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A Conversation with Kimberly Kopko

  • Cornell Cooperative Extension
In the early days of Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology, Extension educators traveled around the state in demonstration trains to engage directly with families, especially farm wives, in their homes. Today, Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) Associate Director Kimberly Kopko is reimagining ways to meet families where they are with more portable parenting models that bring learning opportunities to spaces where families already get together, including schools, community and health centers, and, when necessary, online. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the value of the adaptable and timely support that CCE educators provide for children and caregivers as they work through the complicated dynamics of family life. 

In this episode of “Extension Out Loud,” Kopko introduces listeners to the history and evolution of the College of Human Ecology and how its mission to support New York state families has endured.  

Said Kopko: “Parenting, nutrition, child development, sewing, cooking -- everything that we do in our college now, you can kind of see the elements of it in our history... We're still doing the work."

“Parenting, nutrition, child development, sewing, cooking -- everything that we do in our college now, you can kind of see the elements of it in our history... We're still doing the work."

Under Kopko’s leadership, the College of Human Ecology oversees CCE’s statewide youth development, nutrition, and parenting programming.  

While the COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on many of the challenges and deficits that families face, Kopko is hopeful that our experiences and the lessons of the past year will help families, caregivers, and educators adapt to new and arising challenges in the future. 

This conversation with Kopko is the fifth episode of the latest “Extension Out Loud” series, “Leading Through Extension,” which features key CCE voices discussing their approaches to extension work and how history – and this past tumultuous year — are shaping the organization’s path forward.     

Listen on:

PAUL TREADWELL: Welcome to Extension Out Loud, a podcast from Cornell Cooperative Extension. I'm Paul Treadwell.

KATIE BAILDON: And I'm Katie Baildon.

PAUL TREADWELL: And this episode is part of our Leading Through Extension series where we explore the history, diversity, and current state of extension work across New York. And today, we're talking with--

KATIE BAILDON: Talking with Kimberly Kopko. She is an associate director of Cooperative Extension and a Senior Extension Associate in Policy Analysis and Management in the College of Human Ecology.

PAUL TREADWELL: The extension side of the College of Human Ecology has a long history of working with families, supporting the development of healthy lifestyles, and engaging youth, which we dig into during our conversation with Kim.

KATIE BAILDON: We hope you enjoy it.

KIMBERLY KOPKO: So my name is Kimberly Kopko, and I am the Associate Director of Cornell Cooperative Extension. I'm also the Associate Director for Extension and Outreach in the College of Human Ecology, and I direct the parenting project Healthy Children, Families, and Communities.

PAUL TREADWELL: Well, welcome, Kim. It's nice to have you with us. So can you tell us a little bit about the work of the College of Human Ecology and how that relates to the work of extension?

KIMBERLY KOPKO: Oh, goodness. That's probably a podcast in itself. Of course, if we just look strictly at the extension programs in the college, the three big programs that we've done, and historically have done, are nutrition, parenting, and 4-H.

So we cover on all sides of the nutrition angle, the parenting part, and 4-H youth development is also a big extension program. But that's just on the extension side. And so what we do in the college is we have a little different model than the way that the extension work is done in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, which I will refer to going forward as CALS.

And that is, we kind of bundle our extension work in with our outreach work. So we call it outreach extension. We do a lot of applied work, of course, applied research, and community engagement work, and we also have the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research where we do translational work.

And so many times, you hear those terms used synonymously. If we really were to break it down, there are some differences between them. But for the sake of our conversation today, I think it's-- suffice it to say that we do-- we kind of characterize the outreach and extension work that we do under this outreach extension umbrella. And there are two hubs for that type of work in the College of Human Ecology, that I will refer to going forward as CHE, and that is Cooperative Extension is one of our big hubs for that work, and the other hub is the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research that I mentioned. And the acronym for that is BCTR.

So to answer your question, Paul, about how do faculty engage in this work, in a variety of ways, through everything I mentioned. Through outreach work, through the extension work, the three main extension programs that I mentioned, through the Bronfenbrenner Center, through faculty applied research. In the College of Human Ecology, we have very few faculty that have formal extension appointments.

