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Fall 2000

Hope Springs Eternal

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Enter Hope Street. Dealing with early-childhood education issues is one of the center's primary charges, explains Vickie Kropenske, Hope Street's director. Housed on the grounds of California Hospital Medical Center - a community hospital operated by Catholic Healthcare West Southern California - Hope Street falls under the umbrella of UCLA's interdisciplinary Center for Healthier Children, Families and Communities.

Early intervention - the earlier the better - is key, says Neal Halfon, professor of pediatrics and public health and director of the Center for Healthier Children, Families and Communities. Research on early brain development shows that infancy and the early-childhood years are critical to a child's development.

"The explosion in brain-development research is really highlighting what's at stake early in a child's life," says Halfon. "No more than 1 to 2 percent of kids are actually born with some kind of neurologically based developmental problem, but by second or third grade, we have between 12 and 18 percent of children going into special education. So something is happening between birth and when they start school during which kids are falling off the map." If problems are identified earlier as they first begin to manifest, he says, they can be addressed more effectively "because the brain is more plastic when the child is younger."

At Hope Street, the foundation of this approach is Early Head Start, a program for children from birth to age 3 that focuses on development and early intervention to catch and prevent problems that could adversely affect a child later in life. Early Head Start targets families primarily through a family-services coordinator, or "home visitor," who goes to the home for 90 minutes each week to monitor the child's development, encourage interaction between the parents and children and help families address broader issues that affect children's health. The home visits are structured around a specific lesson plan, developed by the home visitor and parents with support from the center's multidisciplinary, clinical staff, and tailored to each family's individualized needs.

"You become almost a family member," says Araceli Campos, who has been going to Aguilar's home for almost a year, since Aguilar's youngest, Jessica, 2, was enrolled. "I come often enough to keep the momentum up, to support the family, to help them become more self-sufficient. And I learn from them, too."

Aguilar has noticed the difference. "Jessica's more aware and open," she says. "She understands things better. I'm very grateful to see my daughter develop better from the program. I also learned to help my children in their education, how to help them progress, how to be a better parent."

For Maria Olea, a woman with three children and a shy smile, the program has been amazing, especially for her 3-year-old, Ana. When Ana started Early Head Start last November, she would hardly speak. "We were concerned she might have a hearing problem, because she wasn't speaking," says Luz Cubias, the Olea family's home visitor. "We brought her books, we'd talk to her a lot, read to her, try to do activities that would emphasize language. Now she pretty much names everything and is using more two- or three-word phrases."

"A lot of the language needs of our children can be environmentally remedied. Many of our parents believe that once their children get to school age, that's where the real education starts," explains social-services coordinator Sherrie Segovia '77, who supervises the home visitors. "But drawing on the brain research that's come out, we teach parents that their kids come with the opportunity to learn from the beginning, and it's a matter of stimulating them from day one."

That has made all the difference for Olea. "I read to them, I talk to my children now," she says with pride. "I'm doing activities. I am more involved. My husband and I play with the children, and he speaks with Ana and talks with her about what she did that day in class."

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