Four questions for Chelsea Clinton about expanding early learning in cities

Visiting Chicago on Wednesday to help boost attention for literacy programs in laundromats, Chelsea Clinton said that her efforts were inspired in part by motherhood — she’s a mother of two, with another on the way — and by a scary statistic: Nationwide, 60 percent of children show up to kindergarten unprepared.

“That is a problem we have to help solve,” said Clinton, who was here representing a literacy in laundromats program backed by the Clinton Foundation’s Too Small to Fail effort. The early learning initiative launched in 2013 with a focus on brain development in babies up to children age 5.

Too Small to Fail has spearheaded programs in Oakland, Tulsa, Miami, and Minneapolis. Could Chicago be next? Clinton wouldn’t say, exactly. But in a quick conversation with Chalkbeat, she said there are plenty of lessons from other cities that could inform the early learning community here.

What have you learned from other cities that Chicago could apply? We’re in this moment where we want to expand early learning but there have been gaps in finding families and in marketing programs.

We’ve found in our work in Oakland, for example (the Clinton Foundation partnered with UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital there), that pediatricians are really trusted messengers of the messages you’re asking about. The results are pretty staggering. When pediatricians talk about the importance of reading and singing with children, parents remember that.

The more that it’s done in a regular cadence of well-child visits, the more parents are likely to report that they not only remembered those messages but they adopted those behaviors with their children. We’re excited about that work because we think it’s something that could be scaled nationally to pediatricians’ offices and health clinics across the country.

One of the reasons we’re so excited about our laundromat work is that the early results are pretty strong. In laundromats that have literacy-rich environments like we saw in Chicago, it’s exponential how much more language kids are accessing at that time. I think we know more and more about what works. The question really is: How can we — and others who are working in this zero-to-3 space — give that to communities and cities? And how at the localized level do we best take those learnings quickly so that kids and families benefit?

You mention scale. You could go about picking off businesses one by one and it would take forever. But partnering with a group of business owners is a faster approach. How critical is the business community?

Hugely critical. With our partnership with LaundryCares and Libraries Without Borders and others, we’ve already had 250 laundromats raise their hands and say yes, we’re interested. Hopefully, once we can prove it really works, even more laundromats will say, yes, we think this can work for our community and our business.

Certainly when we think about scale, we also think about other ways to reach families that are harder to track. But we also think we can have real scale with the number of people impacted. So we’re working in grocery stores, to put up prompts, so that parents talk to children about what they’re buying while they’re shopping.

We work in communities around bus stops and around playgrounds— we’re now in more than 200 playgrounds around the country, where there are reading or, increasingly, early math prompts on playground equipment. To go to your earlier question, we’re trying to go where families are.

How can we do a better job of reaching Spanish-speaking families?  

The answer is in some ways a continuation of what we’ve talked about. And it’s also in our many-year partnership with Univision, which we’ve found really impactful, whether it’s Univision talking to kids about reading, or creating role-modeling behavior in telenovelas, which Univision has been a terrific partner in doing. That message is reaching millions and millions of Spanish-speaking families.

Something else we’re constantly trying to emphasize, whether with pediatricians or with laundromats, is it’s just so important that parents read and talk to their kids. It doesn’t matter what language it’s happening in. It’s in the language exposure that helps build brain power.

Do you think the Clinton Foundation will do more work in Chicago? We will have a new mayor soon — the first black female mayor in history here — and both candidates have pledged more support for early learning.

We certainly want to do whatever we can in Chicago to help promote not only the messaging but the behaviors of parents and caregivers reading and singing and talking to their kids. It’s truly important for the rest of their lives.

Editor’s note: This interview was lightly edited and condensed for publication.