Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight

Sarah E. Walzer ’82

(Photo by John Q. Barrett s’82)

March 19, 2008:
Getting children ready for school
Sarah E. Walzer ’82 heads an organization that works with parents and children to build literacy skills.

Some parents lack the skills to encourage educational activities like reading and puzzles at home, and their children often enter kindergarten at a disadvantage. Sarah E. Walzer ’82 is trying to give these youngsters a better start.

As executive director of the Parent-Child Home Program based in Port Washington, N.Y., Walzer oversees an international nonprofit organization that partners with community-based agencies to identify at-risk 2- and 3-year-olds and visit their families at least twice a week for two years. Trained paraprofessionals bring books and toys into the families’ homes and show the parents how to build literacy and language skills by reading to, conversing with, and playing with their children. The paraprofessionals work alongside parents, stimulating the parents’ minds so they will then arouse their children’s imaginations.

“The biggest tragedy is that millions of children enter kindergarten without ever having been read a book,” says Walzer, a Woodrow Wilson School major. “The goal is to bridge the achievement gap for low-income families by empowering parents to see themselves as their children’s first and foremost teachers, and to have the confidence to be their kids’ advocates in school.”

A Harvard Law School graduate, Walzer joined the organization after various stints on Capitol Hill, including working for the Clinton administration.

“When I left Washington, I was hoping to move from being a policy person who never got to see anything implemented to actually getting my hands on a program, growing it, and seeing the results,” she says. Walzer is involved in outreach, research, advocacy, identifying public and private funding, looking for new partners, and evaluating programs.

When Walzer took over the organization’s reins in 1997, the group served about 1,000 families a year at 38 sites in the United States. Today the agency serves more than 6,000 families a year at 156 sites throughout the United States and in Ireland, Holland, Canada, and Bermuda. A study that the Parent-Child Home Program carried out with a low-income school district in Pittsfield, Mass., followed the program’s children after they had entered kindergarten to see how the early preparation affected their schooling. The study found that their 84 percent graduation rate was equal to the national graduation rate for middle-class students, 20 percentage points higher than for low-income students nationally, and 30 percentage points higher than the graduation rate of the control group in the community.

Another testament to the organization is the fact that about one-third of its paraprofessionals were once clients, either as parents or children. One former client, Julian Gomez, is now Walzer’s boss, as a board member. When he joined the program as a preschooler in White Plains, N.Y., he was a recent Colombian immigrant who spoke mostly Spanish at home, but he gained confidence in himself and his ability in English, and remembers feeling ready for kindergarten because of the program. Gomez is now a lawyer in New York City, while his mother went back to school and became a housing advocate. P

By Rob MacKay ’89

Rob MacKay ’89 is a writer in New York City.