A new program is making it easier for Head Start teachers and parents to communicate and help children reach their educational goals.

Jen Soule is the family services manager for the MAHUBE-OTWA Head Start program.

“We’re piloting the Learning Genie with 60 familes right now in family child care, home base and center-based preschool,” she said.

If the program is successful, it may be purchased for more sites.

Park Rapids Head Start Site Coordinator Trisha Jorud said they are using the new program with 15 families with infants and toddlers.

Parents received information about Learning Genie at their initial home visit, where teachers helped them install the app on their phones.

Feedback from parents has been very positive. “I’ve had parents tell me they love it, it’s awesome and about all the things they have learned,” Head Start teacher Kaitlin Crist said.

Program helps build literacy

“In my infant and toddler rooms, it shows activities they did with a link to the book we read that day so they can read it again at home,” Jorud said. “The best thing is to read that book multiple times versus one time. That way parents can help extend classroom learning at home.”

Books on Learning Genie feature videos of adults reading books to children, so parents have a role model to follow. For example, the reader might point out pictures or ask the child being read to questions during the story.

“It’s building the confidence of parents who were never or seldom read to,” Soule said.

Learning Genie allows teachers to share book interests of each child by “tagging” books on the app so parents can read them again at home.

“This isn’t meant to replace books by any means,” Soule added. “It’s meant to enhance the reading experience.”

Parents are encouraged to check out books at the Park Rapids Library to help them reach the goal of reading 1,000 books with their child before kindergarten and to attend story time at the public library.

“The library is a great community resource,” Jorud said. “We would also like to see Hubbard County be part of the Dolly Parton Imagination Library.”

Community residents interested in helping this happen can go to their website and sign a petition. A corporate sponsor is also needed.

“Becker County has the program, so children there get a book a month in the mail until they are 5,” Jorud said.

Parent involvement

Learning Genie tracks the time parents spend on various activities with their child and calculates the number of volunteer hours, called “in-kind,” that provide matching federal and state dollars to the Head Start program. This saves both on paper costs and staff time.

“I think the motivation for parents is going to be seeing the dollar sign attached to their in-kind,” Soule said. “It’s going to show families how many dollars they’re raising for our program.”

Soule said providing parents with updates of what their children are doing throughout the day helps them be more comfortable leaving them at school.

Teachers have the program loaded on their iPads and often take pictures of children’s learning activities to share with parents.

“Parent engagement is a very hard thing to measure,” Soule said. “This tool allows us to do that because it tracks how many times an app is opened, how many times parents worksheets are looked at and how many times books are read. Now we’ll have data to measure parent engagement. The other cool thing Learning Genie does is it syncs to their calendars, so we’re able to announce events going on at school that way. We can also keep track of well-child appointments and immunizations and dental appointments and sync that to their calendar.”

Soule said the Learning Genie also has a wealth of research-based resources for parents. “If a parent is struggling with potty training, for example, we can send them tips quickly,” she said.

The program also has a Spanish version.

“Technology is definitely the way to go,” she said. “People check their phones more often than they check their child’s backpack. That’s the best way to get the information across.”

Even parents who are out of minutes can access the program on wifi. It can also be done at the library computer, Kindle or iPad.

“It was created with Facebook in mind, so it looks and feels like social media. It’s a news feed update and its fun,” Soule said.

Enhancing communication

Two-way messaging allows quick communication between teachers and parents when questions or concerns arise. Teachers check messages and reply to parents during nap time and breaks.

Diapering and daily care information is tracked on the program, along with what each child eats for meals and snacks.

The app replaces paper forms that were previously used. Crist said a huge benefit is the time saved from filling out paperwork.

“I can put everything in there and it’s done in just seconds, and it shows the parents activities we do and what it does for their kids,” she said. “I can mass-enter activities all the children do, and I can also enter activities I do with just one child.”

At conference time, the Learning Genie will be used to set and review individual learning goals.

The classroom newsletter is posted on Learning Genie so parents see it right away. “It’s more convenient for them and is fostering that communication throughout the whole experience,” she said.

In addition to the Head Start center, two home daycares in Park Rapids are also using the Learning Genie app.