Israeli education innovation helps poor American parents

 Lisa Fuentes, who coordinates home visits, left, and Family Place executive director Haley Wiggins review HIPPY material.Photo by Suzanne Pollak

Lisa Fuentes, who coordinates home visits, left, and Family Place executive director Haley Wiggins review HIPPY material.
Photo by Suzanne Pollak

Idis Argueta used to come home from work too tired to do anything with her toddler besides stick her in front of the television. But after participating in HIPPY, a home visitation program which originated in Israel, she now spends much-needed “precious time, with her daughter, she said.

“Before, I never sat down and read to her,” said the Washington resident. Now, she looks forward to one-on-one time. She reports that her daughter has become “the best student. She knows everything.”

HIPPY, or Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters, is designed to help low-income parents prepare their 3- to 5-year-old children for school. Parents receive a weekly curriculum. They are given books on a schedule — every week or every other week — including a new book which teaches them how to become their children’s first teacher.

The program originated in 1969 to help Israeli immigrants from North Africa and Middle Eastern countries prepare for life in their new country. The program, which still exists in the Jewish state, came to the United States in 1980 via the National Council for Jewish Women through its Research Institute for Innovation in Education at Hebrew University.

There are 140 HIPPY sites in 23 states and the District.

Locally, HIPPY partners with Fairfax County public schools, Enterprise Community Partners in Baltimore, the Perry School Community Services Center in Washington and the Family Place, also in Washington.

More than 125 parents participate in HIPPY at the nonprofit Family Place on 16th Street in northwest Washington. The majority of them are Spanish-speakers with little formal education in their native country, according to Haley Wiggins, executive director of the Family Place.

“Lots of parents say, ‘I send my child to school to learn,” Wiggins explained. HIPPY works to change that mindset.

Parents are shown how to make their children lifelong, eager students, she said. “We really work with the parents. We empower them to be role models.”

While the curriculum emphasizes reading and math, there also is a week dedicated to germs and why it’s important for everyone to wash and brush his teeth.

A HIPPY home visitor goes to the homes of clients, although sometimes they meet in a public place, such as a library. The home visitor explains that week’s curriculum and shows parents what to do. During the hourlong visit, the visitor also tells parents about other services available. Many clients, said Wiggins, have no idea how many programs exist on the local and federal level to help people deal with the challenges of poverty.

HIPPY also sponsors monthly meetings for parents to get to know each other while learning. Some topics during recent meetings have included bullying, tax preparation and domestic violence prevention. The program is provided free to the families, with most of the funding coming from the federal government’s Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program.

Linda Frank, chair of HIPPY USA’s board of trustees, speaks of the HIPPY program like a proud parent.

“It really has become a passion for me,” she said.

To her, HIPPY is much more than handing out books. Parents learn the importance of being in contact with teachers, attending back-to-school nights and staying engaged with their child’s education.

Other skills that are taught to parents include how to get children to pay attention, take turns and sit quietly, she said.

Sonia Sorto, a HIPPY home visitor, said the program truly makes a difference. Often, when she first meets with parents, they are wary. Within a short time, “most parents become really involved.”

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