The Notre Dame Robinson Community Learning Center (RCLC) has been selected as a recipient of the Early Years Initiative from Early Learning Indiana. The Early Years Initiative is a $50 million competitive grant program focused on enhancing the learning and development of infants and toddlers in Indiana Communities with support from Lilly Endowment Inc.
Through the grant, the RCLC will receive $500,000 to expand its long-running Talk With Your Baby program in collaboration with the city of South Bend.
Founded in 2009, Talk With Your Baby educates parents and other caregivers about the importance of talking often with babies and young children as a way to promote early childhood development and narrow the so-called “word gap,” or the number of words children from different socioeconomic backgrounds hear from birth to age 3.
Research shows that talking is vital to a baby’s brain. It supports reading and other forms of cognitive development and correlates strikingly with later measures of school success. It also builds healthy relationships and social skills.
“The strategy guiding Talk With Your Baby is that talking with young children is critically important for developing the cognitive structures, vocabulary and experiences that are foundational for later success,” said Susan Devetski, RCLC’s director.
In applying for the grant, the RCLC worked closely with the city of South Bend, which loaned one of its enFocus Fellows to the effort.
South Bend Mayor James Mueller has spoken often about the importance of early childhood education and the city’s role in it. He recognizes Talk With Your Baby as an important resource for parents who want to support their child’s development and better prepare them for school.
“Access to learning resources and opportunities at a young age is vital to childhood development,” Mueller said. “The city embraces educational partnerships to ensure all South Bend children have a strong start to their education and equitable access to the tools and support they need, including access to high-quality early childhood education and programming to close the word gap in South Bend.”
Working with partners across South Bend, Talk With Your Baby currently serves about 125 parents and caregivers annually, with classes in both English and Spanish.
“We strongly believe that expansion of Talk With Your Baby at this scale will have significant impact on closing the word gap for children age zero to 3 in South Bend, impacting cognitive and social development that will set the foundations for later in life."
With support from the grant, that number will increase to 250 this year and 400 each of the next two years, primarily through new and expanded relationships with the city and other local partners. The RCLC will also hire a full-time director and multiple part-time parent educators for the program. And it will work with the city and the St. Joseph County Public Library to develop course materials for Bendable, a free, online learning platform with approximately 5,000 monthly users.
“We strongly believe that expansion of Talk With Your Baby at this scale will have significant impact on closing the word gap for children age zero to 3 in South Bend, impacting cognitive and social development that will set the foundations for later in life,” Devetski said.
From a demographic standpoint, South Bend is particularly poised to benefit from expanded access to early childhood education. Nearly 65 percent of South Bend Community School Corp. students are economically disadvantaged, compared with about 46 percent statewide, and studies link low income levels to poor school readiness. Minority students and English language learners, representing 72.6 percent and 10.5 percent of the student population respectively, are especially at risk.
“Early oral language practice and vocabulary development provide a needed foundation for success for these students in kindergarten and beyond,” Devetski said. “Both are outcomes of the Talk With Your Baby program.”
Roxanne Ultz agreed.
“Talk With Your Baby is a wonderful program that supports parents in learning and demonstrating the importance of reading and talking to their baby or toddler,” said Ultz, executive director of the Family and Children’s Center, a Talk With Your Baby partner in South Bend.
Founded in 2001, the RCLC is an off-campus educational initiative of the University of Notre Dame, offering educational programs for children and adults and classes, clubs and lectures for seniors. Located in the socially and economically diverse Northeast Neighborhood directly south of campus, the center is home to a state-licensed preschool program and an award-winning youth Shakespeare company.
For more information, visit rclc.nd.edu.