School meets barn-raising spirit in Clarke County ‘HIPPY’ project

Editor’s note: Larry Lee led the study “Lessons Learned from Rural Schools” and is a long-time advocate for public schools. He continues to observe and comment on effective local ideas and efforts to support schools around Alabama He is a former Chamber of Commerce breakfast speaker on the subject “Education Precedes Prosperity.”

Kathy Spidle could’ve been at home this Tuesday night, instead of at Grove Hill Elementary School. After all, she’s principal of the school and spends many hours there going about her “day” job.

Susan Jones, a retired teacher, could’ve been home as well, as could have Mary English and dozens of other volunteers. But instead of an evening in front of the TV, they were helping the Clarke County HIPPY (Home Instruction for Parents of Pre-School Youngsters) program conduct a health fair.

Before the event ended, 51 pre-schoolers received vision, hearing, and dental screenings, as well as having their body mass index, blood sugar, and blood pressure checked. The screenings showed that four children needed immediate attention for vision issues while two had hearing concerns.

In addition to the health screenings, children were fingerprinted by the Clarke County Sheriff’s Department, while parents got info from the county health office about child safety seats and about diabetes from Health Resources of West Alabama. A local pharmacy provided prescriptions for free, chewable multivitamins.

Before the event, retired teachers who are HIPPY volunteers gave the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test to pre-schoolers enrolled in the program. The child is asked to point to a picture of the item the tester names. Responses indicate a child’s ability to understand the spoken word and follow oral directions. That night, volunteers reviewed the results with parents.

There was a food and entertainment period as well, including mascots from local high schools who delighted children with their antics.

Neighbors helping neighbors has been a way of life in Clarke County for generations. But such activities are not unique to Clarke County. In fact, the fabric of rural America was woven by groups of neighbors joining forces with one another to build barns, gather crops, butcher hogs, and clear ground.

One could justifiably claim that for rural places like Clarke County, what was done to assist HIPPY is simply part of the community DNA. Given the scarcity of resources, the spirit of volunteerism is essential for successful community building.

HIPPY is an example of a worthwhile local project. Parent-educators make weekly visits to the homes of pre-schoolers where they go through a lesson with a parent, who, in turn, will spend the next week working on it with their child. There is no expense to the enrolled family. The curriculum runs 30 weeks. Clarke County has 94 children enrolled this year. This is the program’s sixth year. In all, some 400 children have been helped.

“One of the most heart-warming aspects of HIPPY is watching mothers take a more active role in their child’s life,” said Jane Sellers, a retired educator who runs the Clarke County program. “You see them become more self-confident. While our first goal is better preparing the child for school, close behind is helping mothers to be more independent and more comfortable in working with their kids,” Sellers said.

Edith Lynum, who works at the hospital in Grove Hill, attended the health fair with two of her children. She’s a HIPPY believer. “I just wish my two oldest children had been able to go through the program,” she said.

Does HIPPY work? Results of the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test indicate it does. In the most recent round of pre- HIPPY and post-HIPPY tests for Clarke County, the number of children likely to succeed in school jumped 10 percent.

Principal Kathy Spidle sees the impact at her school. “By the second day of kindergarten our teachers can tell which kids are HIPPY kids,” she said.

Worth giving up a Tuesday evening every now and then, wouldn’t you say?