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.’”

Urgent repairs

Crumbling Detroit school buildings will cost $500 million to repair. It’s money the district doesn’t have

The water-damaged, mold-infested Palmer Park Preparatory Academy was closed for months while crews replaced the roof and made other repairs.

The buildings in Michigan’s largest school district have been so neglected and so poorly maintained for so long that a new review put the price tag for bringing them up to current standards at half a billion dollars — money the district says it doesn’t have.

“We would have to dramatically cut personnel to even put a dent in this problem,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told the school board’s finance committee during a meeting at the district’s Fisher building headquarters Friday morning. “And even then, we would not be able to make substantial improvement.”

The review, whose results one school board member called “tragically awful,” was conducted over the last several months by an architecture and engineering firm called OHM advisors. It assessed the condition of the 106 buildings that currently house district schools, including roofs, interiors, and systems like plumbing and electrical.

It found that nearly a third of school buildings are in an “unsatisfactory” or “poor” condition, while roughly a third are considered in good repair.

The review did not take into account 19 vacant buildings that the district owns and is responsible for securing and maintaining so that they don’t become a danger to the community.

That means that the “unbelievably frustrating” picture painted by the review “undershoots” the problem, said school board member Sonya Mays, the finance committee chairwoman.

What makes the situation even more extreme is the fact that the Detroit district does not have the same ability to borrow money for construction projects that other Michigan districts do.

When the state spent $617 million to create the new Detroit Public Schools Community District in 2016, the new law freed the new district from millions of dollars in debt that had hobbled the old Detroit Public Schools. But it put restrictions on the new district’s ability to borrow money.

Instead, the $617 million included $25 million for buildings improvements — including some pressing repairs that became national news that year when teachers walked out of their classrooms to protest building conditions, shutting down schools for days.

Vitti said much of that $25 million has been spent or is committed this year for projects like the the repair of the roof at the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, an elementary school that’s been closed for months since a leaky roof triggered a mold problem. Students at the school finished out the school year in a different building. 

“The $25 million is literally a drop in the bucket of what the overall need is,” Vitti told the finance committee.

He called for an urgent discussion to figure out which buildings should be repaired, which ones should be replaced, and which ones should be considered for closure.  

“What we’ve done in this review is at least define the problem,” Vitti said. “Now that we have solid data … we will have to think broadly and deeply” about what to do next.

Options could include returning to Lansing for additional help from the state or partnering with businesses or philanthropy to raise private funds for repairs.

Vitti noted that if nothing is done to repair these buildings, the cost of bringing them up to acceptable standards will swell to $1.2 billion by 2023.

If we don’t make a high level of investment, which frankly we do not have the revenue to do, this problem only compounds itself in the years to come,” Vitti said.

Scroll down to see the presentation Vitti gave to the finance committee, which includes specifics on which schools are most in need of work.

Enrollment push

‘The pressure is on everyone’ as Detroit’s main district advertises to attract more students

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit school board members stand with the students who will star in the district's summer ad campaign.

Detroit’s main school district has a new look.

Officials announced a new brand for the Detroit Public Schools Community District to real-live fanfare on Thursday, unveiling a new logo and tagline with a student brass band as backdrop.

After the announcement was made at Nolan Elementary School, students streamed out wearing blue tee shirts printed with the new logo, which depicts a rising sun.

“Students rise. We all rise,” reads the tagline, signaling that improvement  is coming to a district that is working to recover from decades of disinvestment and mismanagement.  Officials hope the campaign will bring Detroit families back to a district whose future depends in part on increasing enrollment.

That’s a sign of a new reality in public education, one that public relations professionals recognized around the time that policy shifts nationwide allowed more charter schools to open.

When school competition spread nationally, the phenomenon was especially pronounced in Michigan, where parents can enroll their children in charter schools or suburban schools that will accept them. State law puts few restrictions on where charter schools can be opened and who can open them.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the re-branding effort was inevitable in a state that fosters competition between school districts.  Vitti has criticized Michigan’s charter school laws, but has charged head-on into the battle to enroll students nonetheless.

“I think the pressure is on everyone,” Vitti said. “Students can move from one district to another. It’s incumbent on every school district and every school to go into a marketing mode.”

The district paid $100,000 for the $300,000 campaign, which was put together by BLVD Content and Real Integrated, marketing and strategy firms that have worked for Ford, the City of Detroit, The Henry Ford, and the Detroit Opera Theater. The firms donated about $180,000 worth of work, the district said, with the non-profit United Way chipping in about $20,000 through the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The brand includes television commercials and a new logo and tagline.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit’s main district has a new logo.

This is not the first time Detroit’s main district has used advertising to attract students. In 2010, the “I’m in” campaign won a top national marketing award. The old Detroit school district, which now exists only to pay off legacy debt, reported that 830 students enrolled as a result.

Nora Carr, former president of the National Association of School Public Relations, says schools are “borrowing a page from the private sector” by investing in brands. “Rarely mentioned a decade ago, branding is becoming part of the educational lexicon,” she wrote in a 2009 article.

While enrollment in Detroit’s main district has declined, it remains the largest in the state. That makes it easier to raise funds, but harder to implement a brand widely enough that it will become ingrained in parents’ perception of the district.

Many charter schools in the city are far smaller. Take The Detroit Achievement Academy, a 200-student charter school on the city’s northwest side. Kyle Smitley, the school’s founder, said in a text that she does the branding herself. “We don’t pay anyone externally,” she added.

District officials say the brand projects “a new beginning for traditional public education in Detroit.” His administration has set lofty academic goals, which it hopes to reach through an overhauled curriculum, but it remains too early to judge whether these efforts will move the district forward.

Boosting enrollment is a crucial piece of the puzzle. A plan unveiled earlier this month called for commercials on television, billboards and buses, part of an effort to bring back some of the roughly 30,000 students who wake up every day in the city and go to school in the suburbs.

The commercials will be based on a promotional video, also released Thursday, in which rapper Big Sean, a graduate of Cass Technical High School, speaks over images of actual Detroit students playing sports and studying. They build on a tradition of commercials that emphasize Detroit’s hard-knock reputation, with the rapper dropping lines like “we are a city that runs on ambition and grit.”

The video and other advertising materials can be seen on the district’s website.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the size of the contribution from United Way. The non-profit contributed $20,000 to the branding campaign.