Quint Studer is a former special education teacher from Wisconsin who moved into health care and came to Pensacola in 1996 when Baptist Hospital hired him as its administrator. He became its president, then founded the Studer Group, a consulting firm that focused on improving patient satisfaction by changing the workplace culture at health care facilities. He sold most of the company to an equity firm in 2011, then his remaining share when another consulting group bought Studer Group for $325 million in 2015.
Studer, along with his wife, Rishy, has been a generous philanthropist, supporting local non-profits, including a facility for disabled children. He also brought a minor league baseball team, the Blue Wahoos, to Pensacola and has invested heavily in downtown, including building a $52-million apartment complex.
I’m writing about Studer not because of his success or generosity but because he’s the best example of a phenomenon that I hope will become a trend in Florida — wealthy individuals who support traditional local non-profits but also develop narrowly focused initiatives that can fundamentally improve a community by changing neighborhoods that are synonymous with blight and poverty. “My business these days is community-building,” he says.
The most longstanding example is Harris Rosen, the Orlando hotelier who funds preschool for all children in the Tangelo Park and Parramore neighborhoods — both economically depressed and largely minority. He also pays for college scholarships, including to private Rollins College, for every student who graduates from the high schools that serve those neighborhoods. High school graduation rates in Tangelo Park, where he began his initiative in 1994, are now 100%.
Studer also is focused on improving his community by reaching children — beginning at birth. Among the community metrics Studer pays attention to — “I like objective measurement,” he says — he noticed a correlation between the percentage of children who weren’t ready for kindergarten and the share who didn’t graduate from high school.
He subsequently became aware of research by two scholars, Betty Hart and Todd Risley, who found that by the time they’re 3, children from poor families hear about 30 million fewer words than children of more educated parents. Poorer children also hear a narrower range of vocabulary. And they hear many more “prohibitions” — “don’t,” “stop,” “shut up” and the like — than encouragements: A child of educated parents might hear 32 affirmatives and five prohibitions an hour, Hart and Risley found, while a child from a “welfare family” accumulated five affirmatives vs. 11 prohibitions.
Additional research has documented how exposure to words between birth and three years activates neurons that form connections that enhance later learning of all types. During that age, a parent’s words are literally food for the child’s brain. “85% of a child’s brain is developed by age 3,” Studer says. “It’s not that poor children aren’t capable of being smarter; it’s that their brains haven’t been fired up by age 3.” Most programs and resources, Studer says, target children after that age. “Voluntary pre-K actually may be too late,” he says.
Studer’s investigations led him to Dr. Dana Suskind, a professor of surgery at the University of Chicago medical school who founded the Thirty Million Words Initiative. The program, based on the Hart/Risley findings, developed ways to teach new mothers — and others, including educators — how children’s brains develop and how to enhance the language environment at home. Studer’s institute established a partnership with Suskind and the University of Chicago — the first of its type — to apply the research throughout Pensacola.
Studer enlisted the cooperation of all three major hospitals in Pensacola. And for a year, as newborns receive a hearing screening that’s a standard practice, a medical professional meets with each new mother and gives her a 20-minute tutorial, including a video, that explains the power of language on a child’s brain and how the mom can enhance the process. The new mom also gets a “brain bag” with books on how children’s brains work and additional resources.
So far, the effort has reached about 5,800 mothers — about 40% are on Medicaid; the rest come from all socioeconomic levels. Surveys of the moms indicate that 90% say they’re more aware of the importance of language after the tutorial. Meanwhile, another part of the initiative sends staffers into housing projects to reach 265 more families with children younger than 3.
“We won’t know the full impact for five years, when these kids hit kindergarten,” Studer says, “but we’re feeling good that we’re treating the root cause” of later educational failure.
Studer says the low cost of the intervention — about $25 per mother, including the resource materials — means the project is scalable and won’t have to rely on government money. “With most projects based on new research, there’s a lot of sizzle, and then somebody gets enough government money to do a pilot program, but it’s so expensive that when the government money runs out, the program goes away.”
Studer believes the approach has created what he calls a “burning platform” for change. Community support continues to grow. Knee-jerk dismissals of the initiative based on stereotypes of poor mothers or an inclination to blame the public school system have dissipated, he says. “It’s not the public school system’s fault when a third of our kids show up unready for kindergarten,” he says.
Community building, Studer says, involves both healthy businesses and healthy neighborhoods. Government can only do so much. “People want their communities to be an anchor where they can stabilize. The conversation is changing to one of ownership: Private citizens are realizing they are the only ones who can fix their community, and they’re working together to make it happen,” he says.
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