So we had faculty who were hired on the tenure track to do extension and research as opposed to teaching and research, and they differed from faculty who primarily had the teaching and research sort of in their portfolio. Then you have folks like me who are academic professionals or what are called extension faculty in colleges like CHE in CALS. And my role is a little different. I'm also not hired to teach, although I do teach.

But in my role, it's really to bridge the work of the college with faculty and the communities where CCE county associations are, which is across all of New York state. So the ways that faculty engage are through their research. They may work with county associations to partner with them because we need, say, a diversity of participants in the research, and New York City is a particularly big hub for this.

And then we have faculty who are really interested in community-engaged work, in offering internships for students. So we have a number of faculty who work on the student internship side. And they partner with county associations to either get their applied work or their research kind of a mechanism-- the county association serves as a mechanism for getting that faculty work done in a way that they would not otherwise be able to do, and engaging students at the same time. So there are a variety of ways that our faculty engage with the CCE system.

KATIE BAILDON: I want to back up a little and ask you a little more about yourself and how you came to this work.

KIMBERLY KOPKO: Well I did my graduate work in human development. And so I am a product of the applied work that we see. Urie Bronfenbrenner was actually still teaching at the time when I did my graduate work. During my master's work before coming to Cornell, my work was very much informed by Urie's model in the context of child development. And so it influenced the way that I think about children and families and understanding them in this broader context.

Because Urie has a quote, and I'm paraphrasing, that what you see from children in a lab is what you would expect to see when you bring a child to a strange lab and ask them to interact with strange adults, right? You're not seeing typical child behavior. So Urie was very much a proponent of observational and naturalistic ways of observing children and the ways that they interact with their environment.

Beyond that, he also said that if you examine a child interacting with their parent, that's sort of one level, but then you have the child interacting with the family dynamic, and the school dynamic, and the community dynamic. And it was like these bull's eyes, each circle went out a little further. And if you think about it, yes, of course, I mean, if we're studying children and families, we have to understand them in their natural context. I mean, there are some standard developmental principles, but for the most part, it's the dynamic. So coming to Cornell, I kind of grew up in that environment from my graduate work.

Mon Cochran was there at the time, and Kristi Lekies, and they were doing work in childcare and daycare centers. Judy Ross-Bernstein was working with students and sending them out to do field work. And so that was my graduate education, very applied, very contextual, understanding children and families in their natural contexts.

And so I became interested in parenting, and there were a few faculty members who were doing that work, but not completely. And so I was able to carve out my own niche. And looking back, it was very rewarding. At the time, it was very challenging, because real world work is messy work.

And so when you're trying to collect data and stay on a schedule, and your committee is saying here's what we need and here's when we need it by, well, the world doesn't always work that way. And so it was a good lesson from the graduate student perspective, but it's just the work that I did and the work that I continued to do, it would be very hard for me to kind of peel away the real world aspect of it and go to strictly laboratory work, experimental work.

That has its place. It's very important work. And some of the work I do now, I have parental beliefs about children's play and learning, and we do have a laboratory component to that. But we bring the parent and the child into a setting and let them do what parents and children do naturally. So it still honors that naturalistic observation component.

And so I would say, Katie, to answer your question, this is how I was trained. It's where my interests are, and I've been fortunate enough to stay at Cornell and be allowed the space to continue to do this kind of work.

KATIE BAILDON: And has parenting education and youth development programming always been part of the Cornell Cooperative Extension model? What's the history there?

KIMBERLY KOPKO: Yeah, so the history is interesting. When I was looking at your questions, I thought, wow, there is such a history to MVR, to Martha Van Rensselaer Hall, which is which houses the College of Human Ecology. And I will say MVR going forward.

But initially, we were formed as a department by Martha Van Rensselaer and Flora Rose. So you may hear those names in the history of the College of Human Ecology. And they were the first full-time female faculty members. And what they wanted to do was bring this research-based information to support farm wives across New York state, so parenting, nutrition, child development, sewing, cooking. So everything that we do in our college now, you can kind of see the elements of it in our history.

