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'Accidental' job in education yields many rewards

Tammy Swift, columnist

When I took a new job at Prairie Public Education Services three years ago, I didn't know what to expect.

Of course, I was aware of the fine reputation of Prairie Public. But I had no idea that the organization had its own education division, dedicated exclusively to promoting and disseminating PBS learning materials.

My background is communications, not education. But before long, I was tooling around the state in a blue van emblazoned with PBS characters and accompanying a ginormous Curious George to child care centers.

It wasn't always easy work. It required a lot of travel; one year our team traveled 22,000 miles bringing our resources to schools, preschools, community events and educational conferences. We packed and unpacked iPad labs and heavy bins from that blue van in the thick of August heat and the coldest of North Dakota winters. (I plan to commemorate at least three arthritis-crusted vertebrae in my back to this job.)

Yet it was rewarding. Our department brought free books, fantastic teaching resources, and training to teachers and parents. We would bring our Family Learning Events — events that brought standards-aligned activities, a free meal, our iPad learning lab and free books to schools — to communities like Halliday or Plaza. The gratitude shown by teachers and administrators was incredible. "We want to do events like this — events that encourage parent engagement," one North Dakota grade school principal told me. "We just don't have the resources and staff to do it on our own."

These resources weren't just about cute characters. PBS routinely hires independent research firms to measure the efficacy of its materials. One study shows that children who do nothing more than watch Super WHY! across an eight-week period will score higher on standardized measures of early reading achievement when compared with preschool children who watched an alternate program.

But if studies don't impress you, the stories would. I've seen moms who have track marks on their arms, but who said their child never misses Daniel Tiger. That child's home life probably was chaotic, but at least he was watching a program that teaches important skills like resilience.

Parents have told me that their child on the autism spectrum became more verbal and socially appropriate after watching "Bob the Builder." A mother told me her daughter with learning differences learned to read with PBS learning apps. We heard about homes that had no children's books or reading materials at all. The free book we sent home with those little ones might be the only age-appropriate thing they had to read.

One year, our department handed out thousands of resources to people who take part in FirstLink's incredible Giving Tree of Hope program. These people had to stand in line for hours to get holiday gifts for their children. One family waited by the door to get a ride back home afterward, but their ride was unreliable and didn't show up for two hours. The mom had two young sons - age 5 at most - dressed in snowmobile suits. My co-worker, a former kindergarten teacher, entertained them by reading to them. She taught one of the little boys his colors in a very short time - he was that bright and anxious to learn. Yet something as simple as a ride across town was a hardship for them.

PBS certainly has its detractors, but, personally, I support any network that has taught so many children how to read, tackle equations, learn about dinosaurs, ask questions and act appropriately in a classroom. It's baffling why people would want to slam an organization that hands out materials to parents on how to best talk to your child after a divorce, a death in the family, a natural disaster, bullying or incarceration.

Yes, it's ideal if parents can teach their children all these things themselves. But some families struggle so hard to simply survive that they don't have much left to build that crucial educational foundation. And we already know that a good education — especially early learning — can save children from a lifetime of poverty and hardship.

I loved that I could work for a place that realized this and wanted to give little ones all they needed to succeed.

Unfortunately, these are tough times for public media. Due to state budget cuts, the education department's budget was cut in half — and who knows what will happen in the next biennium. Jobs don't grow on the easy tree for mid-career workers, so I felt it was time to be proactive and find a job that was less dependent on state coffers. I was grateful to find a communications position with Lutheran Social Services, which has fantastic people and an admirable mission.

Even so, I will miss it. My accidental job turned out to be interesting and rewarding, which just goes to show that we sometimes need to veer off the career track and take a side trail instead.

Or maybe we can even take a street ...

Readers can reach columnist Tammy Swift at