Do kids need an at-risk label to get extra care?

  • Laksh

    Laksh "Lucky" Kumar draws while family intervention specialist Kathy Kohlstedt encourages him and his mother, Shashikala Kumar, observes. State grants fund Kohlstedt's visits as part of a program that targets kids in at-risk families. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • With the state facing a budget crisis, Illinois education officials say early childhood funding can be most effective when it targets families who need it the most.

    With the state facing a budget crisis, Illinois education officials say early childhood funding can be most effective when it targets families who need it the most. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Published: 5/2/2009 11:58 AM | Updated: 5/2/2009 11:02 PM

Laksh "Lucky" Kumar clings to his mother on one cool April morning when Kathy Kohlstedt comes to his Hoffman Estates home for their twice-monthly meeting.

The 3-year-old begins to warm to Kohlstedt's lesson as he fills a cup with colored rice and pours it onto a Ferris wheel that starts to rotate.

Lucky selects a blue marker and draws the comic book hero Wolverine.

"Is he a good guy or a bad guy, Wolverine?" Kohlstedt asks.

Lucky's mother, Shashikala, translates the question into Oadki, a language spoken in her native Pakistan.

After a pause, Lucky responds: "Bad guy."

For the past seven years, Kohlstedt has visited the Kumar family, teaching Lucky and his older brothers the skills they need to be successful when they enter preschool and the public school system.

Kohlstedt works as a family intervention specialist for the Family Involvement Nurturing Development Prevention Initiative, also known as F.I.N.D. P.I. State early childhood grants fund the Hoffman Estates-based program.

During the past two years, the state has moved from programs serving any kid 3 and younger at a central location to initiatives like F.I.N.D P.I., which provide more intensive home visits and focus on at-risk children.

"It's a shift from a more universal program ... to one that screens families, identifies families that have the most risk factors and provides them with home visits," said Kay Henderson, the early childhood education division administrator at the Illinois State Board of Education. "We don't have unlimited funding, so we simply had to take a look at the resources that were available and consider what would give us the biggest bang for the buck in terms of child outcomes."

The funding shift is leading many Illinois school districts to scrap universal programs in favor of ones that target at-risk children - leaving some families with kids in less dire straits in the lurch.

The change can also force parent educators, who help train kids' caregivers in parenting and development skills, to deal with family issues they may not be trained to handle.

Peggy Kiefer, a parent educator in Naperville Unit District 203, said her district shifted to a prevention model to expand its early childhood program. Because a prevention program involves more frequent visits with fewer children, many families who do not have enough risk factors are left out.

"I think we're missing families out there that could also use the support," Kiefer said.

Many of the families Kiefer sees have issues with money, transportation and health care that must be dealt with before the educating can even begin - issues that a public school district may be ill-equipped to handle.

"Parent education is a very needed service for parents these days," Kiefer said. "But I think what's happening is that because the state has asked us to see the neediest, a lot of those cases are crisis-oriented.

"Unless you deal with these crises, parents can't even get to the point of parenting."

Anticipating some of these difficulties, Huntley Unit District 158 decided not to change to a prevention model. The district has a popular program funded under a grant for universal early childhood programs that teaches parenting skills and provides age-appropriate activities at a central location.

Rather than exclude families who do not have risk factors, District 158 will not apply for state funding. Instead, the district will try to find another funding source to cover the relatively modest $27,000 cost of the program.

"We're in a bit of tizzy because we have a center-based program, and the center-based program is very well-received in our community," said Meg Schnoor, District 158's director of special services. "We're not planning on changing the program at all. It would just cease to be a grant-funded program."

Waukegan Unit District 60 may be a model for how schools can target at-risk families while providing services for everyone. The district uses the prevention initiative grant to fund both home visits for needy families and a center where all families can enroll in workshops and play groups.

"The challenge for every district is going to be trying to find a balance between providing universal services to families and serving the neediest kids," said Gina Finaldi-Schmidt, who oversees District 60's prevention initiative program.

At her second-to-last lesson with Lucky, Kohlstedt teaches him about basic scientific concepts through play. Kohlstedt shows Lucky's mother how she can continue the lesson on her own with commonly available household items.

"He can learn a lot about weight, about volume, about sizes of things ... and have fun while he's doing it," Kohlstedt said. "She takes the information that we bring her, and she works on things with him."

At the end of today's lesson, Kohlstedt schedules her last visit and surprises Lucky with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figure, to which he promptly turns his attention.

"We're going to miss her," Kumar says.