Mayor Betsy Hodges poses with costumed actors portraying the stars of the "Peg + Cat" children's television show. Photo by Dylan Thomas

Mayor Betsy Hodges poses with costumed actors portraying the stars of the "Peg + Cat" children's television show. Photo by Dylan Thomas

Talking to children for a better city

Updated: July 5, 2016 - 12:47 pm

The first major initiative to emerge from Mayor Betsy Hodges’ ambitious Cradle to K plan offers a simple answer to the complex problem of childhood disparities: talk.

Minneapolis became the latest city to join Talking is Teaching on Tuesday, signing on to a national campaign that highlights the importance of talking, singing and reading in early brain development. This summer, advertisements on billboards and Metro Transit buses will encourage parents and caregivers to chat and interact with their children — on the bus, at home or anywhere.

“Here’s how we make our kids even smarter: We talk to them, we read to them, we sing to them. Period,” Hodges said in a ceremony outside of People Serving People, the state’s largest homeless shelter. After her remarks, the mayor sat down to read a picture book to a group of children in the shelter’s courtyard, but she had to compete for their attention with two costumed actors dressed as Peg and Cat, the stars of a children’s show broadcast locally on Twin Cities PBS, one of the campaign’s local partners.

Talking is Teaching is premised on research that suggests low-income children are exposed to many fewer words than their high-income peers, and that disparities in language comprehension between the two groups are apparent by age two. That early language gap is a predictor of how well a child will do in school and beyond.

“One of the first opportunity gaps is whether or not that kid is hearing enough words to make sure her brain develops to its maximum potential,” Hodges said.

The idea that early gaps can grow into adult education and employment disparities is at the core of Cradle to K, a centerpiece of the Hodges administration. The effort aims to eliminate racial and socio-economic disparities in health, education and housing security for Minneapolis’ youngest residents, children from before birth to age 3.

People Serving People CEO Daniel Gumnit, who joined the Cradle to K Cabinet this year after serving for two years on its stable housing subcommittee, said improving the lives of all Minneapolis children is the only way “to break the cycle of poverty and homelessness.”

“This isn’t just an education issue,” Gumnit said. “This is a workforce development issue. This is an economic development issue. This is a central core issue to the success of our city.”

A tested approach

Hodges’ established her Cradle to K Cabinet, an assembly of local experts in education, economics, health and housing, shortly after taking office in 2014. The cabinet issued its first report in May 2015; it proposes a number of local gap-closing solutions, including increasing participation in early childhood screening, expanding access to children’s mental-health services, building more low-income housing and adding seats in high-quality childcare programs.

But with Talking is Teaching, Hodges and the cabinet are importing an approach that has already been tested in communities across the country. In surveys taken after pilot projects in Oakland, Calif., and Tulsa, Okla., more than 80 percent of respondents said the campaign encouraged them to spend more time engaging with young children.

This isn’t a case of “talk is cheap.” As Hodges noted, talking, singing and reading are essentially free in monetary terms and, at the same time, incredibly valuable to a developing child.

The campaign alerts adults to that value, creating an understanding Hodges said is the “number-one determinant” in whether or not they spend time engaging meaningfully with the young people around them.

In addition to the advertising campaign, the local version of the Talking is Teaching initiative will include book donations and parent outreach and education events. Twin Cities PBS planned to hold a week of parent engagement sessions following the launch event.

Hodges said Landscape Structures, a Delano-based manufacturer of playground equipment, planned to develop the first “literacy playground” in Minneapolis. The playground will include conversation prompts to get adults and children talking.

The national Talking is Teaching campaign is run by Too Small to Fail, an initiative jointly operated by The Opportunity Institute and the Clinton Foundation. Like Cradle to K, Too Small to Fail focuses on improving the lives of young children.

Asked at the Talking is Teaching launch about to expect next from Cradle to K, the cabinet Co-Chair, Carolyn Smallwood, who is also executive director of Way to Grow, responded: “Stay tuned.”

‘Begging for books’

Gumnit said the People Serving People received a major book delivery just before the campaign kickoff. But the downtown shelter, which also runs a licensed in-house preschool, could always use more.

“One of the things we always struggle with is getting enough books for our guests, so we’re always going out there and begging for books,” he said. “We literally give away pallet-loads of books every year.”

Gumnit said the shelter emphasized the importance of talking and reading with children to its guests long before the Talking is Teaching campaign arrived in Minneapolis. Instead of one central library, the shelter maintains caches of books wherever families congregate, like the building’s lobby and technology lab.

Gumnit said some of the most coveted volunteer positions at People Serving People are the “roving readers” who circulate the shelter with wagonloads of books.

“What we find is there is also not only the literacy that trickles down from the parents, but oftentimes many of the kids take the books when they leave the shelter and it has a positive influence on the literacy of the whole household,” he said. “So, it’s not just a one-way street.”