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Karen Heller: A big step back for the children

Sometimes, kindergarten is too late. A child mired in poverty may already be left behind. By then, teachers are applying bandages on vast gashes of neglect.

Sometimes, kindergarten is too late. A child mired in poverty may already be left behind. By then, teachers are applying bandages on vast gashes of neglect.

Barack Obama knows this. He wants to commit $10 billion for early-childhood education.

Frances Bryce knows this, too, though the cost of her program is considerably less, under $100,000 a year. For nine years, she has served as an early-childhood educator through the Parents as Teachers program administered through Philadelphia's Women's Christian Alliance.

Mrs. Bryce, as she's known to her charges, moved back here from California solely to improve the lives of poor children.

A widow with two grown children and a ruby-lipstick smile, Mrs. Bryce visits homes where there are often no books, no crayons, no toys encouraging developmental play. At age 4, the children can't identify colors. They're barely verbal. The mothers are overwhelmed. A few of them can't read themselves.

"That's OK," Mrs. Bryce gently tells a parent. "Just hold the book and tell a story. Your child doesn't know you can't read." And the mother begins.

A solid foundation

When Mrs. Bryce began at WCA, there were seven people in the program. Today, there are two: Mrs. Bryce and Deborah Morrison.

In January, there will be none.

Earlier this month, Mrs. Bryce learned from CEO Wanda Mial that funding had evaporated. Founded in 1919 by Melissa Thompson Coggin, one of the nation's first female African American physicians, WCA is now a secular coalition of family and community services located in North Philadelphia. Financial support comes mostly from the city, state and federal governments for truancy, foster care and other programs. Parents as Teachers was funded by the United Way, now facing unprecedented demands from myriad charities.

The irony is that what Mrs. Bryce does is invaluable in preventing the need for programs such as truancy and foster care. For every dollar invested in quality early-childhood programs, "there is a $7-$10 return to society in decreased need for special-education services, higher graduation and employment rates, less crime, less use of the public welfare system, and better health," the Obama education platform states.

"You don't start a house with the roof," Mrs. Bryce says. "You start with a foundation. If you can get the parents involved early on, and maintain that interest, then they're involved at school, too." Teachers can tell you that without a family member as champion and educational advocate, a child faces challenges that are greater and, sometimes, insurmountable.

It's a shame adults have to be taught to parent, to hold a toddler and read a book. "But if you haven't been properly parented," Mrs. Bryce asks, "how can you parent?"

She lists her successes. Marlee is 4 and thriving in preschool, a lover of books. Mrs. Bryce met David, the son of a mentally challenged mother, when he was 15 months old. At age 6, he's in second grade and "doing beautifully."

Books and a big heart

Come January, Mrs. Bryce will be out of a job. She's undeterred.

"I'm thinking of continuing to visit the families that really need the program," she says. "I won't tell them we've lost the funding."

You look for the spirit of the holidays. Look no further than Frances Bryce. "She has a very big heart," Wanda Mial says. "She's amazing with these families."

On Mrs. Bryce's bulletin board, in her office filled with children's books, is a letter from Mykala written in pencil and pristine letters.

"I'll miss you when you go. I won't be able to see you again. I'm sad that you're leaving but . . . I will still remember you in my heart."

Send donations to the Women's Christian Alliance, Prevention Department, 1722 Cecil B. Moore Ave., Philadelphia 19121 or through the United Way, agency number 00131.