Harvard University’s Ronald Ferguson spoke at the SUNY Orange Newburgh campus on Thursday to introduce “The Newburgh Basics,” a program focused on preparing children for pre-kindergarten. The initiative aims to improve brain development in babies from birth to age three. The program also seeks to minimize student-achievement gaps.
“Learning begins the moment your child is born,” he said.
“Eighty percent of brain growth happens in the first three years of life,” said Ferguson, creator of “The Basics” program and director of Harvard’s Achievement Gap Initiative. “Parents literally have the ability to determine how smart their kids are going to be.”
The program was launched by the Newburgh Enlarged City School District last week along with The Newburgh Basics website, which shares tools and information for parents and families on how to encourage brain development and language comprehension in babies and toddlers.
The program teaches parents and caregivers five basic rules: 1. Maximize love and manage stress; 2. Talk, sing and point to “narrate life” to your baby; 3. Count, group and compare; 4. Explore through movement and play; 5. Read and discuss stories.
“These are fun and simple things every parent can do from birth,” Ferguson said. “The ultimate outcome is to change the trendline in school readiness.”
The district is developing a plan to support the program over the next three years, partnering with organizations such as Head Start, the Childcare Council of Orange County and Barnes & Noble. The program is in place already in six school districts around the Hudson Valley, including Ossining and Peekskill.
Ferguson cited a landmark study by child-psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley that found advantaged children heard more than 30 million more words by the time they were 3 than children from families on public assistance.
“Everyone has to run the proverbial race of life,” said Newburgh Superintendent of Schools Roberto Padilla. “However, we cannot ignore the people at the back of the line… we have children who are starting off so far behind their peers that winning feels nearly impossible.”
Socio-economic factors such as poverty, broken families and language barriers often pose serious barriers to learning, Ferguson said. “It’s not to blame anybody, these are just patterns,” Ferguson clarified.
The school district will serve as lead agency in implementing the program. “We’re talking about trying to reach families through every type of contact we have with them,” said Ferguson, including government, libraries, healthcare centers, churches, employers, schools and childcare centers. “It takes a village to raise a child,” New York State Education Department Regent Judith Johnson pointed out at the presentation.
The program is in line with the district’s five-year strategic plan, which calls for more family engagement and inclusivity within the district. “Newburgh schools are truly living out that vision,” Padilla said.
There are currently 36 pre-K classes within the district, which serves approximately 900 pre-K students.
Barnes and Noble will host a holiday book drive to benefit The Newburgh Basics program at its location on Route 300 from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31. Age-appropriate book purchases will be distributed to the program’s community partners.
By SHANTAL RILEY