ARKANSAS FAVORS THE BOLD

HIPPY Kids Change Landscape of World through Empowered Parents

There was a period in our nation’s history when being referred to as a hippy kid was disdainful. Today, however, being a HIPPY kid means academic achievement, strong families and promise for the future.

Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY) is a program that works with families in their own homes to support parents as their child’s first and most important teacher. An international program that started in Israel in 1969 as a research and demonstration project, HIPPY is now in countries throughout the world, including Germany, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Canada along with Israel and the United States.

HIPPY USA, which was founded in 1984, was introduced to Arkansas in 1985 when then First Lady of Arkansas Hillary Clinton learned of the program during a visit to Miami, Florida. After witnessing what the program could accomplish for low-income families, Clinton decided to help establish HIPPY in Arkansas. In 1986, the first HIPPY programs began in Arkansas. The national headquarters was moved from New York City to Little Rock in 2007.

“Secretary Clinton recently spoke at our national conference, and she noted that HIPPY was focused on early childhood development and learning before it was the ‘in’ thing to do,” said Lia Lent, executive director of HIPPY USA. “She also pointed out that children who come from low-income families hear about 30 million fewer words on average than children from more affluent families. What HIPPY USA does is close that word gap and give all children a level playing field when it comes to education.”

Today, there are 135 HIPPY program sites in 21 states and Washington, D.C. that serve 15,000 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds and their families. Designed to improve child outcomes by supporting, HIPPY fosters children’s intellectual, social and physical development by empowering parents with the skills, tools and confidence necessary to work with their children in the home. Research conducted over 20 years in the United States and eight countries has shown the HIPPY model to be effective in improving school readiness, parent involvement, school attendance, classroom behavior and academic achievement for children participating in the HIPPY program.

“Moving to Little Rock enabled HIPPY USA to be in the middle of the country and closer to our programs both here in Arkansas and across the South,” Lent said. “Arkansas Children’s Hospital runs the Arkansas HIPPY program for the state and is a wonderful partner for HIPPY USA, contributing space on the campus for our national headquarters. It is wonderful to be in a community where we are now seeing generations of HIPPY families—HIPPY kids are now HIPPY moms and dads with their kids in HIPPY programs.”

“Many times, our HIPPY parents become home visitors,” said Donna Kirkwood, national program director for HIPPY USA. “Some HIPPY parents become home visitors and move on to finishing their education and then become teachers or counselors. It’s incredibly gratifying to see how the cycle of encouraging one family can positively affect generations and the community.”

In fact, one of HIPPY’s goals is to strengthen communities and families by enabling and encouraging parents to actively prepare their children for success in school. HIPPY programs serve families from diverse ethnic and geographic groups across the nation, particularly those most at risk because of poverty, parents’ limited education and social isolation.

“What we see is a communication gap between some parents and teachers,” Kirkwood said. “Many times, parents who enter the program don’t understand what educators are saying to them about their kids. If you think about how intimidating parent teacher conferences can be, now imagine being a parent who did not have good school experiences. Think about meeting with the teacher and the entire mystique around it: the teacher is in charge, and knows more than you. Then think about being an adult who doesn’t understand the terms the teacher is using about your child. It can be overwhelming, frightening and intimidating.”

To address this situation, HIPPY works with parents to empower them both as teachers and advocates for their children. “We teach parents how to communicate with educators,” Kirkwood said. “It’s about an adult talking with an adult so the parents feel they are on the same level as the teacher, principal, director or any other person in their child’s school.”

In addition to a set of carefully developed curriculum, books and materials designed to strengthen their children’s cognitive skills, early literacy skills, social/emotional and physical development, the HIPPY community supports parents as a child’s first and most important teachers.

“Secretary Clinton said she is proud to be a HIPPY mom,” Lent said. “Having someone with the national and international influence and recognition she has helps awareness not only of HIPPY but also of what Arkansas has accomplished and our potential as a community.”

Considering President Barack Obama just included in the nation’s budget substantial funding increases for early childhood programs, it’s an exciting time for early childhood education.

“What we know is evidence-based home visiting programs like HIPPY show improved maternal and child health in their early years; long-lasting and positive impacts on parental skills; and enhanced children’s cognitive, language and social-emotional development and school readiness,” Lent said. “What we witness every day is at-risk children are getting a stronger start in their lives because their parents are getting support and encouragement from their community. What all of this means is a significant return on investment through increased earning power for participants and reduced societal expenses in health care, criminal justice and remedial schooling.”

Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY) works with families to support a parent’s role as their child’s first teacher.

Considering President Barack Obama just included in the nation’s budget substantial funding increases for early childhood programs, it’s an exciting time for early childhood education.

Q&A

with Donna Kirkwood, national program manager for HIPPY USA

What brought you back to Arkansas to pursue your career?

Imagine what a spring day sounds like, and it’s similar to talking with Donna Kirkwood: fresh, alive and ready for what comes next.

“Of all the things about Little Rock, the trees were what I missed most,” she said. “People always look at me strangely when I say that, but when I lived in Dallas and Houston for so many years, it’s just not something you see all the time.

“I grew up in Little Rock and graduated from Central High School. I went to college in Texas then worked as a preschool teacher then a preschool director then a college professor for the 20 years I lived in Texas. I wanted to move back to Arkansas, but it was HIPPY’s mission that brought me here. The opportunity to help families reach their potential is really a privilege. If we can empower an entire family, we can do the same for communities.

“In particular, Arkansas has communities where everyone can belong. That’s something else I missed about Little Rock—the hometown feeling. Since I’ve been back as national program director, it’s not unusual to run into a HIPPY mom or HIPPY child at the store or on errands, and we always chat for a few minutes and catch up. And the conveniences of Little Rock compared to Dallas or Houston just can’t be beat. It takes 15 minutes to drive from the airport to downtown Little Rock. In Houston, it takes you another hour of travel after you’ve landed just to get home or work.

“Coming back to Little Rock, I was so happy to see such a sense of pride around Central High School. The Little Rock Central High School Memory Project is doing so much to educate students on how civil rights have progressed over the past 60 years. According to the Memory Project, Central High students in Civics classes collect the personal stories of family and neighbors who lived through those historic and current civil rights struggles. They interview these people and write an essay about it, and the essay is then posted to the Memory Project’s site (lrchmemory.org/wordpress/). That’s another way Arkansans as a community support and encourage one another.

“But what I’m most proud of is how much HIPPY is in demand. Not just in Arkansas, but all over the country. Typically, HIPPY is in more rural areas of the state, and there are waiting lists for families to become HIPPY families. When the parents see their children’s milestones being achieved, they see what they can accomplish together as a team, as one unit. To be a part of that is an honor.”

HIPPY USA

BRIAN CHILSON