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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.”

 

leading the state

Three things we heard at a gubernatorial candidates forum on early childhood

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat
Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate for Colorado governor, and Lang Sias, the Republican lieutenant governor candidate, spoke at forum on early childhood issues.

Stark differences in how Colorado’s two would-be governors plan to tackle early childhood issues were clear at a candidate forum Monday evening.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, the Democratic nominee, envisions free full-day preschool and kindergarten for all Colorado children — a sweeping and pricey expansion of what’s currently available.

Republican lieutenant governor candidate Lang Sias, who stood in for gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton, said Republicans would focus public funds on narrower programs that benefit the poorest children.

Currently, Colorado funds early childhood programs for some of its young children. The state provides half-day preschool to 4-year-olds with certain risk factors, but the program covers only some of those who qualify. In addition, the state reimburses districts for just over half the cost of full-day kindergarten, leaving districts to pay for the rest or pass on the cost to families through tuition. Last spring, lawmakers expanded the state income tax credit for child care costs, but most families still need to come up with hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month.

Monday’s event at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science represented a rare opportunity to hear candidates address early childhood issues, which are often overshadowed on the campaign trail by topics such as housing, roads and health care. While the forum highlighted some of the big early childhood ideas championed by each campaign, it also left plenty of unanswered questions.

Stapleton, Colorado’s state treasurer, was originally slated to speak at the forum, but backed out citing family obligations. Sias, a state representative from Arvada and a member of the House Education Committee, spoke in his place.

Polis and Sias didn’t debate each other at Monday’s forum, or otherwise interact. Polis went first, giving a short statement about his early childhood platform then answering several questions posed by moderator Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign. Sias followed suit.

The event was sponsored by Constellation Philanthropy, a group of funders focused on early childhood issues. (Constellation is a Chalkbeat funder.)

Here are three things we learned from the forum:

The candidates have different ideas about which young children need help and how to provide it

In discussing his plans to create universal full-day preschool and kindergarten, Polis talked about using a public-private financing mechanism that’s sometimes called “social impact bonds.”

In this kind of financing — also called “pay for success” — private investors or philanthropists pay up front for social programs and get repaid with interest if those programs save public money by reducing the need for costly services such as special education or reading remediation. If a project doesn’t yield the hoped-for savings, the investors lose some or all of their money.

Polis said if he wins in November, he’ll immediately “work out how to partner with philanthropy to create more early childhood education for all income levels.”

Currently a version of social impact bonds is being used to pay for full-day preschool for some students in the Westminster school district north of Denver, a fact Polis mentioned Monday. Still, the financing mechanism is relatively untested in Colorado’s education sphere and it’s unclear how it might be scaled to pay for something as ambitious as statewide full-day preschool and kindergarten.

When talking about the Republican ticket’s early-education priorities, Sias described early childhood education as “incredibly important” but “very inequitably distributed.”

“We want to focus our public spending on those who are least able to afford it on their own,” he said.

He cited a proposal for education savings accounts that allow families to set aside money tax-free for educational expenses, including early childhood education.

“We realize that is more focused on middle-class and above families,” he said, “but by targeting that money using that program, we feel we will have more available to target the folks at the bottom of the spectrum who really cannot avail themselves of that opportunity.”

Education savings accounts don’t typically work for low-income parents because they have no extra money to set aside for future expenses.

The candidates would take different approaches to strengthening the early childhood workforce

In a field marked by low pay and tough working conditions, recruiting and retaining qualified teachers is a chronic problem. The candidates had ideas about how to bulk up the workforce.

Sias advocated for a residency program to help turn out new early childhood teachers, similar to what he’s previously proposed to help address the K-12 teacher shortage. He said such programs are data-driven, helping retain teachers for longer periods and improving student results.

He also floated the idea of recruiting midlife career-changers to early childhood work — “folks north of 50” — and hinted that they would work in the low-paid field.

“Is that an opportunity to tap into … folks who would like to fill those spots who maybe don’t have the same set of issues that millennials do in terms of how long they want to stay and how long they need to be committed, and frankly how much they need to be paid?”

While some middle-aged people do enter the field, mediocre pay, a maze of state regulations, and the growing push to boost providers’ education levels could make it a tough sell.

Polis talked about creating partnerships with colleges to beef up the credentials of people who currently work in the early childhood field.

He said it’s important to “bridge the skills gap” for those whose hearts are already in the work. He didn’t address how he could dramatically expand preschool and kindergarten simply by focusing on the existing workforce, where turnover can be as high as 40 percent annually.

Neither candidate talked about how he would boost compensation for early childhood workers, whose median pay in Colorado is $12.32 an hour, Jaeger said.

Both candidates agree that Colorado can do much better by its youngest residents

When asked how Colorado is doing overall in supporting young children and their families, both candidates agreed that the state has a long way to go.

Sias emphasized that low-income children continue to be left out. Polis talked about the lack of uniform access to full-day kindergarten.

Both candidates expressed interest in working with bipartisan coalitions on solutions.

“There’s so many people in our state who want to do right by their kids,” said Polis. “It’s really going to take folks from across the spectrum coming together.”

Sias, who argued for a combination of business-minded acumen and public money for early childhood, asked the audience to partner with lawmakers in finding what programs work.

He said he and Stapleton are “more than willing to work across the aisle with folks that we like and respect, and have knowledge in this area.”

Early Childhood

Jeff Bezos says he will use his riches to open Montessori preschools

PHOTO: Nick Hagen
A student in a Detroit Montessori program. Jeff Bezos announced today on Twitter that he would be pouring $2 billion into two major initiatives, including “a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.”

The latest effort to improve early childhood education for poor children comes from the richest man alive: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Bezos announced today on Twitter that he would be pouring $2 billion into two major initiatives, including “a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.”

The preschools, Bezos wrote, will be free for students and inspired by the Montessori approach, in which children direct their own learning in an environment that is prepared for them to explore. Montessori instruction has traditionally been available only in private schools, but new efforts to make the model more accessible have taken hold, and recent research suggests that it benefits children from low-income families.

Bezos also signaled that he intends to apply his famously stringent standards to the new schools. The hands-on CEO reportedly still reads emails from Amazon customers and has been known to berate executives when the customer experience suffers. At the preschools, he wrote, “The child will be the customer.”

Much about the initiative is unclear, from what “tier-one” means to where, when, and how many schools will open. Bezos’s announcement did not acknowledge the current bipartisan movement to fund preschool more widely, so it’s unclear whether his network might ever seek public money or how it might interact with — or even crowd out — existing efforts to expand preschools.

It’s also not clear how much transparency to expect from Bezos’s effort, which he called the Day One Fund. A number of wealthy individuals, including Mark Zuckerberg, have organized their giving through a limited liability company, rather than a nonprofit. This approach does not require disclosing who receives grants and allows the organizations to give to political causes and invest in for-profit companies.

Research has pointed to long-run benefits of early childhood education programs. One recent study found that the benefits extended to multiple generations — the children of children who participated in the federal Head Start program were more likely to graduate from high school and attend college.

In addition to preschools, the Day One Fund will tackle homelessness, according to Bezos, who crafted his giving strategy after asking his Twitter followers how he should spend his wealth.