WINNSBORO — First Steps Staff hopes the sixth year will once again be the charm for their program.
In December, First Steps staff from York, Chester and Fairfield Counties met to work on strategy for the upcoming year. Every six years the program comes up for re-authorization and if the authorization does not happen by June, then the sun will set on First Steps.
Patti Wilkes, executive director of Fairfield County First Steps, said there are funds allocated for all counties in South Carolina that go to meet the needs of children ages 5 and under. Those funds are set aside in the state budget, but since First Steps is an individual nonprofit organization and not a state agency, then it is up to each county to best figure out how to supplement the funding the state provides.
Grants and personal donations help shore up the operational budgets.
Wilkes said that despite a lack of new industry in Fairfield and the absence of support from philanthropic groups, the community has come together to raise 38 cents for First Steps for every dollar the program receives from the state.
In South Carolina:
First Steps works to reduce the number of children who are retained in the first grade. Centuria Watson, Chester County executive director, said Chester County has seen a 32.1 percent reduction in first grade retention rate. Since 2001, the statewide rate has decreased 48 percent with a savings of around $21 million per year since children do not repeat the same grade.
In Fairfield County:
• First grade retention has dropped 78 percent.
• Fairfield County clients are screened for speech defects with connections made for early intervention to happen during preschool years.
• Ages and stages questionnaires as well as developmental screenings on clients help get early intervention in place by detecting issues at an early age, a key component to helping children move beyond those conditions later in life.
• Parent workshops have mandated attendance and the attendance has been 100 percent in Fairfield County.
“Fairfield County First Steps is making a difference. For every child that we reach, sadly, there are others out there that we simply don’t have the funding to serve, Wilkes said. “Our work is not complete, but how wonderful it would be to one day work ourselves right out of a job (by removing the barriers that adversely affect young children in Fairfield County).
Local programs provided by First Steps include:
The Imagination Library
Parents as Teachers
Car seats for prenatal classes
Child care mentoring
Countdown to kindergarten
In its regional reach, something discussed at the meeting, Chester County First Steps raised 38 cents for each dollar allocated for services for families and young children. Additionally, public-private partnerships have leveraged $97 million since 1999, an additional 46 cents for every state dollar invested in the program.
The S.C. Budget and Control Board’s office of research and statistics tracks programs systematically to help improve the programs. Data revealed that 66 percent of parents showed skill improvements after participating in a First Steps parent education program. Especially addressed is early childhood development and improving child care at home and with providers.
The Parents as Teachers program, a national evidence-based home visiting model has used First Steps’ standards of implementation to inform their work with other states since 2008, according to Watson. In Chester County, partnerships with the Clemson 4-H program, with the United Way literacy project and with Chester County government and the Chester County School District extend the reach of First Steps as well, helping children receive a better start in life than they otherwise would have had.