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A new medium for early literacy tips: Texting

PHOTO: Logan Zabel

Amy Dusin sometimes takes advantage of the quiet time when she nurses her seven-month-old son Hunter to review the parenting tips she got via text message that week. They remind her to play peekaboo with her baby or describe facial expressions to him when they look in the mirror together.

Dusin, who works part time as a convenience store manager in Greeley, said the texts provide nice reminders about learning activities.

After one recent text, she thought to herself, “Oh man, I really haven’t been playing peekaboo with him, I have to step my game up.”

The weekly text messages come from Bright by Three—formerly Colorado Bright Beginnings– a Denver-based non-profit that provides language and literacy resources to parents of children ages 0-3. The BrightByText initiative, which launched November 10, is part of the organization’s effort to bring a new level of technological sophistication to its 20-year-old program. So far, 285 parents or caregivers have enrolled in BrightByText.

What’s in a name Change?
    Colorado Bright Beginnings changed its name to Bright by Three in November to avoid conflicts with an organization that holds a federal trademark on the Bright Beginnings name. Katharine Brenton, Bright by Three’s director of strategic initiatives, said that organization has been known to send cease and desist letters to other groups with the Bright Beginnings name. “It was just out of an abundance of caution,” she said.

“I think that we are the only ones in the state doing this,” said Katharine Brenton, director of strategic initiatives for Bright by Three. “I think it could be really big for us.”

While advice from a cell phone may not have the warm, fuzzy factor of a one-on-one conversation, there’s evidence it works. Studies of text-messaging interventions—with goals ranging from college matriculation to boosting early reading skills, suggest that the practice can help break down complex tasks into manageable bite-sized steps.

A study released in November found that a text messaging program with advice for parents on building early literacy skills increased the number of home literacy activities parents did with their children, upped parental involvement at school, and led to literacy gains among preschoolers.

“We were pleased that our program worked,” said Benjamin N. York, one of the study’s authors. “We’re a little bit surprised that it worked as well as it did.”

BrightByText 

  • What: A weekly text messaging program that provides tips to parents of young children.
  • Open to: Colorado parents and caregivers of children 0-3 years old
  • Sign up: Text “BRIGHT” to 444999

While that study focused on parents of four-year-olds, not parents of younger children as BrightByText does, York believes text messaging interventions are broadly applicable, and if developed carefully can impact families with children of all ages.

“Texting is really fertile ground to communicate with parents,” he said.

Dusin has already recommended the program to a friend who recently gave birth.

“I think it’s a good tool for parents who are interested in helping give their children the best kind of head start,” she said. “If you want it, you use it. If not, you just ignore the text.”

Updating the model

Throughout its two-decade existence, Bright by Three has relied on direct contact with parents, distributing kits containing books and learning games at annual doctor visits or through home visits by community volunteers. Last year, about 24,000 parents were served this way.

Examples of text messages sent to parents through the BrightByText program.
Examples of text messages sent to parents through the BrightByText program.

The intervention is relatively cheap—about $165 per child over three years—but also low-intensity. At most, parents receive about an hour’s worth of in-person advice each year for three years.

From now on, BrightByText will be a component of the traditional visit-based program as well as a stand-alone offering available to any interested parent. Bright by Three leaders hope to sign up 3,000 stand-alone subscribers in 2015. The weekly texts, which are tailored to the child’s age in months, will allow the organization to “up the dosage” of its positive parenting messages, said Brenton.

It helps that ninety percent of adult Americans own cell phones and 58 percent own smartphones, according to 2014 data from the Pew Research Center. The numbers remain surprisingly high for low-income families, with 84 percent of adults with household incomes under $30,000 owning cell phones.

For recipients, text messages are just plain convenient—available at all hours on a device many people keep within arm’s reach.

Dusin, who participates in Bright by Three’s traditional home visiting program as well as BrightByText, said, “I wouldn’t say that the visit is inconvenient, but I had to have someone come to my house and she was there for an hour….With the text, I can read it when I have time.”

She said some texts affirm things she’s already doing with Hunter, but others suggest activities she never thought about. One recent message encouraged parents to help children understand that storybook pictures represent real things.

She started using the concept while reading, “Where is Baby’s Belly Button?” a lift-the-flap book about parts of the body.

“I’ll compare the pictures that we’re reading about to him,” she said. “I’ll grab his feet and say, ‘These are your feet’…I know he doesn’t get it yet, but the more you do with him, the more you interact…the better it is down the road.”

Careful crafting

Firing off text message tips sounds fairly simple, but experts caution that such programs must be developed thoughtfully.

