Pittsburgh Schools Partner To Close Word Gap Between Wealthy, Low-Income Students

Oct 13, 2016

Two Pittsburgh area school districts—one thought of as affluent, the other, not so much—are partnering to tackle a common problem for young children from poor families:  a huge disparity, not just in financial resources but also in vocabulary.

“We’re looking at how we can really reduce the 30 million word gap,” said Megan Cicconi, the director of instructional innovative leadership in the Fox Chapel School District.

She’s referring to the critical finding of a 1995 study that was re-affirmed in 2013 by Stanford researchers, that children from poor families have heard 30 million fewer words than children from wealthier families by the time they reach the age of three.

The Fox Chapel district has teamed with the Woodland Hills School District and the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children, or PAEYC, to insure that low-income families have access to resources to diminish the gap and have their children ready for school.

“We’ve seen the results of the gaps when children enter kindergarten totally unprepared,” said Deborah Vereen, family and community engagement assistant to the superintendent at Woodland Hills.  

Fox Chapel and Woodland Hills educators met to find ways to help close the word gap between wealthy and low-income students. They met for a two-day workshop at the LUMA Institute in downtown Pittsburgh.
Credit Kevin Gavin / 90.5 WESA

Vereen said the district focuses on infants and toddlers and gives strategies to families to help the children develop through its CARES program, or Connected And Resourceful Engagement with our Schools.

“Ultimately through that relationship that will be sustained over time and children will be ready for the rigors of school,” Vereen said.

The Woodland Hills-Fox Chapel-PAEYC team is one of seven groups taking part in a pilot project to enhance innovative approaches in education. The partnerships are comprised of 11 school districts, Propel Charter Schools, Allegheny Intermediate Unit 1 and community organization. Each team received a $10,000 grant from the Grable Foundation to seed collaborative ventures ranging from bringing together students from diverse districts for design challenges to improving early learning.

On a recent Wednesday, the teams gathered for a two-day session in an innovative design space at LUMA Institute, a downtown Pittsburgh training company, to help them “visualize” their projects. They worked on a drawing that represented the learning landscape they hoped to provide.

“Learners are at the center, because that is the philosophical root at what we’re equipping people to do—student-centered solutions,” said Bill Lucas, a co-founder of  LUMA.

The teams illustrated the connections among the learners at the center of the landscape and other stakeholders including parents, teachers and after school programs.

In one corner of the room was the Woodland Hills-Fox Chapel-PAEYC team trying to tackle that 30 million word gap.

According to PAEYC’s Quality Initiatives Coordinator Rachelle Duffy, 80 percent of the brain develops in the first two years of life, including the synapses and the myelin sheath.

“If we can strengthen that development through oral language, through activities, through family engagement in interaction with the children, we know that through that strengthening they’re able to better absorb and retain as well as being motivated to learn more when they do enter into kindergarten versus children that do not have those positive experiences,” Duffy said.

Making those positive experiences more available, that’s where the partnership comes in to play. The Fox Chapel district is typically known to be wealthy, but according to Megan Cicconi nearly 1 in 4 of their students qualifies for free or reduced lunches. She said her district is facing the vocabulary gap challenge and is looking to Woodland Hills and its CARES program for help.

“It has been successful in outreach, so we have a lot to learn from them what outreach approaches work,” Cicconi said.

According to Deborah Vereen of Woodland Hills, the process is helpful now and will continue to be in the future, “because we are working to establish very positive relationships with families.”

“If you have positive relationships with families, research points to the success of the student,” she said.

The group plans to use technology and social media to cultivate those relationships.

“A lot of the research identifies Instagram and Facebook as instruments that parents use and so we’ve created our own Instagram account ‘Welcome Baby’ that our three organizations and this grant are going to allow us to use to push out weekly oral language and vocabulary activities that everyone can do.”

And in Cicconi’s words “disintegrate” that 30 million word gap.