early childhood

A high-tech approach to boost language skills starts with infants in Detroit

This baby is wearing a LENA vest, designed to position a recording device close to the infant’s chest where it will document 16 hours of noises—speaking, singing, crying, television—that software will turn into a streamlined feedback report for parents.

Eleven mothers sit around a table bouncing infants and chatting in Spanish in a converted church in Southwest Detroit, the site of a pricey new program designed to close the language gap between resource-scarce children and their affluent peers.

The program, LENA Start, comes at a time when Detroit students’ reading scores are a pressing concern for school administrators and lawmakers statewide. Last year, only 9.9 percent of third-graders passed the state English Language Arts exam.

A new state law will require children who test a year or more behind third grade reading level to repeat the grade starting in the 2019 school year. If that law were in effect in 2016, 90 percent of Detroit students would have been qualified to be held back.

The LENA Research Foundation (short for learning environment analysis) is a public charity based in Boulder, Colo., which focuses on closing the language development gap. The foundation operates on research from Betty Hart and Todd Risley that said “talk environments in the first 24-36 months of life are the most important determinant of language ability, IQ and school success.”

In 1995, the two researchers released a groundbreaking study called “Meaningful Differences in the Lives of Everyday American Children” that would pave the way for later models like LENA Start.

Hart and Risley found that children from resource-scarce families heard 30 million fewer words by 4 years old than their more affluent peers. This word gap was an excellent indicator of school success, and children who heard more words “had bigger vocabularies, were stronger readers, and got higher test scores.”

One of the most important findings was how early the disparity started: “Kids who started out ahead, stayed ahead; the kids who started out behind, stayed behind,” the report said.

LENA Start is a response to that research.

How it works

An infant-sized vest covered in polka dots with a large front pocket is unwrapped and lifted out of a package. It’s not a baby shower present; rather, it’s clothing designed to position a recording device close to an infant’s chest where it will document 16 hours of noises—speaking, singing, crying, television—that software will turn into a streamlined feedback report for parents.

The technology is coupled with on-the-ground learning sessions for caregivers. In Detroit, it means sitting around a table at an early morning meeting every Tuesday to check in with organizers and learn using a combination of workbooks, discussion and digital slide presentations.

The program doesn’t come cheap. At an initial investment of $200,000 for training, supplies and incentives, funding presents a hurdle.

Financing a portion of the rollout in Detroit is Black Family Development, Inc., a nonprofit that’s been around since 1978, with a long list of support programs and Detroit public schools as partners.

Chief Operating Officer Kenyatta Stephens said Black Family Development chose to support LENA Start because of its history of data-documented success and the shared idea that parents are invaluable.

“It’s operating on the idea that parents are the child’s first teacher, and no matter how many professionals work with your child, it will never be as important as your relationship with your child,” she said.

Training parents to communicate effectively with their children is part one of LENA Start. At the weekly sessions the workbooks and slideshow are used to show the impact of back-and-forth communication with children (called “turn taking”) and how constant and consistent speaking affects brain development.

At the beginning of a session, leaders ask caregivers what challenges and improvements they’ve seen with their child and work to troubleshoot any setbacks. Then the instructors dive into the teaching, explaining how television shows, even the educational ones, do not have the same effect on language development as speaking with a child.

For instance, a video plays of a young boy and his mother cooking; the mother says the steps out loud as they add ingredients and stir the mixture.

“It’s about developing a new pattern of communication at home,” Stephens said. “The curriculum really walks parents through what to say and how to be expressive. So if there’s a mother riding on a bus, she said, ‘we’re pulling up to a stop sign, and a stop sign is an octagon, and has a primary color and that’s red,’ so you’re teaching them to share their experiences with their children.”

“All of that is enhancing the number of words children hear.”

Why it works

LENA Start has been used nationally, starting in 2015 with two locations nationwide. By the end of 2016, 300 families were participating, and this year 16 cities implemented LENA Start, one of them Detroit, which is now in a pilot phase. Nationwide, they serve 728 families.

