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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.”

 

hope on the horizon

With promise of new federal money, more low-income Colorado families could get help with child care

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

Thousands of additional Colorado families might be able to pay for child care if a federal spending bill due in March fulfills the pledge of a recently approved budget deal.

That’s because the deal, passed by Congress and signed by President Trump earlier this month, promised new money for a subsidy program that helps low-income parents pay for child care. In Colorado, the program is oversubscribed with more than 1,300 children on waitlists statewide.

While the spending bill won’t be finalized until March 23, advocates in Colorado say they think there’s a good chance the new child care money — $2.9 billion for the whole country over two years — will survive the negotiation process.

“I think that we will see this go through,” said Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

“I don’t think that child care and the block grant will be the major point of contention,” he said, referring to the federal grant that helps fund the subsidies.

(Trump’s own budget proposal, released three days after he signed the budget deal, doesn’t include increased child care block grant funding, but some observers say the budget deal holds more sway.)

If the two-year spending bill passes with the new child care funding included, Colorado could gain around $35 million, according to an estimate from the national anti-poverty group CLASP. That’s on top of the $150 million Colorado would get over the two-year period if the program’s funding simply stayed flat.

Practically speaking, the additional $35 million could mean child care subsidies for an additional 2,700 Colorado children over two years, according to a separate CLASP analysis.

State officials declined to comment on the federal budget proposal, saying in an email, “It is possible that, if approved, we could see an increase in services, but right now it’s all theoretical.”

Low-income parents who are working, looking for work, or in school make up the largest chunk of people eligible for child care subsidies, which are offered through the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program and administered by the state’s counties. About 31,000 children were served through the program last year.

In addition to child care subsidies, the federal block grant helps pay for a number of other programs, including child care licensing and the state’s child care rating system, Colorado Shines.

El Paso County officials say the new federal money could help them eliminate the waitlist for subsidies they had to start for the first time in January. There are 196 children on the list, and it’s growing steadily.

Julie Krow, executive director of the county’s human service department, said some parents may opt for unlicensed child care if they can’t get a subsidy, sending their children to stay with relatives or neighbors during the workday.

The quality of such care varies widely and is mostly unregulated by the state.

“We don’t want to see kids left in unsafe situations because of this,” Krow said, referring to the shortage of subsidies.

When early childhood programs are underfunded, she said, child abuse and neglect cases, which are also in her department’s purview, can rise.

The new federal child care dollars would help reduce or eliminate subsidy waitlists across Colorado, but wouldn’t completely satisfy the need. That’s because the number of children on waitlists represents only a fraction of those eligible for subsidies but not served.

For now, Krow is hopeful the new money will be approved and sent quickly to states and then to counties.

“It’s a program I really believe in,” she said. “As soon as those federal dollars come out, I’m hoping the state has a plan and they are out the door.”

testing ground

A giant leap: How one Colorado community plans to double its child care spots in three years

It sounds a little like a car race, but it’s more like a care race.

Child Care 8,000 is one Colorado county’s ambitious new effort to create thousands of new licensed child care slots and significantly improve the quality of its child care programs over the next three years.

The initiative in Mesa County has drawn interest and praise from early childhood leaders around the state, with some hoping it could serve as a model for other Colorado communities. At the same time, there are questions about the feasibility of such a lofty plan in a county that has lost scores of child care slots over the last year and that isn’t enjoying the same economic surge as the state’s Front Range.

One thing everybody agrees on is that child care is hard to find in the western Colorado county where Grand Junction is the county seat.

A national group that has examined child care supply in 22 states, including Colorado, has designated large swaths of Mesa County as a child care desert. That means the number of small children far exceeds the number of licensed child care slots.

For local leaders, Child Care 8,000 is also a way to tackle other pressing problems in the 150,000-resident county — everything from low elementary test scores and high suicide rates to workforce churn. The fix, they believe, is high quality early education.

On one hand, it makes sense. Some of the most respected researchers in the field have found that top-notch early childhood programs yield a better return than the stock market by improving children’s long-term education, health, and employment outcomes.

“This is a community that’s stepping out and saying we need to address this now,”
said Kathryn Harris, president and CEO of the Denver-based nonprofit Qualistar Colorado. Harris has worked with project leaders to develop the plan.

“I think a big county push like this that is putting quality at the forefront … is critical,” she said.

Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said, “Boldness attracts enthusiasm, and it’s certainly a bold goal.”

Practically speaking, Child Care 8,000 is a heavy lift. Half of its two-part goal is to increase licensed child care slots from the current 4,200 to 8,000 by the end of 2020. That means hundreds of new providers must be enticed into a field known for low pay, high turnover, and a raft of regulation.

While the project’s current focus is on creating new slots for children from newborns to 5 years old, creating new slots for school children ages 6-12 is also part of the plan. About half of the 3,800 new slots envisioned will be for the older age group.

Jeff Kuhr, executive director of the Mesa County Public Health department and a chief architect of Child Care 8,000, said the 8,000 slots represent about 60 percent of the county’s population of children ages 0-12 — the approximate proportion who need child care either because both parents work or their household is led by a single parent who works.