York, who’s planning further research on texting interventions, said his team put lots of time into developing and sequencing the content, and determining the thrice-weekly dosage.

“One of our concerns to be quite candid…is that organizations will just start texting parents in a more casual way not having gone through a process like we went through,” he said. “The devil is in the details.”

While text messaging programs for parents are not exactly common, one national program is Text4Baby, sponsored by the Johnson & Johnson company. The focus however is mostly on health topics, not early learning.

In the case of BrightByText, messages are based on the well-respected “LearningGames: The Abecedarian Curriculum,” which is also used for Bright by Three’s printed parent kits. In addition to one- or two-sentence tips about singing, playing or reading with children, each text includes links to “landing pages” that provide more information about each activity.

Bright by Three officials hope to offer Spanish-language texts sometime this spring, and eventually links to 100 videos modeling the activities and resources such as local library story times. All that development will be resource-intensive at first, but once everything’s in place it’ll cost almost nothing to run, said Brenton.

She said the organization’s robust in-house data system will help determine whether text message outreach is making a difference.

“Over the last couple years, we’ve made database to measure every single interaction and engagement we have with parents…a system capable of looking at what moves the needle.”

 

crunching numbers

Full-day kindergarten among possible budget cuts in Aurora

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February.

Kindergarteners in Aurora’s Kenton Elementary spent an afternoon last week playing math games. Some kids built towers that had to be exactly 20 blocks high. One boy played a game on a laptop doing simple addition. Across the room, the teacher sat with a girl who was counting blocks aloud and practicing writing.

More than halfway through the year, the four and five-year-olds are able to recognize numbers through 50 or even through 100, Kenton officials said.

Now, as Aurora Public Schools searches for ways to cut its 2017-18 budget, free full-day kindergarten like Kenton’s is among one of scores of programs that could fall victim.

“It’s a concern for all of us,” said Heather Woodward, Kenton Elementary’s principal.

Scaling full-day kindergarten back to a half day was one scenario district officials floated when asking for community input on what to prioritize. District officials have said they are not ready to take anything off the table in trying to trim next year’s budget by an estimated $31 million.

Exact cuts will depend on state funding, which won’t be finalized until later this spring, and on how much the district can save through administrative changes like negotiating different health plans for employees. Patti Moon, a district spokeswoman, said cuts could still be presented later this spring.

Earlier this year, the district presented more than 40 budget-cutting ideas at public meetings and through a request for online feedback. The ideas included adding furlough days, cutting middle school sports and changing school schedules. Changing kindergarten to half-day would save the district an estimated $4.9 million.

But the idea got significant pushback. One of the common messages from those who provided the district feedback asked to avoid cutting full-day kindergarten.

“Our Kindergarten students are required to learn a large amount of information by the end of the year,” one response stated. “It’s very hard to get these students to where they are required to be even with a full day of instruction. Taking away a half day of instruction would be a huge injustice to these students.”

The first known budget cut in Aurora will likely come from a decrease in school staff by increasing the ratio of students to staff. Superintendent Rico Munn is scheduled to ask the Aurora school board Tuesday night for guidance on how much to increase the ratios per school.

A final staffing recommendation will be part of the draft budget presented in April.

In Aurora schools, kindergarteners get a daily math lesson in addition to at least an hour of reading or writing, a period of language development and 50 minutes of either art, music, technology or physical education.

Judith Padilla, a mother of three children in Aurora, is adamantly opposed to cutting full-day kindergarten.

“There would be a tremendous impact for parents who have to work,” Padilla said. “For my son it was a great benefit to be in kindergarten a full day so he could develop. He had some learning problems and some language problems and he had special classes to help him learn things like holding a pencil. Now they say he is at his level.”

Woodward, the Kenton principal, said making sure kids leave kindergarten on track to reading by third grade, and to be proficient in English so that they can learn in all their classes, are two major goals for educators.

For kids who leave kindergarten already behind, “we know there’s going to be a continual gap moving forward,” she said.

Bruce Atchison, director of early learning instruction for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, said his team is doing research on how to get more children to reading proficiency at the end of third grade. Having high-quality full-day kindergarten emerged as one of six policies considered effective for reaching that goal.

“It’s probably the most significant issue for education policy makers,” Atchison said. “Policy makers are typically aware of the abysmal reading proficiency rates across the country. It’s 41 percent of low-income children still are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade. That’s a huge issue.”

In Aurora, 45 percent of kindergarteners are English language learners, and 70 percent or kindergarteners qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a common measure of poverty.

