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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.”

 

Nearing the finish line

New preschool compromise plan would add 15 counties, expand voucher access

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Preschoolers at School 55

Lawmakers have arrived at a tentative compromise for how to expand Indiana’s preschool program, and it includes controversial proposals to expand vouchers and online learning.

Under the compromise plan, 15 additional counties would be included in the state’s preschool program — up to 20 from the current five. The cost of the expansion will likely be unclear until early Friday, but House Speaker Brian Bosma said it will be closer to the $10 million per year increase called for by the House than to the $4 million increase proposed by the Senate.

This year’s debate over preschool has been heated. Bosma and other Republican leaders, including Gov. Eric Holcomb, have come out strongly for expansion, while others, notably Senate Appropriations chairman Luke Kenley, a Republican from Noblesville, have been more skeptical of spending money on a program still being studied by the state.

For many Democrats, the two Republican plans don’t add nearly enough money for early education. Preschool advocates, who have lobbied for spending $50 million per year, tend to agree.

None of the counties in the existing preschool program — Allen, Jackson, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh — would receive less funding than they did last year unless the number of students or preschool providers have decreased significantly. But going forward, rural counties would be prioritized, said Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author.

To qualify for Indiana’s preschool program, a family of four still couldn’t earn more than $30,861. But in the original five counties only, families of four making up to $44,863 could apply if all the lower-income families who were interested already received grants and there was funding left over.

Controversial language allowing a new voucher “pathway” remains in the bill, but in a more limited fashion, Behning said. If a child used a preschool scholarship to go to a program at a private school that accepts vouchers, they could then automatically receive a voucher for kindergarten if they stay at that same school. Behning said about 171 kids now attend 24 voucher-accepting schools with preschool programs, and of those, just six kids would be eligible to continue with a voucher for kindergarten.

The plan also includes specific requirements for parents receiving vouchers, including how often their children will attend preschool and that they will read to their children every week. It’s not clear how such measures would be enforced, but parents would have to agree before they could get a preschool scholarship.

The compromise plan would also allow families who use an “in-home” online preschool program to be reimbursed for their costs. The state would agree to study these online programs, and priority would be given to parents of children who live in counties with no high-quality preschool providers.

The compromise proposal still must receive final approval from the House and the Senate, which is expected later this week.

Quality quest

How Colorado is trying to boost access to quality child care for poor kids

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

When Colorado changed the way it paid child care providers for educating little kids from low-income families — paying high quality providers more than lower-quality ones — there was both elation and frustration.

Deb Hartman, program director at a highly rated center in Las Animas County in southern Colorado, called the new approach “life-changing.” The extra money, she said, helped save infant and toddler classrooms that otherwise would have closed. She was able to give her teachers raises and even buy a coffee-maker for the teacher’s lounge.

But 300 miles north in Larimer County, officials who administer the state’s child care subsidy program for residents weren’t so happy. The new reimbursement rates meant a growing price tag for the program and today, nearly 600 kids on the wait list.

The dichotomy illustrates the growing pains that have come with state efforts to get low-income youngsters into high-quality child care — a key factor in making sure kids are ready for kindergarten and reading well in third grade.

While Colorado policy-makers have made an array of changes to the complicated $86 million subsidy program in recent years — several focused on promoting child care quality— there’s a long way to go to ensure poor kids get the same level of care available to upper-income kids.

Not only are there too few high-quality providers across the state, but many don’t accept subsidies, which is often the only way low-income families can gain access to top-notch child care.

Thousands of providers — about 84 percent — are still on the lowest rungs of the state’s two-year-old quality rating system, Colorado Shines. The lowest rating is Level 1, which means a provider is licensed and has met basic health and safety requirements. Level 2 is a step up and means a provider has started to climb the quality ladder, but has not yet achieved what is considered the mark of high quality — a Level 3, 4 or 5 rating.

Of about 680 high-quality providers across Colorado, about 37 percent accept subsidies. Sometimes it’s because they can easily fill their rosters with children whose parents pay full freight. In other cases directors balk at accepting subsidies because the program, officially called the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, has a reputation for red tape and out-of-date technology.

“It’s not very 21st century at all,” said Terri Albohn, who helps administer the subsidy program for Boulder County.

State officials say they’re in the process of streamlining and modernizing the program, which helps low-income parents afford child care if they’re working, in school or looking for jobs.

State officials aim to increase the number of providers that have ratings above Level 1 and to improve the distribution of high-quality programs that accept subsidies so communities outside the Front Range have better access.

“The idea is to try to break out of that I-25 corridor in particular,” said Erin Mewhinney, director of early care and learning for the state Department of Human Services.

When kids lack access to high-quality care, it can mean less-than-ideal child care arrangements — sitting in front of the TV or staying home with grandparents or older siblings.

One state initiative in the works will award grants to providers rated Level 2-5 that accept or plan to accept child care subsidies. Mewhinney said the state’s goal is to ensure that 33 percent of Colorado communities have at least one high-quality provider that takes subsidies. Right now, that number stands at 26 percent.

One person on the front lines of efforts to get more providers to accept subsidies is Jennifer Sanchez McDonald, coordinator of the Huerfano and Las Animas Counties Early Childhood Advisory Council.

She likes to tell providers that the program is “going to empower your site, not decrease your opportunities.”

In one recent example, she visited a licensed provider who cares for children in her home, discussing the subsidy program over a conversation at the kitchen table. The woman was worried about shrinking enrollment because some of her families were struggling to pay. Shortly after that conversation, the provider began taking the subsidies.

Sanchez McDonald hopes to get up to eight more of the 16 licensed providers in the two-county area to accept state subsidies. Currently, four take the subsidies — only two that have high ratings.

Besides getting centers to take subsidies, there’s also the challenge of getting parents to apply for them. Although area poverty rates are high and children often lag academically, many parents keep their kids at home until kindergarten, Sanchez McDonald said.

In Boulder County, officials launched a campaign called “Just One More” urging high-quality child care providers to set aside one new slot for a subsidized child. In some cases, the centers are accepting subsidies for the first time.

The campaign, begun 18 months ago, hinges on personal outreach to providers by county workers who describe the impact quality care can have on a low-income child and check in frequently during the early weeks of enrollment.

Elizabeth Groneberg, outreach coordinator for Boulder County’s subsidy program, said she tells providers, “You let me know when you get your first (subsidized) family. We’ll be in touch every day.”

At one high-quality private preschool, she said, the director agreed to begin accepting the subsidies so the child of one the center’s teachers could attend. Today, the center has two children in subsidized slots.

In Larimer County, where demand for subsidies far outstrips supply, officials say they’re not recruiting more providers to take subsidies because they couldn’t place children in those slots.

While about a dozen Colorado counties have wait lists for subsidies, Larimer has the largest, according to state officials.

“We want to pay for good quality care, but you have to have additional finances … to do it,” said Heather O’Hayre, deputy director of human services for Larimer County.

The real problem is that the state’s formula for distributing funds to counties isn’t working the way it should, O’Hayre said. She and her colleagues also lament that the committee that determines the formula is heavy on metro Denver representation and that members have no term limits. There are no voting members from Larimer County.

While state officials say they understand Larimer’s concerns about the long wait list, the fact that the problem is acute in just one county rather than several doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem with the allocation formula.

“I know they’re frustrated for sure,” Mewhinney said.