In a time of economic challenges and a declining population in Berkshire County, early education services offer an increasingly valuable resource to families.
The Family Center of Northern Berkshire County is filled with colorful art, instructive posters, and classrooms.
“Our family center serves all families of northern Berkshire County, so any family that has a young child from birth up to age 8," said Amy Hall. She's the program director of the Family Center, a part of Childcare of the Berkshires. “We do a lot of different things here, we have a lot of fun. We help children get ready for school. We really value parents as their children’s first teacher, and we try to teach parents how to be their child’s first teacher so that the child can be ready for school.”
The Center’s play and learning groups help parents and children bond while preparing children for the group settings and circle activities of school. It also establishes foundational concepts like colors and games.
“We also have parent education classes, so we have positive discipline classes that are eight weeks long," said Hall. "We have four-week classes like how to talk so kids will listen, just to help parents learn a little about child development and about parenting.”
The Center covers 11 towns in northern Berkshire County, from Florida to Lanesborough. Around 350 families participate in the center’s activities, and it also dispatches educators for home visits as part of its Parent-Child Home Program. Hall estimates its yearly budget at around $300,000.
“We have some funding from the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care, and they fund our school readiness activities primarily," she told WAMC. "We also have funding from the Massachusetts Children's Trust, and that funds us to help strengthen families in general for our Family Center activities.”
Smaller grants come from the Berkshire Taconic Foundation and a flow of community donations to the Center’s children’s clothing exchange, which offers free clothing to families.
Six core staff members and eight home visitors make up the Family Center of Northern Berkshire County team, which is housed in a city-owned building just outside of downtown on Route 8. One of those staff members is Sandra King.
“Well, my primary job is playgroup facilitator, but I also do the literacy child parent workshops,” she said.
King has been at the job for 14 years. She also works with local libraries, from carrying out story times to running afterschool Lego clubs.
“I believe there’s a shift in the number of working parents," said King. "So sometimes our numbers may seem lower than they were, you know, maybe five years ago. But I think both parents are working now, and I have noticed that there’s much more offered to families out in the community, whereas maybe 10 years ago the playgroups and our events were pretty much all that was offered.”
She says she sees more grandparents stepping into traditional parenting roles. King says the playgroups — which employ what she calls “covert learning,” teaching educational skills through games and fun — allow families to get a sense of their child’s development alongside their peers. They’re scheduled to cater to the needs of working families, and provide transportation to those without cars.
“I know that a lot of the parents have told me that they’ve made lifelong friends through coming to playgroups," King told WAMC.
“I’ve gotten to meet friends and other moms here," said Tina Utter, who spoke to WAMC at the Family Center during a family activity. She's a stay-at-home mom in North Adams. She has a daughter — Mackenzie — and another on the way.
“When I first got pregnant with Mackenzie, I used Healthy Families — which is, I believe it’s through Childcare of the Berkshires still, funded by the same place — that was an excellent resource for me since I didn’t have family and they were like my cheerleaders and they got me through and gave me wonderful parenting tips,” said Utter.
Utter took advantage of the Parent-Child Home program, which delivered books and toys to Mackenzie on a weekly basis.
“She learned quite a bit from that program, and it got her ready for preschool, and she’s excelled,” said Utter.
“Mackenzie, are you excited about preschool?” WAMC asked Mackenzie Utter.
“Yeah!” responded Utter.
“What are you going to do in preschool?" asked WAMC.
“Play!" said Utter.
“What else are you going to do?" asked WAMC.
“Write!" Utter yelped.
“OK, you’re going to write — are you going to learn math maybe?” asked WAMC.
“Yeah!” grinned Utter.
Reporting from the WAMC News Berkshire Bureau at the Beacon Cinema, I’m Josh Landes.