Tuning into parents to tune into children

  • April 1, 2016
  • /   Randy Hammer
  • /   education

Dr. Dana Suskind on stage at Washington High School, where she spoke about the importance of parents' role in brain development.

We do not have a school problem in Escambia County.

We don’t have a teacher problem or a classroom problem. Yes, poverty is an issue, but it’s not the issue. No, the challenge we have is in the home.

Or, more to the point, helping parents help their children.

“We have to reach parents if we want to reach children,” says Sam Mathews, a psychology professor at the University of West Florida.

Back in 1999 the Escambia County School board paid Mathews $17,000 to study the differences between high-achieving and low-achieving children at the county’s two “failing” schools.

The difference? The high-achieving children had an engaged parent, grandparent or guardian in their life. The low-achieving children didn’t.

“It really wasn’t that some kids had better teachers or services than others. It was that some kids had a parent who talked to them and others didn’t, ” said Mathews.

Spencer Bibbs and A.A. Dixon elementary schools had each received an F in 1999 following the first-year results of the FCAT, which the state has now abandoned. The state branded Dxion and Spencer Bibbs failing schools. And unfortunately for Escambia, they were the only two failing schools in the state. And that put them under the state’s microscope. A report by the Pensacola News Journal in 2000 reported on what the folks in Tallahassee learned:

  • — Dixon and Spencer Bibbs were inner-city schools where nine of out 10 students were poor and minority and almost all qualified for free lunch.
  • — A majority were entering kindergarten unable to hold a crayon or speak a simple sentence.
  • — More than 40 percent did not live with their parents, but with a grandparent or guardian.
  • — At Dixon, half the children lived in the four nearby public housing developments where the average family annual income ranged from $5,700 to $12,000.
  • — At Bibbs, 63 percent of the children transferred to another school before the end of the school year; at Dixon, 46 percent. Some families were moving whenever their rent was

But Mathews learned something that Tallahassee overlooked, something that he felt was even more important.

“Poverty definitely makes it harder on parents, But I what I learned from the study is that there are mothers and grandmothers who figured out how to get their children the help they needed, figured out how to interact with their children. So the idea I had was to develop a program to let the mothers who had figured it out become the mentors in the community and help the other mothers.”

But because the state was pushing so many of it’s own programs to deal with the achievement gap at Escambia’s two failing schools, the Escambia school board elected not to follow up on Mathew’s $17,000 study and proposals.

Now it’s 16 years later and Dana Suskind, the author of “Thirty Million Words,” came to town to give a talk at Washington High School. Her research has shown that the so-called achievement gap is really a language gap.

“Language is the most powerful force in the first three years of a child’s life,” says Suskind.

So when we talk about getting children ready for kindergarten, Suskind says “what we’re really talking about are the parents…Babies aren’t born smart, they’re made smart.”

Suskind is a professor of surgery at the University of Chicago and the director of the Pediatric Cochlear Implant Program, which gives deaf children the opportunity to hear. She founded the Thirty Million Words Initiative after noticing that some of the deaf children who received an implant were picking up language faster than others.

“The closer I looked into this, it came down to talk,” said Suskind.

It came down to children who had parents who talked to them did better. And the gap between children who were performing well and those who weren’t was 30 million words. Suskind found research that showed children in poverty heard 30 million fewer words than children who lived in affluent households.

And thus was born the Thirty Million Word Initiative.

“I did not understand how difficult poverty is until this project,” said Suskind. “Early childhood and language are the key. It’s not about training parents. Rather, it’s about letting them know the power they already have. We need social policies that invest in parents so they can invest in their children. We need to figure out how to get this idea into the groundwater.”

Over the next several months, the Studer Community Institute will be working with businesses and organizations throughout the community to take a more in-depth look at Suskind’s work and ways to get her ideas into the groundwater.

It’s the most important thing we can do for our community. A third of children in the Escambia school district show up for kindergarten with significant language gaps. Just 66 percent of our children are deemed kindergarten ready on their first day of school.

Think of where we would be today if we had listened to Sam Mathews 16 years ago.

No, I take that back.

Think of where we will be 16 years from now if we listen to Dana Suskind.