Tulsa is ground zero for a new early-childhood education campaign that seeks to get more parents reading or talking with their children, even if they are too young to understand.

Nearly $1.5 million will be spent in Tulsa starting this spring to raise awareness about the importance of talking to children at a younger age.

Advocates for the program see it as a key to closing the academic achievement gap, in which students who are minority or in poverty score lower on assessments than their white or middle-class peers.

The program was officially unveiled Monday, with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attending to speak in support and talk about its expected impact.

Tulsa is the first city in the nation to implement the campaign, which was created by a California-based education group, Next Generation, and the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation. The program is expected to expand into the California cities of Oakland and San Jose next.

Marcell Lyles of Tulsa, who attended the event, is one of the parents the program is targeting. Lyles is applying the concept to his two sons, aged 2 and 3. He said the concept of talking to teach children sounds easy, and, in fact, it is. But he has seen it feed his children’s appetite to learn.

“I talk to them about what I see or what I’m doing,” Lyles said. “Simple stuff like that’s a car or a truck. Then I give them harder questions. I will ask them what this item is, and what sound it makes. They learn so much.”

In Tulsa, signs and posters will go up in grocery stores and on buses this spring that remind parents to take the time to talk, read or sing with their children each day. Libraries, businesses and educators, such as those at Tulsa’s Educare facilities, will also work to encourage parents to read and talk with their children at home.

Educare provides early childhood development programs for infants and toddlers from low-income families.

Among the big supporters of Tulsa’s program is the George Kaiser Family Foundation, which is dedicated to ending problems associated with poverty. The foundation also is a financial supporter of Oklahoma Watch.

At Educare #2 in north Tulsa, Clinton sang and read a picture book with several students. She also met with community leaders in a closed session to discuss efforts being taken in Tulsa to promote early childhood education.

Too often, Clinton said, people take talking to their children or the role of a school in education for granted.

Pushing the early childhood reading program should make it easier to ensure all children get a strong academic foundation under them before they enter kindergarten, she said.

“The earlier you start, the less likely you’ll even be facing that situation,” Clinton said, referring to having to retain children struggling to read.

“What we’ve learned is pretty simple, but profound. When you talk to that infant, when you read to him or her … you’re building brain capacity.”

Advocates for Tulsa’s program say waiting for children to be in school to start learning language and vocabulary skills puts them at a disadvantage.

Ann O’Leary, director of Too Small to Fail, a collaboration between the Clinton family’s foundation and Next Generation, said children who are talked to on a regular basis between the ages of 1 and 3 know an average of about 1,100 words when they start kindergarten. Students who lack that interaction know about 500 words.

That difference in vocabulary can leave a student struggling to catch up for the rest of their time in school.

The “word gap,” as O’Leary described it, also tends to break down along socio-economic lines, with middle-class children knowing more words than their low-income peers.

“The word gap is often associated with the achievement gap we see at third and fourth grade,” O’Leary said. “Often times we are starting (intervention) too late.”

The hope is that Tulsa’s program will become a national model.

Melving Ming, CEO of Sesame Workshop, said the popular children’s TV show “Sesame Street” plans to get its muppets involved to tell parents it’s important to talk and read daily with their children.

“We’re hearing (from parents), ‘I don’t have the time to do it,’” Ming said. But “you can read or say to them in the store this is the letter ‘a.” We want it to become commonplace, and not work.”

Rondalyn Abode, family and community coordinator at Tulsa Educare, said many parents living in poverty feel they don’t have anything to teach their children.

Parents don’t have to talk about unfamiliar or uncomfortable topics, she said. Instead, they can read, sing or explain daily chores or activities to stimulate their child’s developing brain.

Lyles said he continues to talk with his children about their schoolwork or daily activities outside the classroom. His children often use those interactions to show off what they’ve learned or get involved in what he’s doing.

“They have become very independent,” Lyles said. “They want to help with everything. They just want to learn more and more.”

Nate Robson can be reached at nrobson@oklahomawatch.org

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