanking us,” he says.
As a journalist, Raspberry frequently writes about other people’s actions. Now the time had come for him to initiate action.
Throughout his years of writing about education he heard impressive theories and concepts about education.
“But successful programs begin in places where individuals reach individuals. You start small,” he says.
He started “Baby Steps,” a program to help his hometown’s youngest citizens — from birth to age 4 — become better prepared for school. It’s a formidable challenge. Okolona is as poor as it ever was.
“Some of these parents didn’t succeed in school themselves, but that doesn’t mean they don’t love their children and want them to succeed,” he says.
Raspberry’s program is based partially on author and education expert Dr. Dorothy Rich’s MegaSkills concept: Specific attitudes and traits lead to success in school and in life. Some of these include perseverance, confidence, responsibility and cooperation. “Baby Steps” also includes a language element based on the significance of “chatter” between parents and children. One significant study shows that poor parents chatter less with their children than middle-class parents do, and poor children are less verbal when they start school.
“With low-income parents there’s much business or instructional conversation,” Raspberry says. Parents tell a toddler to “Put that down,” or “Stop making so much noise,” but may not have much casual conversation. Raspberry says this could hark back to slave times, when Blacks avoided situations in which their children could get the family in trouble just because they were Black. Blacks learned to exert a special kind of discipline designed to forestall problems. In many cases Black children were over-disciplined, he said.
Raspberry believes this cultural attitude can be remedied. “Baby Steps” parents are encouraged to teach life lessons with familiar objects and activities. Planting a pack of seeds could dovetail with a lesson on patience.
“I think our parents are learning to be more compassionate and more engaging. The program is helping them become more confident that they can make a positive difference in their children’s learning,” says Ivy Lovelady, an educational consultant Raspberry hired to oversee the program.
Tasha Taylor gives high marks to “Baby Steps.” She learned about the program at her church and was inspired by one of Raspberry’s talks. The 30-year-old mother of 2-year-old Miracal says she’s becoming more aware of ways to help her daughter learn.
Taylor works full-time at a foam factory 20 miles away but doesn’t miss “Baby Steps.”
“It’s fun,” she says.
The program offers five parent education sessions a month. The Okolona school district and local churches volunteer space, and childcare centers provide babysitting services as well as publicize the program to parents.
In addition to group sessions, trained volunteers visit homes for individual sessions on language skills with parents.
The initial kick-off meeting for “Baby Steps” at Okolona’s city hall was packed, recalls Raspberry, and everyone seemed eager to help.
“Not one person has told me no or even maybe,” says Raspberry, sounding surprised. He admits his name recognition helped get the ball rolling. But now there are seven volunteer parent educators and local residents volunteer to read stories, cook meals for special events and host occasional speakers.
Because of the interest, Raspberry realized he needed some paid help. He commutes between his home in Washington, D.C., and Duke University, where he is the Knight Professor of the Practice of Communications and Journalism at the DeWitt Wallace Center and the Terry Sanford Institute. He hired Carla James, a PTA president and former teacher, to run the program.
“I first thought I’d just be paying for airfare and hotel bills for guests,” he says. To avoid any conflict of interest, he is using his own money to support the program. He talked to his three grown children, all of whom have their master’s degrees, and told them their inheritance may be affected. They were totally supportive, he said.
Raspberry said the challenge of “Baby Steps” will be sustaining the effort.
“I have to get down there frequently to keep the excitement going,” he says.

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