Closing the Gap in San Antonio and Providence

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Education Update 3-30By the time many poor children enter school, they are already considered at risk for academic failure. “Reaching Them Early On,” from the March issue of Education Update, explores the landscape of early education in the United States and highlights how schools and communities are leveling the playing field.

In the article, Susan B. Neuman, who was the assistant secretary of education under George W. Bush, calls for a blended school/community model that includes more speech-language services, healthcare, and extended day opportunities for children in the early years. Schools alone “don’t have the time and expertise to work with families in the 0 to 3 space,” Neuman acknowledges.

Several mayors have spearheaded programs in their cities to give impoverished children the support they need. San Antonio’s Pre-K 4 SA, a program from former Mayor Julian Castro’s SA2020 initiative, provides full-day preschool, afterschool care, and meals to San Antonio’s poorest children. The program works in tandem with the city’s schools to raise the level of instruction for all kids—and early results have been promising (see “Reaching Them Early On” for more).

On the other side of the country, former Providence, R.I., mayor Angel Taveras launched “Providence Talks” to address the rich/poor “word gap.” The early intervention program works with local families to encourage them to talk more to their infants and young children. The program is based on a study by University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley that suggests that by the time a low-income child reaches age four, he will have heard 30 million fewer words than his more well-off peers.

In “The Talking Cure,” the New Yorker provides a thorough account of Providence Talks, the data that supports it, and the privacy concerns it raises. The voluntary program works by recording conversations between children and their parents with a “word pedometer” and sending coaches into family homes to monitor progress and offer guidance. The goal is to improve early childhood literacy by raising the daily word count kids are exposed to before they enter kindergarten.

As Neuman suggests, addressing the disparities that children enter school with requires the investment of the community. Innovative programs like Pre-K 4 SA and Providence Talks could be a healthy start.

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