Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges is launching the first major project out of her Cradle to K initiative for babies and young children: getting parents to talk more to their kids.
The mayor said she’s taking aim at the so-called word gap that educators say exists between low-income children and their more affluent peers. She pointed to research that says middle- and upper-income children hear 30 million more words than poorer children by age 4 — and as a result, often end up learning more words and doing better in school.
By distributing targeted materials to hospitals, clinics, libraries and businesses, Hodges said the city and its partners can get the word out to more parents about the importance of talking with their children early on. She plans to jump-start that work with $200,000 in funding, including $50,000 she’s set aside in her 2016 budget.
“This is aiming to set up the culture of Minneapolis so everyone will realize it’s important to talk, read and sing to the kids who are in their lives,” Hodges said.
The word-gap campaign, which the mayor’s office is calling “Talking=Teaching,” is the most specific project to emerge from the mayor’s Cradle to K cabinet, which was formed more than a year and a half ago and focuses on babies and children under the age of 3. The panel of experts on early childhood health and education has drawn up a plan with three main goals: that all children will be “stably housed,” have “continuous access to high-quality early-childhood education and “receive a healthy start rich with early experiences that will prepare them for successful early education and literacy.”
The group has devised several suggestions for achieving those goals, ranging from increasing mental health screening for babies and toddlers to boosting housing options for low-income families and expanding home-visiting services. So far, however, the cabinet has not outlined how much the work could cost or how much the city should chip in.
Most of the $200,000 for the word-gap kickoff will come from the LENA Research Foundation, a Colorado organization that developed a parenting program that uses a recorder to monitor how much parents talk with their children. Hodges wants to match that funding with $50,000 from the city.
Those funds have been a topic of conversation as the City Council prepares to vote on Hodges’ budget later this year. Some council members have questioned which agency would run the word-gap project and wanted more specifics on how the money would be spent.
The mayor said the city’s initial contribution would be spent on family literacy kits. They’ll be purchased from a distributor who has worked with the Clinton Foundation, an organization that developed a word-gap program called “Too Small to Fail.” Hodges said the Clinton Foundation will also provide technical assistance in Minneapolis.
Outside organizations — the University of Minnesota, the Northside Achievement Zone, Way to Grow and Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, among others — would be responsible for distributing information to parents.
Officials expect to spend the next six months developing a more specific plan, including deciding how many outside agencies will be involved, how they’ll reach out to parents and how much the effort will cost in the future.
The mayor said she doesn’t anticipate that the city would provide ongoing funding for the project or oversee it in the long term.
“But like participation in any collective impact table, we have the piece that we play,” she said. “Right now, since this is a mayor’s initiative, I want to make sure we’re a part of kicking it off well.”