A SWELL Partnership
“You did it!” says Kim Austin from her perch on a toddler-sized chair.
Beside her, three-year-old Jake snaps ring-shaped manipulatives one on top of another, grinning with each success.
Austin, who is education director of Kids Central in Norton, Virginia, is taking a break from her administrative duties to hang out with the kids in the Early Head Start childcare center.
“You build one as tall as you can,” she prompts Jake, “and your friend builds one as tall as he can, and when you put them together it will be super tall! You want to try it?”
Despite the simplicity of positive verbal exchange like this one, not all young children experience them regularly at home, says Paige Pullen, Curry School associate professor of special education. Yet, oral language is critical to a child’s early literacy development.
Pullen is lead researcher on a pilot project that aims to foster more of these positive interactions between parents and toddlers in Wise County, Virginia. Called the SWELL Project (for Southwest Virginia Early Language and Literacy), this research will be conducted through a partnership between the Curry School, the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, East Tennessee State University, and Kids Central.
The years between birth and age four are critical for children, explains Pullen. A narrow window of opportunity exists for laying the foundation of early language and literacy skills. Waiting until children reach kindergarten to teach these skills virtually guarantees that they will never catch up to their peers in reading and comprehension.
Through SWELL, education students at UVa-Wise are working with local toddlers who are at increased risk of reading failure and of being identified for special education services due to poverty.
Pullen designed the intervention and has trained UVa-Wise students to make weekly home visits with twelve families for an initial three-month pilot. They are educating parents about play-based opportunities to increase early language experiences such as storybooks, puzzles, crafts, and games.
Out of the hearing of the kids in childcare, Austin says that she is eager to expand the services for the families with whom her agency works, at least 90 percent of whom have incomes at or below the poverty line. Kids Central operates the federal Head Start and Early Head Start programs in several southwest Virginia counties, and families participating in SWELL were all identified by Austin’s office.
“They have a lot of struggles,” she says. “Sometimes language and literacy development are not at the forefront of their concerns.” Many are good parents, she explains, but more pressing issues, like safety and nutrition, dominate their attention.
To assess the effectiveness of the home visits, Pullen uses electronic recording devices for sampling the audio environment in the child’s vicinity. For one day every week during the program period, children are wearing the device tucked inside the pocket of a specially made shirt. Once the recordings are made, Pullen will use language environment analysis software that can distinguish between speakers and analyze the number of adult words the child hears.
“Our initial analysis will determine if the quantity and quality of adult-child language interactions increase for the families we have visited,” says Pullen. Their results will be compared to those of a control group of twelve other families who did not receive the extra home visits.
One representative from UVa-Wise on the SWELL team is Jeff Cantrell (M.Ed. ’87; Ed.D. ’91 Reading), professor of education and chair of the UVa-Wise Department of Education.
“SWELL is a groundbreaking project,” he says “Our faculty and students will be participating in interventions that have great potential to disrupt the generational cycles of illiteracy and poverty.”
UVa-Wise plans to extend the benefits of the SWELL Project by including another round of home visits as part of the requirements of early childhood coursework for teacher education students during the fall semester.
The SWELL pilot was funded through the University’s Office of the Vice President for Research and the Office of Economic Development, but once its success has been evaluated and revisions are made, the partnership will seek federal funding to expand the program throughout the coalfield region of Virginia.
A New Model of Collaboration
The SWELL collaboration represents a new model for the University’s outreach to southwest Virginia—a model developed in response to the statutory obligation U.Va. accepted in 2006 under the state’s Restructuring Act. The agreement negotiated under the act grants the University greater financial and administrative autonomy in exchange for addressing specific statewide goals.
One of those goals was to stimulate economic development in an economically distressed region in Virginia by addressing business support, access to health care, and K–12 education. The University selected the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority Planning Areas 1 and 2 as its formal partner, primarily because of the University’s existing relationship with UVa-Wise. The region selected includes the city of Norton and the counties of Lee, Scott, Wise, Dickenson, Russell, Tazewell, and Buchanan.
The University and the Curry School have been working in southwest Virginia for decades, according to Rebecca Kneedler, associate dean for external partnerships and international initiatives, but the Restructuring Agreement provided the impetus to form a more comprehensive effort across Grounds. “The Office of Economic Development has streamlined the process and allowed us to build stronger partnerships,” she says.
Naturally, the University looks to the Curry School as the primary, although not only, resource for K–12 education outreach. Kneedler says that, as with SWELL, all of Curry’s new initiatives in southwest Virginia must be identified by the region’s citizens, must match the strengths of Curry’s faculty and mission, must harness the expertise of partners in the region, and must be replicable, scalable, and sustainable throughout the region.
“The old model in which so-called ‘experts’ invade a geographical region is flawed in all the important ways that support sustained improvement,” she says. “The SWELL Project is a model because it capitalizes on the abundant expertise in the southwest Virginia region among the professionals at U.Va.’s College at Wise, at Kids Central, at Eastern Tennessee University, and in the public schools. In harnessing this expertise, we will see results that are significant and, more importantly, sustainable.”
by Lynn Bell
Photos by Tom Cogill unless otherwise noted.
“Cantrell, professor of education and chair of the Department of Education at UVa-Wise, serves as project liaison between Curry, UVa-Wise, and local agencies like Kids Central. Each summer, Cantrell runs a free McGuffey-style reading clinic for local elementary students as part of an undergraduate reading diagnosis course.
SWELL is a groundbreaking project,” says Jeff Cantrell. “Our faculty and students will be participating in interventions that have great potential to disrupt the generational cycles of illiteracy and poverty.”