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Schooling for Life: Moms and Dads are Grads

11/01/2014 by Melody Simmons

Listen to the audio story, look at the photos slideshow and read transcript below.


  • mom with infant on lap reads book to her kids
    It's never too early to start reading books with children. (Photo by Melissa Bresnahan)


Teaching Parents to be Better Teachers

It’s graduation day at Parent University. In the basement of a church on Baltimore’s west side, 22 families that participated in the 10-week program are beaming with pride. Jennifer Ludd watches as blue and gold balloons and a festive sheet cake are brought in for the celebration.

Ludd had her first child when she was 15 and dropped out of high school to raise him. Now 30, she is an unemployed mother of three. “I’m just trying, trying as a parent to change my lifestyle for the kids,” she explains.

Parent University is an outreach effort of the University of Maryland School of Social Work. The program is centered in the Upton-Druid Heights community – a neighborhood made infamous in the HBO series “The Wire.” The streets are rife with crime, drugs and boarded up houses. Unemployment here is at 30 percent and half of the households live below the poverty line. Parent U, a voluntary program, aims to raise the academic and life prospects of the youngest of residents, from birth to age three, by creating social and educational opportunities for their parents.

Bronwyn Mayden, an architect of Parent U, emphasizes that parents are their children’s first teacher: “One of the things we always say is it’s FED: Follow their lead, enjoy the time with them and then D is describe what is happening in the play with your child.”

Research shows that kids in poor families grow up hearing up to 30 million fewer words before they start school – a word gap that schools struggle to close. Parent U encourages adults to talk and interact more with their kids. Among the program’s 86 graduates, nearly 35 percent reported they had become more engaged with their children in age-appropriate experiences. Most enrolled their kids in Early Head Start or Head Start programs.

“One of the things we do through our whole program is we follow from the beginning of life all the way until the child is 21, 22, 23 years of age, we’re following this pipeline of interconnected services,” explains Mayden. “So that we know that whenever we “touch” that child or that family, we know that and we are really assessing what we’re doing with them. Some of the children are about six or seven now and and we’re seeing how well they are doing in school. These are the ones you can see if you go into a pre-K classroom, or a kindergarten classroom we’re not seeing the social or emotional issues. They are the ones that are able to concentrate, sit still.”

Starting the Day Right

Ten consecutive Tuesdays, families gather for circle time following a breakfast of eggs, sausage, fruit and biscuits. Parents and their children bond for 30 minutes through song, storytelling and play.

Anthony Knox, age 32, sits on the floor and sings to his small children. A 6-foot-8 professional basketball player for the Bay Area Shuckers, Knox seems like a giant among the little ones. He says he enrolled in Parent U because he was frequently away from home playing ball and needed to learn how to be more patient with his five kids.

“Before I came here, I really didn’t know how it was going to go because I wasn’t prepared for the children – and it was not driving me crazy, but I was reaching the point … but since I’ve been here, at Parent University, it’s calmed me down and I think it really, really going to take me to more heights as a dad and that’s going to help my family better.”

Meeting People Where They Are

Each week, Parent U features a guest speaker on topics such as nutrition, immunization and relationship building. Dr. Jacqueline Fulton, a pediatrician in Baltimore for over three decades, talked with moms and dads about mental health.

“Our kids right now live in a war zone. Every day, all day long, from the minute they wake up till when they go to sleep,” says Fulton. “Most of the kids tell you they are not afraid of anything. That’s not normal. The human body has a fright and flight. You’re supposed to be able to get scared and run. Somebody points a gun at you, you shouldn’t be standing there going ‘kill me, kill me.’ But our kids don’t have that and they’re always at this level, instead of dropping to normal, going up, coming back down. So our kids are very stressed out.”

And that means parents are stressed out too. Linda Kees is a 2011 graduate of Parent U who now serves as a paid peer educator. She and her three children have survived Upton-Druid Heights for nine years.

“I just see a lot of kids hanging around – selling their little drugs and it always been different fights and shooting. I have watched kids grow up to be like 18-19 years old and they were shot down, not exactly in my face, but like a court away from me, and like my children can be outside and we hear these gunshots and my kids know that they have to run – or look around first. That’s why I always tell my kids stay close to the house, run to the house. If you don’t have to drop to the ground. I see a lot of violence and drugs and stuff going around in the community. This community really needs help.”

Big Promises to Little Kids

Upton-Druid Heights IS getting some help — from the U.S. Department of Education which has named it a Promise Neighborhood. That means the federal government is making deep investments in programs for infants and youth through age 21. They refer to the area as “Promise Heights.”

Clinical Instructor Kyla Liggett Creel, an expert in early childhood, describes Parent U’s approach: “There’s two levels, one is theoretical we use an attachment-based theory and it really looks at responsive parenting, building an attunement between the parent and child, getting some narration of the child’s play and really being responsive to the child’s needs. Being attuned to their disengagement and engagement cues. All of that is the clinical piece, the academic piece. But in the community, you got to bring it in a way that parents really can enjoy it and it’s not like I’m teaching you how to parent. Because that’s not the intent. So it really has become enjoy time with your child, you know, have a relationship where you feel like this is nice to be with each other.”

Liggett-Creel is white and well aware of the racial dynamics in the room. Nearly all of the participants have been African American, while some of the social workers are white. So, the program has focused on empowering parents to lead their own classes and form alliances to support each other. By the third session, Liggett-Creel says, most have made new and lasting friendships.

“We see that parents are definitely calmer with their children. They enjoy them, they look forward to it … you can see it, you can feel it as an energy in the room. When you see those changes, you kind of go ‘yes, this is it.’ This is actually having an impact on their relationship that will be life long. It’s magical to watch and love every second that you can see that smile between the parent and child that maybe in the beginning was fleeting and now is just adoration and a love affair that you get to watch happen between them.”


That’s the case for Ariel Brandon, a 23-year-old mother of three who became a mom right after she graduated high school.

“When I first came to this program, I was not open,” she recalls. “But now I am more open. So, this program really give me going as far as my voice – I have found my voice to my kids, and myself and my peers.”

That, she added, has changed her life – and the lives of her children – for the better.




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