Three busy boys play at Van Cung and Nzun Chin’s house, pushing around trucks and bouncing on the couch. Staci Zuspann, Bright Beginnings parent educator, pulls the youngest, John, 4, onto her lap to read a story, pointing to the pictures on each page.
A few minutes later, John is flopped on the floor with a workbook, tracing shapes. Zuspann smiles at the sight of the active child diligently doing the activity. “John would rather be standing on the chair, running, jumping and playing ball,” she says with a laugh.
Zuspann has worked with the family since John was an infant and James was 2. For years, she visited twice a month to engage them in early-education activities.
The home visits and play groups that take place across the county are offered through Bright Beginnings, a free program of Kent ISD open to all families. The program uses a curriculum and philosophy called Parents As Teachers, which seeks to equip parents to be a child’s best teacher. Parent educators work with parents and children from birth to school-age.
Zuspann also focuses on social-emotional development needs, showing Cung and Chin how to work with their children on beginning math, science, reading and problem-solving skills. She helps them complete forms for school registration, busing and other paperwork. She makes important phone calls, which is difficult for families with limited English.
“We got a lot of problems because we don’t know how to read English,” Cung said. He went to school in Burma until seventh grade; Chin went through sixth grade.
“(Working with Zuspann) has been a lot of help. She explains how things work, especially when we have to do registration for school and things like that,” Cung said.
John was expected to exit Bright Beginnings and start preschool this year, but without transportation he’s unable to attend, so Zuspann is planning five more home visits to prepare him for Young Fives in the fall.
Transportation is one of the barriers immigrant families often face.
New Life, New Challenges
The couple emigrated eight years ago, when their oldest son, Van, now 12, was just 4. They escaped to Malaysia, forced to hide several times along the way. They applied for protection to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and were eventually sponsored to immigrate to the U.S.
They are among more than 5,000 refugees in the U.S. from Burma, according to the Department of State’s Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System. Burma, which has been under military rule since 1962, is one of the world’s least developed and least free countries. It is also a country with one of the world’s longest refugee crises.
Michigan is home to the largest population of Burmese refugees, with a large percentage settled in West Michigan through Bethany Christian Services and Lutheran Social Services of Michigan. Many live in the Kentwood Public Schools district.
Burmese families are the largest immigrant/refugee population the program serves. Zuspann works with five Burmese, two African and three Nepali families, all of whom live in Kentwood. There are 11 Bright Beginning parent educators serving Kent County families.
“Homes in the U.S. with children ages 5 and under who have at least one immigrant parent now account for all the net population growth of children in that age group in the U.S.” — Migration Policy Institute, 2015 report
Zuspann said she and Cung and Chin have learned from each other. Zuspann has become more aware of culture and language, and they’ve learned how to work on activities with the boys at home.
“It’s a challenge with the language barrier, but I kind of learned over time how to communicate,” she said. “Their English gets better, too… They’re extremely hard-working people, and they want the best for kids and their education.”
Cung works at communications firm Feyen Zylstra and Chin works at healthcare product manufacturer Ranir. Van attends seventh-grade at Crestwood Middle School and James, 6, is in kindergarten at Brookwood Elementary.
How to Serve Families Better
The Bright Beginnings program is taking a closer look at the needs of Burmese and other refugee families parent educators work with. The program recently received an $11,000 grant from the Frey Foundation to survey immigrant families and provide diversity training for early childhood staff members.
The next step is to design the survey in conjunction with the Center for Social Research at Calvin College. The survey will be conducted by Calvin representatives in April and May, with results shared this summer.
“The overall goal of the grant is to better serve our increasingly diverse population, especially our families with young children,” said Jan Sabin, parent educator coordinator for Bright Beginnings. “The survey aims to document families’ parenting challenges and barriers to participate in local programs. Results will be used to help improve future service practices.”
It’s work that’s important nationwide. According to a 2015 report from the Migration Policy Institute: “The growth of the U.S. 0-5 population is becoming increasingly diverse. Homes in the U.S. with children ages 5 and under who have at least one immigrant parent now account for all the net population growth of children in that age group in the U.S.”
Early education will be the first major institute impacted by the population growth of immigrant children, according to the report, but many home-visiting programs have faced difficulties engaging immigrant and refugee parents. Challenges include language, cultural barriers and the need for additional support.
Zuspann checks in with the older boys. “How’s kindergarten?” she asks 6-year-old James. She knows he is doing well. He had lost his place in Head Start last year because the family moved and when they re-applied, were over the maximum income level for the federal preschool program serving low-income children and families.
“To be honest, I’ve not seen many kids like James who want to learn like he wants to learn,” Zuspann said. “When he couldn’t go to Head Start anymore, he would pray at night that he could go to school.”
Young Van’s favorite subject is social studies, and he wants to become a veterinarian, he said. He often serves as the family translator.
Zuspann joins John with his workbook, revealing a page of stickers. While he’s missing out on preschool, she’s confident he will be prepared for school. “He’ll definitely be ready for kindergarten,” she said, noting Young Fives next school year will help get him ready.