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William Raspberry: Foundation for child's education is laid at home

OKOLONA, Miss. — "Mr. Raspberry! Mr. Raspberry! I have something to tell you," the young woman called as she caught up to me during a break in the Baby Steps program a week ago. Then, grinning with delight, she told me.

She had recently taken her toddler for a routine doctor's visit. "And you know what the doctor said? He said, 'You've been talking to this baby, haven't you?' "

And suddenly, I was the one wearing a grin. Here's why. Baby Steps (a local parent-training program largely of my own design and funding) has been stressing how important it is for parents to talk to their young children — not "baby talk" and not "school talk" either, just chatter. It is our belief, based on some solid evidence, that parent-child chatter — begun even before children learn to talk — makes children more verbal, improves their reading readiness, stretches their vocabulary and generally makes them smarter.

This young woman had learned the fine art of chattering, and she was delighted that even her child's doctor had noticed a difference.

Chattering isn't all that Baby Steps does, of course. The program, now just over two years old, begins with the notion that much of what we describe as school failure is in fact the result of inadequate foundations laid at home. But it also assumes that parents love their children, want them to succeed, and would do the things that promote school success, if they knew what those things were. We aim to teach them, well before the children enter school, and to have fun doing it. The program serves parents of children from birth to age 5.

So far (though there's no pre- or post-testing to prove it), parents in the program really do seem to be picking up the habits — talking and reading to their children, praising more and criticizing less, finding teaching opportunities in everything from a handed-down family story to a packet of flower seeds — that many middle-class parents take for granted. And they seem to take delight in each new step toward increased parental competence.

That doesn't surprise me. What does is the easy willingness of other people in my hometown — parents, professionals, friends, family, ministers, merchants, educators and just plain folk — to join in the enterprise. Only a tiny handful are paid (and not very much); a few have their travel expenses reimbursed. But most are happy just to be involved with something positive for the town's children.

And not just townsfolk, either. With me on this trip are three friends from Washington — Roger Wilkins, a former journalist and now a distinguished professor of history at George Mason University; Sonja Swygert, an experienced teacher who's been out of the classroom for 20 years but wants to be involved again; and Charles Ballard, who heads the Institute for Responsible Fatherhood and Family Revitalization.

Ballard's availability inspired a special session for fathers, several of whom say they now want to be more involved with their children, which means that we might have to launch a special effort to recruit fathers — particularly those who are not married to the mothers of their children. Three young fathers released from the local jail to help set up the facility for a Baby Steps reception learned what we were doing and said they thought they might be interested.

Earlier, the leader of a national consortium of educational charities heard about Baby Steps and decided to include Okolona as one of a half-dozen "learning communities." Area universities are expressing an interest. Other towns are looking over Okolona's shoulder, weighing the possibilities for similar programs in their areas. And the unaccustomed attention reinforces in Okolona's parents the importance of what they are doing.

Thus does the program grow and take root. Maybe it takes the children to raise a village.

Two years ago, at the organizing meeting of Baby Steps, I told a story about a woman who prayed earnestly that God would let her win the lottery. When drawing after drawing left her without a winner, she simply increased the fervor of her prayer. Finally, after a prayer that was very nearly a rebuke to the Almighty, she heard a voice: "Cut me a break," it said. "Buy a ticket."

It was a reminder that while it's OK to beg — even to demand — action from those who are officially in charge, we must not neglect to do what only we can do.

Okolona has bought a ticket.

William Raspberry's e-mail address is willrasp@