A daycare in Winnipeg's Lord Selkirk neighbourhood is changing preschoolers' lives — and the lives of their families — with one-on-one language learning.
The Abecedarian program was developed in the 1970s in the United States and is known around the world, but in Canada it's offered at only one place: the Lord Selkirk Park Child Care Centre.
The program launched there in 2012, and both staff and parents say they're seeing early signs of success.
"It's really, like, heart-warming," said Hillary Stevenson, 19, who has two sons in the program.
"It's just great to see our babies grow up and have that support and stuff that they need."
The Abecedarian approach features child-led learning and conversational reading, in which child educators work with only one or two children at a time and talk about what they are reading.
Conversational reading is about expanding language skills, says child educator Carly Sass, as she explains how she reads a book with a three-year-old named Hailey.
"We're reading a book together. However, it's just not reading the words; we're having a conversation about what Hailey sees. I want to pull as much language as I can out, so I'm getting her to answer questions," Sass said.
"I see that she's looking over at a page, at the cow. I'll talk to her about the cow — I'll say, 'What colour is the cow? Where would you find a cow?' So I go on the cues of what she's doing and what she's looking at."
'It's not the norm'
The Lord Selkirk Park Child Care Centre is located inside a Manitoba Housing complex on Dufferin Avenue, in a part of the city known for poverty and crime.
The 19 families whose children are taking part in the Abecedarian program all live in the area. Some are new Canadians, and some are single-parent families.
Carolyn Young of Manidoo Gi Miini Gonaan, which operates the daycare, says she's encouraged by what she's seeing in the children.
"They're just meeting those … age-appropriate developmental sort of milestones at an age-appropriate level," Young said.
"What makes us notice it is because we've never seen it before in a poverty-stricken community. It's not the norm."
Stevenson said she has seen a lot of progress with her son, Carter, who recently turned three years old.
"His vocabulary is amazing. He's really good with, like, problem-solving, his colours, everything," she said.
"They do assessments on him every year. The second one that they just did recently, he made it up to an age five level. Like, everyday it's a new thing with him. It's amazing."
Some of the first Abecedarian children in Winnipeg have recently entered the school system, and Young said teachers have noticed how they stand out in the classroom.
"We've gotten feedback from teachers that they can spot our children … they'll say, 'Oh, those are the LSP kids' because they're attentive, they're interested, they're focused," she said.
"They're coming to kindergarten and nursery knowing their colours, knowing numbers, knowing their address, their phone number. That's just not heard of in this community."
Research on the original Abecedarian program, which targeted poor and primarily black children in North Carolina, found that the participants were four times much more likely to be university graduates and 50 per cent more likely to be employed full-time.
The children were also found to be less likely to become adolescent parents and less likely to engage in criminal activity.
While an analysis of the Winnipeg Abecedarian children will take a while, Young said she has already seen incredible changes in the parents of those children.
"When I first started, I can say that everyone was on social assistance…. Three or four families have come off of social assistance. All the families are either in school or working," she said.
"Our belief is that when parents are given the support, and we help remove some of the barriers they're experiencing, that they will thrive. And we've seen that."