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Lifting Families and Communities in Tulsa

Ken Levit
By Ken Levit

Ken Levit is executive director of the George Kaiser Family Foundation.

In November, the George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF) began the next phase of a joint-campaign with Too Small to Fail called “Talking is Teaching: Talk, Read, Sing,” in the Tulsa community. Our campaign highlights the importance of early language development and prompts parents and caregivers to talk, read, and sing to their young children.

At GKFF we have focused on bringing high quality early education to our youngest children, even younger children than the state’s pre-k program. We emphasize the crucial first three years because we believe we must begin at the earliest possible moment, especially since as much as 80 percent of brain development occurs in the first three years. Children begin learning at birth, and that’s exactly the time to start.

Since 1999, our foundation has been supporting a strong center-based infrastructure in the Tulsa community through investments in early childhood education and support -- including at three sites sponsored by Tulsa Educare and thirteen sites sponsored by the Community Action Project of Tulsa County. These outstanding centers provide high quality, center-based early childhood programs to vulnerable children and families. 

While we are pleased to be able to work with our partners to meet the needs of more than 2,000 infants and toddlers at high quality centers, we know that our work cannot end there.  The numbers tell us we are only reaching a fraction of those who could benefit. Therefore, we plan to extend our impact by communicating directly to parents, grandparents and caregivers about the impact they can have by talking, reading and signing to their youngest children. 

A field survey of Tulsa families found that while the majority of low-income parents and caregivers recognize that they personally have an impact on their child’s brain development, they also believe they could be doing more on a daily basis to support their children’s growth and development. The survey revealed:

  • Only 55 percent of parents and 47 percent of grandparents report reading to their children every day;
  • Fewer than half report telling their children a story, singing a song or playing a non-electronic game every day;
  • College-educated parents and higher income families were more likely to eat meals with their children and talk about their day on a regular basis.

Through the “Talking is Teaching” campaign, GKFF is working with Too Small to Fail to bring national expertise and innovation to strengthen our efforts to improve opportunities for children in Tulsa. Our campaign’s theme is simple: parents are their children’s first teacher.

Leveraging an existing and strong network of community organizations and leaders in Tulsa County, we have identified key community touch-points to promote and disseminate our messages about talking, reading and singing across Tulsa. These include faith-based communities, hospitals and clinics and other community organizations. 

For example, the George Kaiser Family Foundation recently convened a network of faith leaders in the Tulsa community to discuss the goals of the campaign, and to encourage pastors to incorporate messages about how talking, reading and singing impact early brain development in their sermons and in their programs. We will also promote our campaign’s messages in grocery stores, buses, and on billboards across Tulsa, and radio ads.

Last, in an effort to reach every single new baby and parent, we are working with The Parent Child Center of Tulsa to hand deliver a package of materials developed by Sesame Street to every mother of a newborn child in Tulsa to spur rich parent-baby engagement. From day one, it’s the right time to talk, read and sing to your baby. This package will help make that happen for every baby in our community.

If America stands for anything, it stands for equal opportunity.  By promoting convenient ways for parents to help get their children off to as strong a start as possible, we believe all of Tulsa’s children can thrive and achieve their dreams.