LENA’s president, Steve Hannon, said development of the program started in 2014 when the company was looking for scalable ways to close the language gap. LENA Start was formulated with the “three truths that govern LENA,” he said. “Early talk is key, parents and caregivers are the ‘secret sauce,’ and you can’t improve what you can’t measure.”

So is LENA Start proposing resource-scarce parents don’t know how to interact with their children effectively?

Stephens said no.

“The model is effective because we have families and communities where the priority is making sure you have food every day for your child and other basic everyday needs and challenges,” she said. “You love your child just as much as someone else who doesn’t have to worry about food, shelter and immigration issues. But it’s an issue of bandwidth. It’s a study of capacity. If survival is where your brain is focused, you have to decide that other things, while they may be important, become secondary.”

“The premise of the [LENA Start] model is, ‘how do we help families think about another priority?’ We equip them with resources they can incorporate in their everyday experiences.”

Besides the classroom learning, the second portion of the program is technology-based. The recordings  document and then throw off data about such communications as  turn taking, the number of words spoken and the amount of time spent with media like television and cell phones. The data is presented in weekly reports for parents, with easy to read graphs showing things like  the time of day a child interacts with parents or technology. There’s also a “stars” system to indicate progress if conversational turns and words spoken increase while media decreases.

The program lasts 13 weeks, and by week eight, the results from the pilot were already looking positive. Turn taking increased by 81 percent, 100 percent of the families were  set to graduate from the program (and with a perfect attendance rate, and exposure to media was  dropping, with one caregiver cutting exposure by 113 percent.

Long-term sustainability

Hannon said  once the program has been running for two years, the cost per child and caregiver drops from $269 to about $200.

Other national programs that focus on the language gap tend to cost much less. For one child to participate for a year with Reach Out and Read costs $20, and Ready Readers costs $80.

Detroit organizers are planning on a two-year expansion plan: 50 clients in the first year and 150 in the second.

To find funders, LENA can look toward the growing number of organizations that are  looking to bankroll language development programs that are proven effective. Data from the recordings can be presented by LENA as evidence of its success.

“We’re excited about the beginnings in Detroit and it’s a strong team there implementing things and we’re very optimistic about the results we’re going to achieve,” Hannon said. “Parents have the power. We are not empowering parents; we’re helping them harness their power as their child’s first and best teacher.”

Stephens of Black Family Development said the best indication of the program’s sustainability in Detroit is actually the response from families. “After the first session there were families that said ‘finally, we’re now getting what we need for our children, to teach our children, that rich people get.’”

buses or bust?

Mayor Duggan says bus plan encourages cooperation. Detroit school board committee wants more details.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Detroit’s school superintendent is asking for more information about the mayor’s initiative to create a joint bus route for charter and district students after realizing the costs could be higher than the district anticipated.

District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a school board subcommittee Friday that he thought the original cost to the district was estimated to be around $25,000 total. Instead, he said it could cost the district roughly between $75,000 and a maximum of $125,000 for their five schools on the loop.

“I think there was a misunderstanding….” Vitti said. “I think this needs a deeper review…The understanding was that it would be $25,000 for all schools. Now, there are ongoing conversations about it being $15,000 to $25,000 for each individual school.”

The bus loop connecting charter and district schools was announced earlier this month by Mayor Mike Duggan as a way to draw kids back from the suburbs.

Duggan’s bus loop proposal is based on one that operates in Denver that would travel a circuit in certain neighborhoods, picking up students on designated street corners and dropping them off at both district and charter schools.

The bus routes — which Duggan said would be funded by philanthropy, the schools and the city — could even service afterschool programs that the schools on the bus route could work together to create.

In concept, the finance committee was not opposed to the idea. But despite two-thirds of the cost being covered and splitting the remaining third with charters, they were worried enough about the increased costs that they voted not to recommend approval of the agreement to the full board.  

Vitti said when he saw the draft plan, the higher price made him question whether the loop would be worth it.

“If it was $25,000, it would be an easier decision,” he said.

To better understand the costs and benefits and to ultimately decide, Vitti said he needs more data, which will take a few weeks. 

Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, said the district’s hesitation was a sign they were performing their due diligence before agreeing to the plan.

“I’m not at all deterred by this,” Wiley said. She said the district, charters, and city officials have met twice, and are “working in the same direction, so that we eliminate as many barriers as we can.”

Duggan told a crowd earlier this month at the State of the City address that the bus loop was an effort to grab the city’s children – some 32,500 – back from suburban schools.

Transportation is often cited as one of the reasons children leave the city’s schools and go to other districts, and charter leaders have said they support the bus loop because they believe it will make it easier for students to attend their schools.

But some board members had doubts that the bus loop would be enough to bring those kids back, and were concerned about giving charters an advantage in their competition against the district to increase enrollment.

“I don’t know if transportation would be why these parents send their kids outside of the district,” Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said. “If we could find out some of the reasons why, it would add to the validity” of implementing the bus loop.

Board member LaMar Lemmons echoed other members’ concerns on the impact of the transportation plan, and said many parents left the district because of the poor quality of schools under emergency management, not transportation.

“All those years in emergency management, that drove parents to seek alternatives, as well as charters,” he said. “I’m hesitant to form an unholy alliance with the charters for something like this.”

After the bell

The Detroit district plans to use teachers to run after-school programs. Youth advocates wonder why

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo

Some advocates for Detroit youth programs were alarmed last week to learn that the Detroit school district did not apply for a major state grant that pays for after-school care for more than 400 students in low-income schools.

For the past four years, the district has been using the yearly $2 million in funding from the 21st Century Community Learning Center grants to bankroll after-school care at 15 of its schools, but after this summer, the five-year grant will run out.

The decision not to apply was deliberate, said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. He said he wants after-school programs to stop providing what he calls “pockets” of services – different offerings at different schools – and to “better align the programs to the strategic plan.”

Advocates involved with the after-school programs said the decision came as a shock to them.

“I just wish he had told us,” said one after-school advocate who asked to remain unnamed for fear of hurting her relationship with the district. “It’s frustrating that he’s taking this stance.”  

To apply for the state funding, the district is required to select a partner to administer the after-school care.  But instead of partnering with organizations, like the YMCA or Children’s Center, he plans to begin running after-school care with district staff.

His plan, he said, is to “offer the same, if not better,” after-school care to students “at a lower cost” while better aligning the extra instruction to what kids learn in class by using district staff—mostly teachers—to run the programs, although some partners will continue working with the district.

“Maybe not every provider should be a provider, okay?” Vitti told after-school providers and advocates when he addressed them at a meeting last week. “Maybe the services you are providing could look different” if teachers or other district employees were leading the programs.

Vitti has not always been opposed to funds from these grants. He told the Free Press last summer that the district did not have a solution in place if the funding from the 21st Century Community Learning Center grants was eliminated, which was a concern last year when President Trump said he wanted to cut the funding.

“The elimination of these programs in particular will reduce high-level programming for students…. This makes little sense when you consider the needs of our children and families,” Vitti told the Free Press.

Education advocates have serious concerns. They say expert partners can offer quality enrichment programs and academic support that districts could not provide on their own, especially if they plan on using teachers just getting off from a full day of work.

“Are teachers at their best from 3 to 7 p.m. after a full day of teaching?” said another youth advocate who asked to remain unnamed for fear of hurting her relationship with the district. “Couldn’t youth development providers help support them?”

Vitti, however, implied there’s nothing to worry about. He said after-school programs, which feed kids, help them with homework, and provide enrichment activities like arts and music instruction, would remain largely unchanged.

He said many of the grant-funded activities, like arts and music, tutoring and college prep that after-school partners had been providing will “now be provided through school personnel.”

One youth advocate said she understood the district may have issues with how the grants are handled and how the money is divided, but that the community partners want to continue offering after-school support.

“It’s hard to hear [the district thinks they can run the programs better] in Detroit when we’ve been through what we’ve been through,” said one youth advocate, “because the consistency for our kids has been us, not the district.”