Target: sitters who could be teachers

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KCET in Los Angeles unveiled a multimillion-dollar initiative to help prepare kids for kindergarten by training the adults who care for them.

In the form of daytime talk shows, KCET's two new series will bring how-to aid to day-care providers who can help prepre their kids for school. Pictured: Gutierrez and Rosario. (Photo: KCET.)

In the form of daytime talk shows, KCET’s two new series will bring how-to aid to day-care providers who can help prepre their kids for school. Pictured: Gutierrez and Rosario. (Photo: KCET.)

Two new daytime talk series — one produced in English and the other in Spanish — are centerpieces of the project. Through daily broadcasts of A Place of Our Own and Los Ninos in Su Casa, KCET aims to provide skills, information and inspiration to unlicensed caregivers and enlist them in the important work of nurturing early learning skills. These friends, neighbors and relatives of parents often work in isolation and have little access to training.

Shaped by input from leading educators and formative research on its target audiences, the station’s education initiative has raised $20 million so far, including the largest grant in KCET’s history—$10 million from the energy company BP.

The two series debut in September on KCET and public TV stations throughout the state. Sesame Workshop is a partner in both productions, lending its expertise in preschool education and research-based production design. After the California launch, producers hope follow-up studies on the series’ effectiveness will make the case for national public TV distribution.

KCET’s early childhood initiative responds to social and demographic changes that have created a shortage of skilled caregivers and affordable daycare in California, where less than a third of preschoolers are in licensed day-care programs. As a result, increasing numbers of children are entering kindergarten without the skills they need to succeed.

One-third of 5-year-olds are unprepared for kindergarten, said KCET President Al Jerome, citing statistics from the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

“If they’re not prepared for it after first five years of life, it is a prodigious task to have them catch up, and most of them will not,” he said. By showing home day-care providers how they can easily help their young charges start learning, KCET aspires to boost the “productivity and accomplishments of these children for the rest of their lives.”

KCET’s caregiving initiative is part of a much broader strategic initiative, dubbed KCEd, that seeks to expand the station’s production of educational material. Half of the $10 million BP grant, announced Aug. 12, funds a five-year underwriting commitment for the two caregiving series, Jerome said. The remaining $5 million goes to develop other educational projects.

“We believe these two important childcare initiatives have the capability of truly changing the lives of preschoolers throughout California, preparing them more effectively for success in school,” said Ross Pillari, president of BP America.

The energy company’s grant is the latest of several the station has garnered for the strategic initiative. The other half of the $20 million financing package is first-year funding for the caregiving project: $6.4 million in state and local money derived from tobacco taxes, $1.5 million from the California Community Foundation and several foundation grants.

Not just “baby-sitters”

The early childhood learning project has the same overarching goal as PBS’s federally funded Ready to Learn program—helping to prepare young children for school—but like earlier projects at South Carolina ETV and other stations it addresses day-care providers instead of the kids themselves.

“There really are few opportunities for caregivers to understand the kind of interactions and experiences that children need to be ready for school,” said Ann Barbour, an early childhood education expert from California State University in Los Angeles and a content advisor to KCET. The new programs can reach caregivers who don’t have time or the means to receive formal training.

California has about 1.6 million children age 3 to 5, and the proportion of preschoolers who are Hispanic is growing as the total number increases, according to the KCEd white paper presented to funders.

The day-care programs available to working families are inadequate and vary widely in quality, said Barbour, author of the white paper. “Research has shown that most are mediocre, they’re not accredited and they don’t meet any [curricular] standards,” she added.

Because of demographic changes, the need for improved child care continually increases, Barbour said. “With more children from immigrant families, there needs to be continuing efforts just to stay even.”

By targeting caregivers, KCET will deliver informal over-the-air training in an engaging, broadly appealing format. The project aims to encourage caregivers to bring educational activities into their interactions with kids while reinforcing the view that they have important work to do.

“We want to create a sense of professionalism that doesn’t necessarily flow organically into that job,” Jerome said. “A lot of these people perceive themselves as baby-sitters, as opposed to people preparing children for school.”

