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Literacy program’s future uncertain

Local educators say Even Start has helped English language learners improve their test scores

Posted: October 26, 2009 11:04 p.m.
Updated: October 27, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Jesus Hernandez and daughter Stephanie, 3, use a sponge roller to paint a pumpkin during a literacy program called Even Start in Newhall Elementary School on Friday.

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Alma Vega wants to create a better future for her two children, ages 2 and 1.

The 17-year-old is struggling to learn English and how to take care of her children. That led her to the Newhall School District's Even Start program earlier this year, where she has been able to learn and befriend other families who face similar struggles.

"I feel comfortable here," she said. "I don't feel alone."

But parents' access to Even Start next year remains up in the air as federal leaders consider cutting the program, said Nancy Copley, assistant superintendent of instruction for the Newhall School District.

Federal officials have said there's no hard data to prove Even Start is any more effective than other literacy programs nationwide.

But educators in the SCV and across California say the program has helped families and boosted test scores among English-language learners, a group that school districts often struggle to reach.

"In our district, it's making a big difference," Copley said.

Even Start, in place for nine years at Newhall School District at Newhall and McGrath elementary schools with 25 families each, serves low-income families of Newhall with children 18 months to 5 years old, said Kelly Ferko, Newhall's Even Start program director.

The program focuses on early childhood education, English-as-Second-Language classes, training for parents and interactive literacy activities for parents and children.

It owes its effectiveness to the fact it requires parents to participate in their own literacy development, said Maria Trejo, the state administrator for Even Start.

State data shows that Even Start students do better in pre-school and when they enter elementary school, she said.

That leads to better attendance and stronger performance on state tests.

Nationwide statistics, however, make the program appear far less impressive, Copley said.

So Even Start has faced funding hurdles for the last five years as federal officials have considered eliminating it altogether.

Most recently, President Barack Obama cut the program. Federal lawmakers later restored funding to it, but a final decision on the matter has not been made. State leaders expect to find out if Even Start funding will return in November or December.

For the current fiscal year, Newhall School District received $125,000, making it the only Santa Clarita Valley school district with the program.

But if the federal government pulls the funding, Ferko said she doesn't think the Newhall School District would be able to offer Even Start on its own.

The majority of families enrolled in Even Start are Hispanic, with two Korean-speaking families and one family from Jordan.

Most often, parents have low-literacy levels and limited English skills, leaving parents unable to teach and interact with their children, she said.

Parents learn how to read report cards and guide their children academically, Ferko said.

"A lot of them want to learn English so they can help their children with their homework," Ferko said.

Even Start has worked for Jesus Hernandez, 45, of Newhall who has been involved with Even Start for three years.

He said through a Spanish translator: "We learn how to educate ourselves so that our children will be better."

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