One of the main educational outreach programs in the community through the Northwest Georgia Early Childhood Initiative has been to engage families with children under the age of 4 to better prepare them for public school.

“When I first started teaching really there was no pre-K,” said Whitfield County Schools Superintendent Judy Gilreath. “In kindergarten, all you expected a kid to know was their first and last name, where they lived, their phone number and how to go to the bathroom by themselves. But things have really changed. Our world has changed.”

Now, more and more literacy initiatives are focused on giving children the building blocks of alphabet and reading by age 3. One of the readily available tools to aid younger children are programs on the nation’s Public Broadcasting System. In Georgia, the PBS Kids program of television series and digital learning tools is paired with Georgia Public Broadcasting’s education department.

On Monday at the Dalton-Whitfield County Public Library, it was announced that partnership will pay dividends for Whitfield County families and students.

Officials from GPB, the Community Foundation of Northwest Georgia and other local education and government leaders were on hand as it was announced GPB had been selected to receive one of three nationwide educational grants from PBS. The grant will create the GPB/PBS Family Engagement in Schools Initiative in Whitfield County.

“Over the next couple of years, we are here as your partner in education,” said GPB Director of Education Laura Evans. “The core of (the grant) is that all families want their child to learn and grow and succeed. Every parent wants that for their child. Sometimes, families — for whatever reason — have trouble feeling connected to schools and a formal learning environment. That is what this partnership is all about is empowering families to succeed.”

The partnership came about when Evans and Suzanne Harbin met at a conference in 2018. Harbin is the Director of Early Childhood Initiative for the Community Foundation of Northwest Georgia, which partners with local school systems and community charitable and social services to focus on early education programs. When an opportunity to apply for a national grant came for Harbin, she said she already had a ready partner community in mind — Whitfield County.

“There are a lot of communities across the state and a lot of high-needs communities across the state,” Evans said. “We want community partners who are committed to the same goals that we are committed to, and that is supporting kindergarten readiness and the ability of all children — no matter their background — being ready to enter kindergarten well prepared.”

Harbin said engaging with children isn’t the issue in northwest Georgia, but engaging parents with limited educational backgrounds, diverse language skillsets and a cultural divide can be a huge hurdle.

“We have been concentrating on school readiness and parent engagement (for the past five years),” Harbin said. “One of our calling cards in this community is that clearly we have lots of moms with less than 12 years of education. We know we have to talk not only to the children but also to the parents and help to empower them and help them learn the ways they can help their children.”

The grant will provide the hiring of a “family-engagement” liaison who will coordinate the local effort with GPB. A needs-assessment of the community and the school systems will be done with an outside educational research firm, and Evans said the new program will be tailored to the community.

“We will implement a strong program using the PBS Kids resources to make learning fun and engaging families,” Evans said. “We want it to be fun. We will determine a project plan for how to best engage families in learning and then execute that plan over the next year and a half. That could be family engagement work shops, teacher training, ed camps, kids camps, it could be a myriad of different types of initiatives that will strengthen that home-to-school connection so families can feel empowered in their children’s learning. It’s never a one size fits all approach.”

David Aft, president of Community Foundation of Northwest Georgia, said the community couldn’t have found a more capable teammate.

“Public broadcasting knows how to reach kids, and they know how to reach families,” Aft said. “We could not have a better partner in this community than Georgia Public Broadcasting. When Laura talks about the fertile ground in Dalton, it is because this is a community that gets stuff done. This is a community that knows how to work together. It is a community they can trust to fulfill the dreams of their partnership. We’re ready to get to work.”

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