The station plans to collaborate with an academic institution on a workforce training program through which caregivers can acquire credentials, according to Jerome.

Host Debi Gutierrez cheerfully reinforced the challenge to day-care providers in an opening segment shot last week: “A Place of Our Own is designed just for you, childcare providers, parents, aunties and uncles—anyone who takes care of children every day…. You play such an important role in the lives of your children. Every interaction and activity you do with them provides a learning opportunity to help them grow and develop.”

The format is daytime talk show rather than classroom. In a rough cut of the program — shot on a homey set with a couch, kitchen and dining room table — Gutierrez talks with three experienced childcare providers and a pre-kindergarten teacher about how to encourage children to learn to write. The host and guests display drawings and writings of their young charges, explain that scribbling is a precursor to letter-writing (it’s like “crawling before you walk”) and describe ways to incorporate writing into regular activities and pretend play. The format includes taped roll-ins, billboards that summarize important points of a discussion, and how-to segments on activities.

Los Ninos in Su Casa is shot on the same set but with a separate production team and host, Alina Rosario. It presents much the same curriculum with adaptations for Latino audiences’ cultural and language differences.
“We’re producing a program that is really for a Spanish-speaking audience as opposed to translating an English program,” explained Mare Mazur, KCET’s executive v.p. of programming and production. During early focus-group research for the series, Hispanic participants were “very clear on their viewing habits,” Mazur said. “They don’t like dubbed programs; they want something that is produced for them.”

Even though the television programs target two very specific audiences, they are designed to be broadly appealing, Mazur said. “It has to be a good show. The hosts are fun people who viewers will want to hang out with. Our goal is to have a program that really engages the viewers.”

New look at mission

The station’s new educational thrust grew out of its strategic planning. During two retreats for KCET senior staff in 2001, station leaders pondered KCET’s “next great transaction with the public”—one that would be more viable as its future business model than its 40-year-role as a quality alternative to network programming, recalled Jerome. “We decided that we needed to become part of the educational process in our community.”

The idea was not new to public TV, but it was to KCET, Jerome said. The station’s production unit was oriented to historical programs and drama, though it had produced notable children’s series for PBS—Storytime, Puzzle Place and Shari Lewis’s Charlie Horse Music Pizza. “We had done children’s programming, but we were talking about becoming part of the education infrastructure of our community,” Jerome added.

An enthusiastic response from educators on the KCET board of directors in May 2002—especially from Jim Rosser, president of California State University in Los Angeles—opened doors for KCET. Rosser assigned Ann Barbour as advisor to the project.

Barbour, who has trained teachers and organized preschool education conferences for 30 years, realized TV’s potential to multiply the impact of her work. “This is a way of reaching people who wouldn’t have access to educational opportunities, and it levels the playing field because television is so ubiquitous,” she said.

KCET execs conferred with Sesame Workshop, enlisting Jeannette Bettancourt, v.p. of education and research, as a content advisor. The project won early support, then larger production grants from California’s statewide and county “First 5” commissions. The First 5 campaign uses tobacco-tax proceeds to fund projects that help advance children’s crucial early years of development.

Training day-care providers and preschool teachers is a goal of the First 5 initiative. “These programs allow us to get the most up-to-date information about childcare to a large audience of providers who may not have access to formal training,” said First 5 L.A. Executive Director, Evelyn V. Martinez.

Production execs also have national ambitions for the caregiving series, although they want to be armed with research on the programs’ effectiveness before they begin pitching it to PBS and national funders.

“Kids everywhere need quality child care and — thinking as a national producer — I automatically think of other markets where this might have value and where it can travel,” said Mazur. “If we’re doing the right job and getting the results we expect, this should be a universal sort of program that can travel outside of L.A. and California.”

“This project is really happening because we were able to find a community of interested organizations committed to improving preschool caregiving and education, and to using television to facilitate that education, and we’re doing our best to accomplish that,” Jerome said. “We do not want this to be a one-year program by any stretch. It’s taken us three years to get us to this point.”


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