Early learning program in San Jose navigates post-pandemic changes – The Mercury News

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Editor’s Note: This article was written for Mosaic Vision, an independent journalism training program for high school students who report and photograph stories under the guidance of professional journalists.

The upheaval of COVID-19 could have destroyed the San Jose family resource program ParentChild+. But the fledgling program survived and now is reaching more children and their families than ever.

Launched in January 2020, just months before the pandemic shutdown, ParentChild+ was meant to be an in-person parent education program. Now the directors have taken lessons learned during the pandemic to create a hybrid program that aims to fit the needs of the families they serve.

ParentChild+ is a free statewide program that focuses on getting children up to age 3 ready for school by empowering parents to take the lead in their child’s education. Positive parenting skills, guidance during different activities and literacy skills are taught by teams of specialists who visit with each family twice a week.

In 2020, ParentChild+ served 291 children and their families in California. When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, “we had no idea if our families were going to leave or if they were going to stay,” said Whitney Evans, California’s director for ParentChild+.

But, Evans said, they found that switching from in-person to virtual — although it was a huge change — allowed ParentChild+ to reach more families. Those with tough living situations such as homelessness, constant moving or extremely crowded situations couldn’t always meet in person.

Jessica Moctezuma, an early learning specialist at the ParentChild+ program within Somos Mayfair, an East San Jose nonprofit community resource organization, said one of her families was displaced several times.

“She was very consistent with the program, so I would ask her: You’re always in these challenging and tough situations but you have a lot of resiliency. Where is your resiliency coming from?

“She said, ‘The reason why I’m consistent and still here is because of you. You know you are making a difference for my son, who started off as nonverbal, who has autism, and now he can say a few words.’  That was a success in itself. It’s like she sees us as an anchor,” Moctezuma said.

One goal of the program is to develop parental confidence in educating their children. “We want them to see themselves as leaders,” Moctezuma said. “We want them to see that they are the No. 1 teacher and mentor and coach to their children.”

Switching to a virtual program has helped parents take the initiative and lead. Before, a specialist would model certain behaviors. Now advisers and parents talk things out instead.

Liz Salas, coordinator of ParentChild+ with Somos Mayfair, said, “The virtual world gives us the opportunity to empower the caregiver to take the lead, to do it, because we are not there.”

Another struggle for families was trying to get the attention of the children, who are just 1½ to 3  years old.

Rocio Monarres said it was hard to get her 2-year-old son’s attention through a computer screen. “At first it was all very new and he wanted to push the buttons,” she said. “Then they made it more interactive by adding sounds to the books. Then it was easier to capture his attention.”

Now ParentChild+ is implementing a hybrid model. For some families, this means meeting in person once a week and holding a second meeting online.

Maria Gracia-Serrano, coordinator of the ParentChild+ program within Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County, said some parents have had to go to work, and their kids are going to school. “We are trying to adapt to their schedule,” she said. “We are still trying to navigate in-person and virtual visits.”

But lately, funding has dropped for many nonprofits, including the ParentChild+ program. This could dramatically change the amount of families the program will be able to serve.

The program served 493 children from June 2022 to July 2023. ParentChild+ also served 35 home-based child care providers who altogether cared for 83 children.

But all nonprofit programs are overwhelmed, overworked and exhausted, Evans said.  “Some unfortunately are in a position of not being able to maintain the level of staffing they had during the pandemic because there aren’t enough resources,” she said.

Evans said ParentChild+ will continue to find ways to give families the whole program, even if it means assisting fewer families.

Monarres is happy for the help. Her son was 2 years old when they started the program in 2021, and he just completed it in June. Now her daughter, who is 1½, is starting the program.

“I’m glad to see that, just like my family is benefiting from this program, that many other families are also benefiting from this program,” she said. “Hopefully these resources are always available so that they can continue helping more children.“

Yunery Ramon Reyes is a sophomore at Cristo Rey San Jose Jesuit High School.

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