And then we ultimately grew from this department into our own college. And that was in 1925. And it was the College of Home Economics.

And we were the first of the kind in the country. There was no college of home economics. So you can see how this evolved from two female faculty members coming together and starting this as an academic unit or department, evolving into a college with the mission that we are still doing.

It may look a little different, it may have changed somewhat, but you had child development in there, you had parenting, you had nutrition. And we did have more of the home economics focus. And that's really the only thing that maybe I would say we've moved away from, but not really, because we do have fiber apparel and science design, we have design and environmental analysis. And so textiles, policy, design, that was all part of this historically initial and original and innovative work.

And so what they did in the early days of the college is they rode around the state in what was called demonstration trains. I kid with our educators that not much different than county association vans, extension vans where our educators sort of load up their van with their gear and off they go to offer programming where the population calls for them. And so, really, it's an interesting exercise, both intellectual and fun, to see how we were born as a college and what we did and why we were born as a college, what that need was.

And we're still meeting it. We're still doing the work. We haven't really veered very far. The times have changed, but families haven't. We still have parents and children.

PAUL TREADWELL: Just a little more concrete here, can you mention a couple of programs that are active out in association offices that are connected to CHS?

KIMBERLY KOPKO: So maybe if I can start out before I name specific programs, I like to kind of categorize the parenting programs that we have. So we have, at last count-- we have a statewide data collection system where all the parent educators collect pre and post data on any parenting program that's six hours of content delivery or more. And so this allows us to evaluate parent education programs across the state.

So there's a menu of programs that I'm aware of, and at last count, there were maybe 26 or 30 parent programs on this menu. They're all research-based. We have one that's evidence-based. And I can go into that a little if time allows.

But the reason I'm saying that is we are very resource-rich in the number of parent programs that we have. And I categorize them just for ease of conversation into three separate categories. One is we have general parenting programs. So if you have a four-year-old or 14-year-old, you can be in the same class because it's parenting styles, communication, discipline, strengthening families, things like that.

The second category is developmental. So we have programs from parents who are expecting, all the way up to what we call boomerang kids. Your children have left home and they've come back, in that range.

And there are programs for toddlers, preschoolers, middle schoolers, teens and tweens, adolescents. So you would be in that class if you had a child of that age. So it's very developmentally focused.

The third category is what I call family type. So we have PASTA, as you mentioned, Paul, and that's for grandparents raising grandchildren. We have programs for military families. We have parents apart, which is for divorcing and separating families.

So you would be in one of those parenting programs if you found yourself in that family situation at this stage in your life. So those are sort of the three categories of programs. But to answer your question, Paul, the ones that are being done-- across the state, top five, I would say, just for the sake of conversation-- and this is determined by the statewide evaluation that I just mentioned. So this is all the data that comes in and we see what programs are being done across the state.

So there's Discipline is Not a Dirty Word, there's PASTA, there's the Parenting Skills Workshop Series, it's now called PS, It Works. And that's more of a general parenting program. PASTA, of course, is for grandparents raising grandchildren. Discipline is Not a Dirty Word is for parents of younger children, and, of course, it teaches about discipline and how to discipline your children.

So those are the top three. Again, there's maybe five to seven that are being done across the state that we typically find when we do our statewide data collection. But just because many of those are being used and we have some that are more popular than others, I don't want to discount the richness of the programming that we have. And just because we have all of those programs doesn't mean that they are offered all the time or that they are offered in every county association.

PAUL TREADWELL: I just want to ask you to do a little prediction. We've lived through an exceptional year here. When we come out of this and we start really re-evaluating what has happened, what do you think the trends are going to show? What do you believe or feel has been the impact of this crisis on families?

KIMBERLY KOPKO: Yeah. Well, I was talking to someone yesterday, and we try to focus on the positive aspects. I think there is some good that's come out of this, believe it or not. But I have concerns, as do many in this line of work.

Children being out of school, I think, will have profound impacts. And let me back up. I think what the pandemic has done has highlighted some of the issues that we've always known exist. So the difference between reaching families in rural communities has been highlighted. We have had less reach of those families.