According to 2016 state data, 18.6 percent of Aurora third graders met or exceeded expectations on reading tests compared to 37.4 percent of third graders across Colorado.

In Colorado, the state only pays districts for about a half-day of kindergarten. Districts can choose to pay for the rest, or offer it to families for a fee. In Aurora, the district made full-day kindergarten free for all students after voters approved an increase in taxes in 2008.

Patrick Hogarty, an Aurora teacher and elected delegate for the Colorado Education Association, said even at higher grade levels, teachers are concerned about the lasting impact the kindergarten cuts would have.

“It would be basically catastrophic due to the learning these children need to have,” Hogarty said. “It’s sometimes almost impossible for students to catch up to as they progress through the levels of education.”

In the last few years, districts in Colorado and across the country have moved to add full-day kindergarten programs.

In 2007, about 40 percent of Colorado kids enrolled in full-day kindergarten, according to Atchison. That percentage is now up to 77 percent.

“Districts, principals, education leaders are seeing the advantages of full-day kindergarten,” Atchison said.

The challenge for those that haven’t added the programs is usually the money.

“You are hard-pressed to find policy makers who don’t want full-day programs,” Atchison said. “They understand that children benefit from full day kindergarten programs, but it really comes down to the funding issues.”

words matter

NYC Chancellor Carmen Fariña on pre-K diversity struggles: ‘This is parent choice’

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Carmen Fariña

Chancellor Carmen Fariña is again drawing criticism from school integration advocates — this time for appearing to excuse racially segregated pre-K programs as products of “parent choice.”

When asked about diversity in the city’s pre-K program at a state budget hearing Tuesday, Fariña seemed to skirt the issue:

“The pre-K parent, rightly so, wants whatever pre-K program is closest to home. They’re in a rush to get to work. They have to do what they have to do. And the one thing that I can say [is] that all our pre-K programs are the same quality … Whether you’re taking a pre-K in Harlem or you’re taking a pre-K in Carroll Gardens, you’re going to have the exact same curriculum with teachers who have been trained the exact same way.

But I, as a parent, am not going to be running to another part [of the city]. So it’s a matter [of] applying. Parents apply. This is parent choice — the same way you can go to private school, parochial school, charter school, you can go to any pre-K. You have an application process, you fill it out. And generally, this year, I think people got one of their first top choices, pretty much across the city. So this is about parent choice.

… So I actually do not agree with this. I think if you’re counting faces, then it’s true. If you’re counting parent choice, it’s totally different. So I think to me diversity is also, we are now taking more students with IEPs [Individual Education Plans] in our pre-K programs. We are taking more students who are English Language Learners in our pre-K programs. Diversity has many faces.”

Fariña’s response didn’t sit well with some integration advocates, who want the chancellor to offer a more forceful commitment to tackling diversity issues.

“It’s basically an argument for separate but equal — that what really matters is drilling down on resources and teachers,” said Halley Potter, who has studied segregation in New York City’s preschools as a fellow at the think tank the Century Foundation. “The problem with that argument is that, in practice, that is rarely if ever true.”

In a recent study, Potter found that the city’s pre-K program is highly segregated. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students come from a single racial or ethnic background. And, Potter said, research shows quality goes hand-in-hand with diversity: Children in mixed pre-K classrooms learn more and are less likely to show bias.

Matt Gonzales heads school integration efforts with the nonprofit New York Appleseed. He said excusing segregation as a by-product of parent choice seems to “completely absolve officials” from taking steps to increase diversity in pre-K classrooms.

“That’s disappointing because we’re in a place where we’re looking at ideas and potential solutions to segregation in the city, and I worry whether pre-K is being left out,” he said.

The city called the critique unfair. “By any measure, these are extreme mischaracterizations of a thoughtful response on our commitment to pre-K quality,” Department of Education spokeswoman Devora Kaye wrote in an email. “Divisive rhetoric doesn’t move us towards solutions. The chancellor has always been committed to inclusive schools and classrooms, and we’ll continue our efforts to strengthen diversity in our schools.”

This isn’t the first time Fariña struck observers as tone-deaf on diversity. In October 2015, she suggested rich and poor students could learn from each other — by becoming pen pals.

The city has taken some steps to integrate pre-K classrooms, allowing a number of schools to consider “Diversity in Admissions.” But as of September, the program is only open to public schools, and the majority of pre-K centers in New York City are privately run.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Department of Education have said they are working on a plan to improve school diversity, and hope to release details by the end of the school year.

Monica Disare contributed to this report.