COVER STORY : Making a Play for Literacy : Program Offers Fun, Games and Education for Parent and Child

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are only playing house, mother and daughter, for an hour in the afternoon. But the time Bertha Nunez, 31, and her 3-year-old daughter Liza spend together on the floor is meant to give the child the reasoning and language skills she will need to succeed in school when she is older.

Liza takes a teeny iron and runs it over a doll-sized blanket. Then she tries to put the iron on her mother, who recoils.

"You can't do that because it's hot," she tells her daughter, who laughs and tries again to put the toy iron on her mother's hand. "Liza, when you're ironing the clothes, the iron is too hot to touch somebody with," Nunez says, and Liza puts it down.

The exchange lets Liza hear language being used, teaches her a practical lesson about hot and cold and, as important, gives her undivided attention from her mother. Time just for the two of them is something they didn't have until a year ago when they joined the Family Literacy program in San Pedro. And the educational results of such parent-and-child sessions are gaining increasing local and national attention.

The Family Literacy Program, run by the San Pedro/Narbonne Adult Education School, is one of 33 models nationally that attempts to raise the literacy of parents and their preschool children by educating both at the same time.

The hour of play for both parents and children, called Parent and Child Time Together, or PACT, is one of the program's mainstays and yields some of the most obvious educational results of Family Literacy. Although the youngsters do not learn to read, they prepare for reading by learning the alphabet, colors, shapes, numbers and names of animals.

"You would think playing with your children is something that you would just naturally do, but so many families don't have a tradition of that, so they don't know that playing with children is how children learn," said Becky King of the National Center for Family Learning.

Playtime with adults sets children up to become better learners once they go to school, said Karen Sawitz, an associate professor at UCLA School of Medicine and an early childhood development specialist at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.

"For young kids like preschoolers, play is work," Sawitz said. "What they're doing is they're trying to construct their own view of reality."

For example, between ages 3 and 5 children typically believe that inanimate objects have animate characteristics, Sawitz said. "They honestly believe that if you pull a button off a coat, the thread feels pain; that rocks are conscious and that a vacuum cleaner could really be after them."

"It's through playing in the world that children start to create explanations for what they observe around them," she said. "This is how they develop an ability to think."

And playing with their parents, she said, is particularly meaningful to very young children, who have not yet formed ties to a peer group.

"Socially and motivationally, what will be most meaningful to the child will be what they learn from the parent," Sawitz said. "So I would say this program is doing exactly what it should be."

California's two other Family Literacy programs are in East Los Angeles at Garfield High School and at the Maxine Waters Employment Preparation Center in Watts.

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Funded in part by an educational arm of the Toyota Motor Corp., the program is based on the premise that parents and children learn best together. The program, which began in Kentucky in 1988, expanded nationwide in 1991 with the creation of the National Center for Family Literacy in Louisville, Ky.

The center was a pioneer in uniting adult literacy and early childhood programs, breaking the old pattern of segregating parents into after-work education courses and children into preschool.

"Traditionally, the early childhood people think, 'Our goal is to save these children from their parents,' " said Toyota spokeswoman Patricia Hull. "Now that has shifted to an understanding that parents are the first and most important teachers of their children."

Nationally, most of the 3- and 4-year-old children in the program enter with language skills that place them in the 11th percentile--meaning that 89% of children in the United States have better language skills. But after one year in the program, the preschoolers' language scores rise about 8%, according to officials at the National Center for Family Literacy.

That "really may not sound huge, but when you're talking about 3- or 4-year-olds, it means they are set on a spiral of success," said King, the director of special projects for the center. "Although still in the bottom 25%, they are on the right path."

The literacy program does little recruiting. When it began last year, notices about the program were sent home to parents of children at the 15th Street School, but word of mouth carried the news through the community.

Liza has spent one year in the program, and Nunez says she sees her developing skills.

"I see a change in her," Nunez said. "At home there doesn't ever seem to be time to just play with her, so she just loves coming here," Nunez said while cuddling her daughter. "Now she knows things like her colors and her numbers, in both English and Spanish."

Her concern with Liza's language skills comes from the hard time she has had herself, speaking only a little English.

Originally from Peru, Nunez said she has found that in America "you are nothing" if you don't speak English. In her own country she was a stenographer.

"But I can't do that here because I don't speak English well enough," she said in Spanish. "My dream is to be a dental assistant, but I know I need to speak English to do it."

After the playtime with their children, Bertha and about 20 other parents take English as a Second Language classes while their children are in preschool.

Standing in front of her adult students last week, teacher Sharon McMarr tried to pilot the Spanish-speaking class through the irregularities and irrationalities of American English.

