United Way helps prepare children for kindergarten

What does it take for a child to be ready to succeed when they enter school? Do they need to know their letters, numbers, colors and shapes? Who helps them get ready? Parents? Child care providers? And how do you help your child be ready?

United Way in Gwinnett, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, is a leading partner in an initiative called SPARK (Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids). In 2002, the Kellogg Foundation launched SPARK to help communities in seven states and the District of Columbia create successful transitions from child care to kindergarten for vulnerable children.

SPARK is based on the belief that with stronger and more effective communication and coordination among communities, families, early learning programs and schools, kids will be ready to succeed when they enter school.

There are four community-based hubs that create a circle of support for SPARK children and their families. Each hub reaches out to children and families in their area. It is the hub coordinator's goal to find a learning advocate for each child they reach. This advocate is usually a parent or family member. It is the goal of SPARK and the coordinator to help that learning advocate know how to help their child learn, grow and develop.

One example of SPARK's success is La Escuelita, "The Little School." SPARK was working with families in the Rockbridge and Saddlebrook Apartment complexes, and the parents became excited about the possibility of learning how they could help their children be successful as they enter school. The families presented The Little School idea during a Parents as Teachers meeting and fiesta held at Rockbridge Apartments in Norcross.

The families involved with The Little School saw a need and had a dream. They wanted additional quality early learning and group experiences for their 3-year-old children to help prepare them for Georgia's Pre-K and ultimately for their formal education. The program was designed to serve children who are at home during the day with family, friends or neighbors. The ideas included a bilingual early learning professional to serve as the teacher, active involvement from families, a location in the apartment complex to eliminate the need for transportation and encourage family involvement, an emphasis on learning through play and on celebrating culture and language, and assistance with applying for and transitioning to Georgia's Pre-K.

Using the families' ideas as the framework, SPARK Georgia staff worked with United Way in Gwinnett and submitted a successful proposal to Primerica through Citicorp Foundation for a six-month project. The families and children are thrilled that The Little School is right there in their apartment complex and will bring great opportunities for learning and success.

The families, who speak primarily Spanish, receive home visits, literacy information and training, and links to resources. In addition, many of these families are active in the newly formed SPARK Georgia Partnership for School Readiness Council at Rockbridge Elementary, where their children will attend kindergarten.

United Way in Gwinnett always has tried to listen to the needs in our community. Early learning has been of key importance to Gwinnett families, and we are thrilled that, through SPARK, we are reaching children and families in the Norcross area as they help their children start school ready to learn.

United Way of Gwinnett is also a part of Metro Voices, Metro Choices, which is an opportunity for citizens across the greater Atlanta area to share their voices about the issues that matter most to them in their communities. It's a pilot project in partnership with The Advertising Council, The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, Atlanta Regional Commission and the Regional Leadership Forum.

Beginning Wednesday, people from all over the metro area will be able to go to metrovoices.org and weigh in on 14 different issues ranging from substance abuse to school improvement, including homelessness, crime and public transportation.

The online survey consists of eight questions and only takes about five minutes to complete. After taking the survey, you'll be able to see how your answers compare with your Gwinnett County neighbors. Our hope is that more than 100,000 people will log on and complete the survey by June 30.

We want to hear what you think is important for Gwinnett. Please share your thoughts and ideas with us by participating in the survey. For more information about SPARK or Metro Voices, Metro Choices, please call Deb Roberts, United Way of Gwinnett, at 678-417-6434.

"People Helping People" is a weekly column written by the executive directors of nonprofit organizations in Gwinnett County. Today's article was written by Deb Roberts of United Way of Gwinnett.

Need help or know someone who does? The Gwinnett Helpline directs callers to the appropriate nonprofit agency. Call 770-995-3339.