Children who don't come from the most stable home environments and use school as a refuge, whether it's just for safety, for warmth, for food, they lost access to that. We don't know the extent of that, Paul. I don't even pretend to have an answer to your question, the emotional toll, the mental health toll, let alone any physical abuse that we don't know about.

There are also implications for parenting. The data that I have seen is that many families have economic hardships, and many parents have lost their jobs. Many parents have had to leave their jobs to provide the supports needed because their children were at home.

And the data suggests that this was more mothers than fathers. And so what are the impacts of moms-- wouldn't say opting out, but sort of we'll be kind and say choosing to leave their job, even if they didn't lose their job as a result of the pandemic. And those are very significant family decisions. Do we know the impact of that on families?

Many families moved. Will they move back or will they stay where they are? And if you get into this on the developmental argument, it's hard to say who's affected more. But one could imagine that younger children are struggling a little more than older children who have maybe more resources to process this and have ways of coping with it. And so there are a number of implications that I think we'll be finding down the line.

Pre-pandemic, we were really understanding in parent education that the model that we have used historically where you have a family coming to a county association office to engage in a curriculum that's six weeks or eight weeks, so every Wednesday night from 6:00 to 8:00 for six weeks, you're in this county association, that really was no longer working. Families have just shifted and changed to the result that we need to adapt our programming. It's not to say that can't be the model anymore, it's just that it was very rigid. And there was sometimes quite a bit of attrition in the classes because families weren't able to hang with that for that period of time.

I've done quite a bit of work in Denmark and I like their model. I call it embedded parenting. So you have a parenting support person where parents are.

If you're in an apartment building, you have a parenting support person. In daycares, there's a parenting person. In schools, there's a parenting person.

So wherever parents are, this person is. You're not driving to a place and setting up a time on a certain day in a certain block of time to talk with this person because you can imagine there's a lot that interferes with that. But if you just have someone who's readily available where parents are, boy, does that make a difference.

So I brought that concept back, and although we really maybe can't do that, in the best of worlds, we could, but what I'm trying to do in Cooperative Extension over the last two years or so is develop what I call portable parenting models where we might not have someone embedded in all the places where parents are, but we can take our parenting classes to parents. So maybe we can offer them in schools more readily. Maybe we can offer them at a community center.

It's still parent education and CCE, but the educator is the mechanism. And so wherever that educator is, that's where the educator is able to educate. And so we need to find ways to reach parents.

I was involved in a project in an upstate rural school where they had a school-based health center and this was our idea, to offer parent education as part of more of a healthy families, healthy communities approach as opposed to clinical health. And we were, through a variety of sources, told that parent education was really needed there.

And so we hired a parent support specialist and she worked with the health center liaison and a school advocate to reach out to families, and when families came to the school, she was there. And it made a difference in her ability to reach more families. So that just gives you an example of the ways I'm thinking about how we can still offer our parent education programs, but maybe have them be more effective, not in terms of the content that they offer, because they already are effective, but more effective in the sense that we're able to reach more families with them.

PAUL TREADWELL: Hopefully, we come out of this with the realization that there are large parts of New York state that are just underserved. No matter how you slice it, this has highlighted the fact that we have places where there are no bandwidth. We have places where families can afford it.

And this has had an impact. And if we're going to continue in even a hybrid remote face-to-face situation, we need to rectify that. My fear is we're going to come out of this and we're not going to remember any of the lessons that we think we should learn. Are you hopeful?

KIMBERLY KOPKO: I am hopeful. And I think the reason to be hopeful is what I mentioned before, that there are some good elements. And even if the good elements are we learned where the deficits were, and we learned what didn't work, and we learned that in sort of an immediate shutdown situation. Who among us saw that coming or could have predicted that?

And so what I saw was people adapting to the best of their abilities. At least we tried to do our best to address the needs that we were aware of, very significant needs, without access to those families. And so I am hopeful because of the group of people that we have in the system who are just amazing, and that maybe the lessons learned will allow us to be better prepared should something like this happen again.

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