Bustling to a sink at the front of the class, she began to pantomime a household chore and then explained her actions: "I am washing the dishes," she said. "But often in America we say, 'I am doing the dishes.'

" Doing the dishes? Aren't you making the dishes?" murmured her students. "Nope, that would be in a factory," McMarr answered. But, she added, "you would make the bed; you don't do the bed.

Sighs of " ayayay " and " ay Madre, " greeted her explanation.

Most of the students in McMarr's family literacy class read English at a first- or second-grade level--although some have finished high school in their native Central or South American countries.

"Don't worry, I'll explain it all to you tomorrow," McMarr said as the class ended.

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The goal of the San Pedro program is to help adult students achieve language skills on an eighth-grade level. The program is in its second year, and statistics are not yet available to measure the improvement of the students. But officials say early indications are that the centers in Los Angeles are having "phenomenal" success in attracting interest; more than 200 people are on a waiting list to get into the classes at San Pedro and Garfield.

"But also, when you compare the program to other adult literacy programs, you see a big difference," King said. "Seventy-one percent of the students who begin with us follow through on their goals, whereas 40% of people in adult education programs normally drop out within the first 12 hours of a program, much less hold on for a full year.

"It's because it's not just the adult's needs that are being met. It's the family's needs."

Toyota makes a three-year commitment to the program, but each site must become self-sustaining after that. The San Pedro site is funded with a $25,000 grant from Toyota, which pays for about a third of the program costs. Local contributions, state and federal money for adult education and funds from the San Pedro/Narbonne Adult Community School make up the rest of the budget.

"Each year I have to increase our part of the support, but I am committed to this program," said Camilla Kocol, principal of the adult community school. "This is the wave of the future."

McMarr says teaching the class is the most satisfying thing she has done. "I can see the progress day by day," she said. "Suddenly I'll be in the middle of a conversation with a student and we'll both realize that it's been entirely in English."

McMarr teaches parents English in the morning while their children are in preschool. After English lessons the adults join the children in their classroom. During language lessons, McMarr keeps her students laughing at her exaggerated faces and gestures. For instance, lapses into Spanish on their part are greeted with looks of mock horror. Any effort to speak English is applauded.

McMarr--passing out tests to the students, who do not seem eager to receive them--kids them that the tests are not really for their benefit, but for hers. She must have tests to grade, she explains in English, to keep from becoming bored when she is at home.

Her son is grown and spends all his time at college or with his girlfriend, she says. She panto mimes a hug as she says girlfriend, and the group laughs. Her pet iguana, she adds, holds only limited conversations and her dog is affectionate but not articulate. McMarr's tongue hangs out while she imitates her lizard.

The students strain to understand her and then laugh when they get her jokes.

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The jokes and the laughter belie the seriousness of the classes' purpose. The intent of the family literacy program is to break the legacy of intergenerational poverty.

Most parents who live in poverty lack skills to obtain and hold a job. Nationwide, more than 40% have not completed high school, and children whose parents lack a high school diploma are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than are the children of high school graduates, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics.

Recent studies have found that 13% of all 17-year-olds are functionally illiterate. Among ethnic minorities, the rate is 44%, according to the National Commission on Excellence in Education.

And students who cannot read and write are likely to drop out of high school.

Each of the family literacy programs is tailored to the specific needs of the community it serves, which means in San Pedro that English as a Second Language is an integral part of the course. In other communities, programs may focus more on reading and writing English and less on spoken English. Math exercises include balancing a checkbook and comparison shopping.

The basic components of the program, however, stay the same: early childhood education, parent literacy training, parent discussion time and, the most important element, Parent and Child Time Together.

During PACT, parents are encouraged to let their children direct the play. For example, after both parents and children sang a song about some naughty ducklings who did not come when their mother called them, Melissa Castro, 3, wanted to paint a picture with ducks.

So she and her mother, Mireya, painted an orange road with a red house and ducklings in the background.

"She loves to come here," said Castro, who is in her first year of the program. "And I do too. At home I just don't have as much time to play with her," said Castro, who also has three sons. "Here, we do whatever she wants, and she gets to make the decisions. . . . Now when her father comes home from work, she chats with him about her day, too."

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While Castro painted, Delmy Ochoa, a second-year participant, read to her 3-year-old son Adelberto. The program has brought new happiness and confidence to both mother and son, she said.

"I have so much more confidence in myself now," she said, speaking in English with occasional phrases in Spanish. "I feel like I am a better mother, more realized, and that I am helping my child grow and develop.

"And he could stay in school all day. Now if for some reason there is no school for the day, he's so disappointed that I have to bring him down here so he can see that it's really closed."

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