As Waco mother Maria Martinez pointed toward cards on a living room coffee table Thursday morning, she asked her 2-year-old son Alexander Penate to identify pictures printed on one side and match them to other identical cards nearby.

Alexander spouted off, “apple, orange, grapes,” and gave the correct color for each.

Martinez then asked her son to count the cards. Rewarded with high-fives and smiles, he counted all the way to 12. Then, with the help of a Waco Independent School District employee at his mother’s side, Alexander created his own matching deck with Marvel superhero stickers, index cards and scissors.

“Is now a good time to teach him that? Is he ready for scissors?,” Martinez asked Pauli Ramos, the district employee.

Ramos said “yes,” and encouraged Martinez, telling her Alexander is already well on his way with preschool level skills as his third birthday approaches. The moment is fleeting, but it’s a sliver of the long-lasting impacts Waco ISD’s Parents as Teachers program has had in the last 25 years.

The national Parents as Teachers organization recently recognized the local program as a Blue Ribbon affiliate. The program helps mothers and fathers, from pregnancy until their child enrolls in preschool at age 4, to understand they are the first teachers their children encounter, said Mary Konrad, the district’s early childhood education coordinator.

During their last meeting, Waco ISD trustees honored employees involved in the program. The program started in 1988, and five district employees serve 90 families, Konrad said.

“It’s one of Waco ISD’s most hidden treasures,” Ramos said. “Because it’s a wonderful program and I wish more people knew about it. This program is not just for stay-at-home moms. It’s for working parents as well, and we’re obviously willing to work with their schedules. But it’s just for them to be able to have the opportunity while they’re at home to teach their child.”

Ramos has been with the Martinez family since September, visiting once a week or once every two weeks to go over certain skills or evaluate areas where the family might need some additional help to connect them with resources, she said.

If it weren’t for Ramos, Alexander would be heading into prekindergarten without knowing numbers or colors, unprepared to start school, like his two older brothers were, Martinez said.

Her older children are 15 and 19, and Martinez only heard about Parents as Teachers from a friend after Alex was born, she said.

“I never knew about this program with the other ones. I would do it if I had,” Martinez said. “I lost a great opportunity with my other children. They would probably be better at school, because I remember at Alex’s age, the other two didn’t know anything. They struggled. When they started pre-k, they didn’t know colors, letters or anything, and Alex is very advanced now.”

To qualify for the Blue Ribbon endorsement, affiliates have to complete an in-depth yearlong review and meet at least 75 of the national organization’s 100 quality standards. This is the first year the local affiliate has earned the recognition.

The process was more difficult than finishing a dissertation, with more than 100 pages to submit, Konrad said.

“We were pretty much on target, doing exactly what the national organization would want us to be doing. … It was good for us because it’s really about program improvement,” Konrad said.

Waco ISD’s program can hold onto the distinction for five years, and it encourages other affiliates to look to Waco as a model program, Konrad said.

Though Martinez tries to work with her son as much as possible, the six months of Ramos’ visits have gotten Alexander to embrace education more than if she were helping him on her own, she said.

“He’s learned so many of his letters better, his numbers and he’s recognizing his name now,” Martinez said. “Once, he even wrote and pronounced a letter (on his own) and I was very, very excited, because I had never seen him do that before. I think it’s because of (Parents as Teachers). He’s always practicing, and she’s always bringing games for him to learn.”

As officials re-evaluate the district’s prekindergarten program as part of a transformation plan for five struggling schools, Konrad said she hopes more families will become aware of the program’s benefits.

“(The program) has become very essential. It’s very helpful for me,” Martinez said. “Without them, I probably wouldn’t even be half of that (far), and Alex wouldn’t know what he knows today. It’s been a huge help for me.”

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