The second part of the Child Care 8,000 goal calls for 30 percent of providers caring for young children to earn ratings in the top three tiers of the state’s quality rating system. This means dozens of providers — both existing and new ones — will need to undertake an improvement process that has been described as time-consuming and onerous by some who’ve gone through it.

Currently, only 10 percent of Mesa County providers have ratings in the top three levels of the rating system, Colorado Shines.

Kuhr said his vision for the project grew out of a longtime interest in the potential for child care to improve many aspects of child and family well-being, and by extension, community well-being.

The project, “is truly addressing social determinants,” he said. “This ends up in a healthier community.”

Having spent the last few months pitching the project, Kuhr knows there are some doubts.

“We have some people say, ‘Well, that’s an impossible goal,’” he said. “You can always adjust, but you have to start somewhere … In my book, if you’re making progress, the goal is secondary.”

Word of the project is still trickling out. Some early childhood providers in the county said this week they hadn’t heard about it.

One of them was Kathy Laro, a licensed provider who watches four children in her Clifton home and leads the Mesa County Family Child Care Home Association. When told about the initiative, she laughed and said, “I didn’t know what that’s even about.”

A few minutes later, she said, “If they want more of us, they’re not doing their best to encourage it.”

Laro cited the red tape of licensing rules and what she and other veteran providers sometimes feel is disrespect from licensing specialists or other authorities.

At its heart, Child Care 8,000 is a collective impact effort — an approach to complicated social problems that relies on collaboration by numerous public and private groups. In Mesa County’s case, partners include county agencies, the school district, the local university, the early childhood council, community groups, businesses, and some statewide leaders.

Kuhr and other local leaders plan to deploy a wide range of strategies to increase child care slots and raise quality. These include expanding and subsidizing training for prospective providers, streamlining the licensing process, increasing provider wages, and making back-office tasks, such as purchasing and accounting, easier for providers. While some of these efforts are underway, many are still in the planning stages.

What’s not clear is how much it will cost to jump-start a large crop of what are essentially new small businesses. Leaders will apply for some grants, but for now, they say there are no plans to pursue the kind of voter-approved tax measures that have underpinned efforts to support early childhood programs in Denver, Boulder, and San Miguel County.

For years, a Denver sales tax has funded preschool subsidies for 4-year-olds, and a Boulder County property tax has funded a variety of safety net programs, including child care subsidies for low-income families. Last November, voters in San Miguel County in southwestern Colorado approved a property tax that will create new slots for infants and toddlers, fund child care scholarships, and boost pay for child care workers.

Mary Anne Snyder, who leads Colorado’s Office of Early Childhood, said in an email that state officials are excited about Child Care 8,000 but can’t provide financial resources to support it. (Some state early childhood funds already flow to Colorado’s counties, including Mesa.)

A big slice of Child Care 8,000 hinges on getting local businesses to invest in child care — possibly by subsidizing child care for employees, creating on-site child care facilities, or donating money to communitywide child care efforts.

This kind of push for business community involvement has gained traction in Colorado and elsewhere as child care is increasingly framed as a critical cog in employee recruitment, retention, and productivity.

Bernie Buescher, a former Colorado attorney general who is working with Kuhr and other local leaders on the project, said business owners are feeling the effects of the county’s child care shortage.

“They are coming to the realization that in Mesa County one of the things their employees struggle with is their kids not having child care, and that means sometimes parents can’t make it to work,” said Buescher, who leads the Mesa County chapter of the business group Executives Partnering to Invest in Children.

But Buescher and other project leaders also know that recognizing the problem isn’t enough.

Tracey Garchar, director of the county’s human services department, said getting active involvement from business leaders will be a major challenge.

It’s critical to find partners who are “willing to see the value in this and step forward from the business community,” he said. “If we’re successful in this, it could help everybody. There’s nobody who loses from having adequate, accessible child care in Mesa County.”

Since Kuhr came up with the concept of Child Care 8,000 about a year ago, the county has lost more than 100 licensed child care slots.

A few child care centers have closed, but more troubling to some early childhood advocates is a new state law governing how many children unlicensed providers can legally care for in their homes. The 2017 law raised the cap to four, prompting some home-based providers to let their licenses lapse, allowing them to continue doing what they’re doing mostly free of state regulation.

Holly Jacobson, co-coordinator of the early childhood council in Mesa County, said at least a half-dozen home-based providers have not renewed their licenses in recent months or are considering it specifically because of the new law.

Laro, the provider who cares for four children in Clifton, considered letting her license lapse but decided against it because moving to unlicensed status would reduce the daily payment she receives for one of her charges — a child in foster care who Laro watches more than 10 hours a day — from the current $32 to as little as $9.

While the number of licensed providers in Mesa County who have decided not to renew because of the new law isn’t large — a handful of providers representing maybe two dozen slots — it’s unclear whether the problem will intensify.

Despite such obstacles, Jacobson said Child Care 8,000’s aspirations are necessary.

“We’re shooting high” she said. “But we need to shoot high because there is significant need in our community.”