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Monday, April 24, 2017, 10:21 a.m.

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OPINION - Guest writer

Invest in kids

Home visits can make difference

By Erika McMahan Special to the Democrat-Gazette

This article was published April 21, 2017 at 2:23 a.m.

In my life, paying taxes is something for which to be grateful. I am proud to be economically self-sufficient, making my way in a job that allows me to give back to my community, and I am grateful for the opportunities my family had when I was child to help me get here.

These are opportunities every child in America should have, and can have, if we invest in children at the beginning of their lives through home visiting programs. I am living proof that such investments quite literally pay off.

My mom only had a 10th-grade education and no one from our family had ever graduated from high school. It was a tough life but she was driven to give my brother and me a better start and more opportunities through education. So when my mom was offered a helping hand in the form of voluntary home visits that taught her to be the best parent she could be, she gratefully accepted.

In my case, the visits were provided through H̶o̶m̶e̶ ̶I̶n̶s̶t̶r̶u̶c̶t̶i̶o̶n̶ ̶f̶o̶r̶ ̶P̶r̶e̶s̶c̶h̶o̶o̶l̶ ̶Y̶o̶u̶n̶g̶s̶t̶e̶r̶s Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters*, or HIPPY, a program that connects families with trained, supportive educators who help parents learn the skills they need to prepare their children for success in school. Our home visitor, Ms. Julan Wood, helped my mother learn how to play games that didn't feel educational, but clearly were teaching me what I needed to know to succeed in elementary school. Together we explored colors, numbers, fine motor skills and the joy of reading.

Ms. Wood didn't just show up and punch the clock; she took the time to get to know my mom--to understand her context and her desires for our futures.

Around the country today, there are hundreds of people like Ms. Wood helping families like mine, families experiencing challenges, to prepare their children for healthy, successful lives. Voluntary home visiting meets families where they are. It helps parents--from pregnancy to the start of kindergarten--get the tools they need to lay the foundation for health, education, development and economic self-sufficiency. Like it did for my family, it can open new doors to more possibilities.

Some home-visiting programs are supported privately, or through public-private partnerships with state and local governments. Others are funded, at least in part, by a federal effort called the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting program, or MIECHV. All the programs funded are voluntary--no one enrolls unless they want to, period. They are also all evidence-based, meaning the only programs that get a dime from MIECHV are those that have been rigorously, scientifically studied and proven to work.

In a study of the effectiveness of home visiting by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, researchers found that the voluntary home-visiting programs had a positive impact on developing family economic self-sufficiency because they increase parent engagement in education and encourage parents to seek better employment opportunities. Home visiting also can connect parents to the community resources and services they need to help their children and themselves achieve their goals.

For example, studies show that children participating in HIPPY have demonstrated statistically significant higher achievement scores in reading, math and social studies in third, fifth and sixth grades, based on multiple measures used in Arkansas, Texas, Florida and Colorado. These skills are the building blocks for economic success and self-sufficiency.

A review of Nurse-Family Partnership, another model supported by MIECHV, showed that low-income, unmarried women in Elmira, N.Y., who were visited by nurses relied on government assistance for less time than women who did not receive visits. These women who received nurse visits were also more likely to be employed through their child's fourth birthday than their counterparts who were not visited by nurses through the model.

Currently, Congress has the opportunity to renew MIECHV and expand it so even more families can benefit. It's an opportunity they should not let pass by, especially for a program with wide bipartisan support because it works and is cost-effective for taxpayers.

All that through the simple act of a house call--with a lot of research and evidence behind it.

We moved after that year with Ms. Wood, but she stayed involved in my life, setting it on a trajectory some in my family never would have thought possible. As I got older, we talked about college and my future hopes and dreams. We didn't talk about college in my family. Nobody had gone before.

But that did not stop Ms. Wood. Nothing did. And, so, it didn't stop me. I graduated from college, became a teacher and now work to train other teachers, encouraging them too to visit the homes of their students, because home visiting works. It is a long-term investment in our children's economic futures and self-sufficiency.

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Erika McMahan is the director of support for the IMPACT Arkansas Fellowship at the University of Arkansas, and an adjunct professor at the Relay Graduate School of Education in Memphis.

Editorial on 04/21/2017

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story listed an incorrect name for Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters.

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