In The Lead: Fred Rogers' neighborhood of helping kids

The company that bears Fred Rogers' name continues his legacy with innovations in childhood care and education here and across the U.S.



The up-close footage of narcotics officers ascending the stairs in a bleak urban apartment building on their way to a drug bust looks like it was lifted from a television news documentary. But the raw video of New Haven, Conn., police storming the premises where a baby resides is actually part of a series used to train law enforcement officials who deal with situations that involve children.

"One-on-One: Connecting Cops & Kids," produced by the Pittsburgh-based Fred Rogers Co., has been rolled out to police departments across the U.S. since its launch a decade ago and has received high marks for using real-life situations to teach police how to respond to children ranging from infants to teens.

"Cops & Kids" is among the lesser-known initiatives developed by the high-profile Rogers organization that is best known for keeping Fred Rogers' legacy alive with PBS Kids' shows "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" and "Peg + Cat."

But the police training series represents the kind of work that has helped to burnish Pittsburgh's reputation as a leading center for innovation in early childhood care and education.

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The region is "prime to be a place to really pilot around universal access for all children," said Michelle Figlar, executive director of the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children, a membership organization that provides professional development training and advocacy for early childhood educators and care providers in 10 counties in southwestern Pennsylvania.

With the announcement in March that Pittsburgh was one of 14 cities nationwide tapped by the National League of Cities and the U.S. Department of Education to be a site for a "community conversation" on education and after-school programs, the region is poised to garner more attention as well as increased support for new and existing programs, said Ms. Figlar.

"It's perfect timing," she said. "We have a network of people who just come together to get things done."

Mayor Bill Peduto, who sits on the National League of Cities' committee overseeing education and advocacy, has made education a priority of his administration and has asked President Barack Obama to make Pittsburgh a laboratory for early childhood education initiatives.

But some could argue the city has served as an incubator of sorts for early childhood education going back to the 1950s.

Besides children's programming pioneer Rogers, the region has been the site of research and practical applications developed by other early childhood experts, including Benjamin Spock, the best-selling author and pediatrician who taught at the University of Pittsburgh in the early 1950s; Margaret McFarland, a child psychologist who consulted closely with Rogers and who co-founded the Arsenal Family & Children's Center in Lawrenceville; and Erik Erikson, a child psychologist who taught at Pitt in the 1950s and is widely credited with coining the phrase "identity crisis."

"Because Pittsburgh has such a long history of leading figures in early childhood, we follow on that and collaborate so there are academic and research resources that help to inform practitioners ... and convenors who pull together a lot of positive resources for families with young children," said Christina Groark, co-director of Pitt's Office of Child Development.

"So we think we have a leg up on a lot of other regions."

In addition to university expertise, early childhood initiatives in Pittsburgh have flourished with the help of foundation funding, said Bill Isler, president of the Fred Rogers Co. and a member of the advisory board for the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media at Saint Vincent College, Latrobe.

"There's a tremendous foundation base committed to children's issues, and this is really a community that cares about children," he said.

Among the most prominent is the PNC Foundation, which since 2004 has made $73 million in grants to fund its corporate-wide philanthropy initiative, "Grow Up Great."

Local foundations have funded the creation and growth of many other initiatives, including the "Cops & Kids" training program.

The Heinz Endowments provided the initial investment to produce the series and the Staunton Farm Foundation funded a pilot project to use it to train officers locally, said Annette Santella, professional development specialist at the Fred Rogers Co.

In 2010, the organization won a grant totaling nearly $500,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice that was used to conduct "Cops & Kids" training workshops for police departments nationwide.

Founded by Rogers in 1971 as Family Communications Inc., the South Side-based Fred Rogers Co. started as the production company for the classic "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" show.

Among the nonbroadcast resources it has created for children, parents, teachers and child care providers are "Together Time," a project in which it partnered with the Allegheny Intermediate Unit to create activities for children in homeless shelters; "When Your Baby Cries," a DVD produced for the Pittsburgh Mercy Health System; "WordPlay," an interactive game for adults and children that is featured on posters at bus shelters; and a "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" DVD series that includes activities for children with autism.

"We're going in a lot of other ways beyond TV," said Mr. Isler.

— Joyce Gannon: jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.


First Published May 13, 2014 11:26 AM

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