How PNC and Sesame Workshop Help Children Grow Up Great

By Jeanette Betancourt and Sally McCrady

At first blush, it seemed like an odd match. What could a financial company possibly have in common with the makers of Sesame Street? At least that’s what ran through the minds at Sesame Workshop when PNC approached the nonprofit organization 15 years ago. What we had in common was this: early childhood education. PNC employees overwhelmingly chose children and education as the focus for long-term philanthropic investment. Research led the company to early childhood education, and turning to a leading expert in the field was the perfect place to start.

Sesame Workshop, already 35 years into its mission, was widely recognized for improving children’s school readiness and overall wellbeing by providing early educational opportunities to help close persistent achievement gaps in vulnerable populations. PNC was ready to make a material investment in the first five years of children’s development, when it is possible to have the strongest impact in a child’s life and potential for success. PNC Grow Up Great® became the company’s flagship philanthropic program, and Sesame Workshop its inaugural nonprofit partner. When we began, we found a lack of resources representing a child’s perspective. So, together, we created an initiative with rich bilingual content to prepare children from birth to age 5, particularly those underserved, for success in school and life. Our joint focus on research, and on understanding how to best engage children and families in learning, led to a thriving program that has evolved over time as knowledge in the field of early childhood increases.

You hear a lot about brain research these days, as technology and science continue to advance. And as we’re able to better understand the direct impact that children’s environmental influences have on their brain development, it becomes clear that early childhood education doesn’t stand alone. To be successful, we have to look at young lives holistically, including economic status. Almost half of U.S. children under the age of 6 live in or near poverty—and research has repeatedly and strongly shown that economic disadvantages for young children have a lifetime negative impact. But introducing high-quality early childhood education is a remarkably effective economic and workforce development tool. If you’re a foundation, corporation or major giver choosing where to put your resources, it would be hard to find a better return on your investment.

Studies show that children who have access to high-quality early education are three times more likely to be ready for their first day of kindergarten and four times more likely to graduate from high school. They earn 25% more over their lifetime and are five times less likely to rely on public assistance. That’s an economic return estimated to be as high as $16 for every $1 invested—but the key is, the education must be high-quality. A high-quality early environment is equally critical, and we all have a function in constructing it. Each of us can make a difference for children by creating nurturing connections with them and establishing an atmosphere of safety and caring. All grown-ups in children’s lives have important roles to play: the responsibility is not on parents and caregivers alone, but on the entire community. Our resources are one easy way for adults to engage with children and bring learning into everyday, shared moments.

We’re both also working to lead conversations and action around early childhood learning on a national scale. PNC is meeting with policymakers who have the power to fund real change, and this year was very involved in states like Texas and North Carolina, where legislation passed that will significantly expand access to quality pre-K. At Sesame Workshop, a nationwide initiative called Sesame Street in Communities provides easy-to-use tools for community providers and caregivers on the toughest issues children face. Free bilingual resources featuring iconic Sesame Street Muppets like Elmo and new characters like Karli, whose mom struggles with addiction, address challenges like parental addiction, homelessness and foster care. The program extends all the way into real-life courthouses, where together we’ve introduced comforting, cozy safe spaces for children who are dealing with traumatic experiences.

Grow Up Great turned 15 this year—and Sesame Street turned 50. PNC commemorated Grow Up Great’s anniversary by investing an additional $150 million, raising it to a $500 million initiative. And one way Sesame Workshop marked Sesame Street’s big birthday was with the PNC-sponsored Sesame Street Road Trip, bringing beloved characters across the U.S. for free community events throughout this past summer. It was a great way to celebrate our longtime partnership, and our shared commitment to instilling a love for learning that lasts a lifetime.

Our collaboration launched from our mutual conviction that all children deserve to get off to the best possible start in life. And Sesame Workshop and PNC are both committed to continue doing all we can to help our children grow smarter, stronger and kinder. Because we all have the ability—and the obligation—to help the youngest among us have every opportunity to learn, thrive and Grow Up Great.

Jeanette Betancourt is the Senior Vice President of U.S. Social Impact at Sesame Workshop. Sally McCrady is chair and president of The PNC Foundation.