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Why Too Small to Fail is hitting the ground in Oakland, CA

On July 23, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined business, hospital, and community leaders in Oakland to announce the launch of “Talking is Teaching: Talk, Read, Sing,” a multi-media community campaign that will help local parents, grandparents, and caregivers improve their babies’ ability to build vocabulary and set them up for brighter futures. 

Secretary Clinton spoke of her longstanding dedication to early childhood issues, describing her decision to work for a year at the Yale Child Study Center while a law student. She also passionately called Oakland leaders to action around “Talking is Teaching: Talk, Read, Sing”, citing the well-documented brain science and palpable national momentum of early childhood issues. 

With the generous support of Marc and Lynn Benioff, Too Small to Fail, along with many local partners, will create a model program in Oakland for how children’s hospitals can actively address the word gap as a public health issue, while also raising awareness throughout the community.

Why Oakland? 

Oakland is a city with great opportunity for both collaboration and impact. The city has a strong existing infrastructure in early childhood development, including the public sector, community based service organizations, hospitals and clinics, faith-based groups, businesses, philanthropic partners, and advocacy organizations. Together, they have collaborated to provide such services as voluntary home visiting, crucial early screenings and intervention for children with special needs, and literacy initiatives, among many others.

At the same time, Oakland is home to many high need young children and families: 31 percent of children under five in Oakland live in households with income below the Federal Poverty Level. Sixty-two percent of third graders in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) read below grade level, a key indicator of school success in future years. In the area of grade-level reading, significant disparities exist between African American and Hispanic students and their White and Asian counterparts.

Many families in Oakland need support. Unemployment is high. Over half of single mothers with children under five live in poverty. We know from research that families with these kinds of stresses are less likely to know about the importance of early brain development activities, and to do them on a regular basis.

Too Small to Fail commissioned focus groups with Oakland parents, grandparents, and caregivers to talk about the word gap and to ask for their input on how to address it. The importance of growing their baby’s vocabulary by talking, reading, and singing resonated with families, and they expressed interest in receiving more tips and frequent reminders about engaging in these activities with their children. 

Based on these findings and others, “Talking is Teaching: Talk, Read, Sing” in Oakland hopes to meet parents where they are. Too Small to Fail is partnering with the Bay Area Council, a long-time force on early childhood education issues, on this campaign. The Council developed creative and family-friendly messages for billboards, bus shelters, and even clothing, designed by marketing giants Goodby Silverstein. These materials show how simple actions – like describing objects seen during a walk or bus ride, singing songs, or telling stories – can significantly improve a baby’s vocabulary.

Why hospitals?

Research shows that ninety-nine percent of babies are born in hospitals in California, and ninety percent of children receive a well-child visit before their fifth birthday.  So hospitals are an excellent place to interact with families with very young children.

The intensive, three-year community campaign will focus on reaching families who visit UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland and Kaiser Permanente Oakland. When parents arrive, they will see signs in the lobby, waiting room, and exam room that remind them to talk, read, and sing with their children. With the help of a toolkit developed by the American Association of Pediatrics, pediatricians will explain the importance of early brain development to parents. It is an empowering message: parents have the ability to build their children’s vocabulary and set them up for growth and success. 

Pediatricians and other hospital staff will provide tote bags with baby or toddler clothing, a toolkit created by Sesame Street, and help sign parents up for Text4baby to receive regular text reminders about child development and tips about talking, reading, and singing with their children. Where needed, families will also be connected to more intensive support services.  The UCSF Philip R. Lee Center for Health Policy Research will evaluate the campaign at Children’s Hospital Oakland and lessons learned will be used to spread the program to San Francisco and children’s hospital across the country. 

What’s next?

The many organizations in Oakland that make up the city’s early childhood infrastructure have been, and will continue to be, critical partners in “Talking is Teaching: Talk, Read, Sing.” In the months to come, Too Small to Fail will be turning to community partners to get their input on how to ensure that these important messages reach families, and help Oakland’s youngest children achieve their dreams.

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