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SCI partners with University of Chicago in early learning project

  • Dec 21, 2016
  • Shannon Nickinson
A black man bottle feeding a child A black man bottle feeding a child

Parents in the Thirty Million Words Initiative learn the importance of talking to their babies from birth. Photo credit: TMW.

Studer Community Institute and the University of Chicago announced a partnership this week to bring an early learning research project to Pensacola.

The Thirty Million Words Initiative, founded by by pediatric surgeon Dr. Dana Suskind, will begin working in Pensacola in 2017. The TMW Newborn Initiative will target new moms for lessons in early brain development to help them understand how language can build babies brains.

Suskind and her staff develop and implement scientifically tested programs to help parents maximize language development from birth through age 3. The goal is to use language to build children’s brains in an effort to ensure they show up for school ready to learn.

Data from the Institute's Pensacola Metro Dashboard — a set of 16 metrics that gauge the educational, economic and social well-being of the community — indicates that nearly one-third of Escambia County's kindergartners are not ready for school on the first day.

"It is perhaps the most significant problem we face that holds back our community,” said Randy Hammer, president and CEO of the Institute. “TMW addresses that and has the potential to improve the lives of thousands of children in our community. None of this would be happening if it weren’t for a $108,000 grant from the women of IMPACT100 and a $50,000 gift from Quint and Rishy Studer.”

TMW is based on a 1995 study by two Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley, who found some children hear 30 million more words by their fourth birthday than others. The children who heard 30 million more words were more likely to be ready to learn at the start of preschool, and by the third grade, they had bigger vocabularies, were stronger readers and scored higher on cognitive tests.

A key takeaway of the study, said Suskind, is that children who started school ahead tended to stay ahead, and children who started school behind tended to stay behind.

With about 3,000 children beginning kindergarten each school year in Escambia County, the data indicates that about 1,000 5-year-olds show up to school lagging behind their peers in language skills they'll need to learn to read and succeed in school.

“That’s why early learning is so important,” she said. “TMW is designed to confront not only the language gap, but also the achievement gap. We’re so excited to have Pensacola as our first community outside of Chicago to pilot our program.”

“Pensacola will be our first test case,” said John List, who has been working with Suskind and TMW and is chairman of the University of Chicago’s economics department. “Once we learn what works in Pensacola, we will then take that to a nationwide experiment. We will choose communities in an experimental way and roll out in these communities what we did in Pensacola that worked and see if it can work nationwide. And I believe it will.”

Suskind spoke to a group of about 400 people at Booker T. Washington High School on March 30 about her research and her book, "Thirty Million Words: Building a Child's Brain." The seeds of the partnership were sown during that visit.

Sacred Heart Hospital, Baptist Health Care and West Florida Hospital have all agreed to participate in the TMW-Newborn Initiative pilot program. TMW-Newborn delivers TMW’s core message in a short video shown to new parents in hospitals as part of routine postpartum care.

TMW-Newborn was developed through rigorous testing and interviews with health care providers, hospital staffs and parents, especially those from underserved, low-income communities. It’s the first piece in rolling out a broader community-wide outreach to establish Pensacola as America’s first early learning city.

“This is a good first step in an early learning initiative,” said Suskind. “Pensacola will become a model so other people and communities can learn from us.”

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