PHILLIPSBURG, N.J. – United Way of Northern New Jersey Success By 6 teamed up with the Phillipsburg Early Childhood Learning Center and other community partners to pilot a new parent education program to help prepare children for kindergarten.

Called the United Way Born Learning Academy, 12 families attended six free monthly workshops this school year that provided tips, tools and resources to turn everyday moments into learning opportunities. The program culminated in late May with a graduation ceremony for parents.

"We saw parents take on a more active role in their child’s education, use each other as sounding boards and connect with the school and staff members,” said Phillipsburg School District Director of Early Childhood Jason Kupcha. “It’s helped open the lines of communication and build relationships.”

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United Way is seeking funding to bring the program back next year. The Academy, which costs $10,000 annually to run, has the potential to pay off bigger dividends for the children, the district and the community in years to come, according to United Way of Northern New Jersey Success By 6 Associate Director Kathy Kwasnik.

“The most important influences in a child’s earliest years are parents, grandparents and caregivers — their first teachers,” Kwasnik said. “Research shows that quality early learning experiences are a key driver of school readiness, vital to improving high school graduation rates and critical to a community’s economic success."

Held at the Phillipsburg Early Childhood Learning Center and taught by staff member Virginia Sacchi, the program focused on various topics including building relationships, early literacy, nutrition and health, how children learn and the importance of routines.

“The examples given here have helped our kids develop more,” said Anne Barboza whose 5-year-old and 3-year-old both attend school in the district. 

In addition to providing creative ways to teach, the workshops also allowed Barboza and her partner William White to connect with and learn from other parents and to view the school in a positive light.

“It shows that the school cares,” Barboza added.

The pilot was launched in part in hopes of addressing a high absenteeism rate in the district’s preschool program, Kwasnik said. The program seeks to have parents and teachers establish a stronger working relationship from the earliest grades and see each other as resources to improve student performance.

For Joseph and Claribeliz Martinez, the workshops have seen them make changes in their routines with positive outcomes. In addition to reading books to their kids before bedtime, the couple now makes it more interactive by asking their children questions about the stories. They also learned that not only can their kids improve their gross motor skills by helping with cooking at home, but it also gets them interested in trying new foods.

The sessions were tailored to engage the entire family and the local community. Each workshop began with a healthy dinner courtesy of St. Luke’s Warren Hospital. Then, while parents worked with Sacchi, the children participated in enrichment activities overseen by trained child care staff from Catholic Charities. The sessions closed with every family receiving a children’s book and gift card incentive supplied by United Way volunteers, various community child care centers, local businesses and agencies. Crayola also donated supplies and six free passes to its Crayola Experience.

Hadiyyah Barnes, who typically had her daughter drill with workbooks after school, found she could teach the same subjects through more engaging activities like trips to the supermarket.

“I learned to be not as rigid and to be a little more fun and creative with it,” Barnes said. “It really enhanced the quality of the school for me.”

To learn more about United Way Born Learning Academy, email Kathy.Kwasnik@UnitedWayNNJ.org or 973.993.1160, x130