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.’”

Getting ready for school

Kindergarten ‘boot camp’ aims to ready young Detroit children — and their parents — for school

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
In this counting exercise, twin brothers, Rafael and Nicholas Gonzalez, prepare to stack pretend scoops of ice cream on their cones.

In a back room of a church on the city’s near east side,  Abraham and Magaly Gonzalez attended a summer camp with their 5-year-old twins. Six other children from the church’s child care center were seated around a rectangular table lit by fluorescent overhead lights, working on exercises to teach them colors, numbers, and shapes.

“They have to learn more,” Magaly Gonzalez said, explaining that the couple has been working with the boys, Rafael and Nicholas, at home using books and videos, “and we have to learn more to help them.”

This was their second session in the Detroit main district’s newly launched Kindergarten Boot Camp, a four-week summer program led by district staff that focuses on the basics children need to start school. The Gonzalezes sent their sons to preschool when they were 4 years old. But the couple was so excited about what their boys learned in an earlier camp that they came to the People’s Missionary Baptist Church, a community site, to help them learn more: how to count to 20, spell and write their names, and recognize letters and shapes.

Although school readiness is not a new notion for educators, in the past couple of years, the summer programs for children who are about to start kindergarten have become a national trend, said Robin Jacob, a University of Michigan research associate professor who focuses on K-12 educational intervention.

“They are a fairly new idea, and they are important,” said Jacob, who researched more than a dozen similar programs that recently have sprung up from Pittsburgh to Oakland, Calif., many targeting children who had no prior preschool education.

A full year of preschool is the best way to get children ready for kindergarten, she said, “but we know there are kids who fall through the cracks and it’s important to catch those children, and preschool doesn’t always include parents so they learn how to help their children at home.”

A growing number of districts and schools have added the programs, recognizing that they last only a few weeks, are relatively inexpensive, and keep students engaged during the summer months, she said.

These early lessons are important for children and their parents, said Sharlonda Buckman, the Detroit district’s assistant superintendent of family and community engagement, because officials too often hear from teachers that children don’t know how to sit in their seats, line up, or hold a pencil.

Even when they’ve gone to preschool, she said, some children still have trouble,  because kindergarten requires more discipline and structure than preschool. The children’s parents often don’t know how to prepare their children for kindergarten and lifelong learning.

That’s why the district’s program requires parents like the Gonzalezes to attend the boot camp sessions with their children.

“People automatically assume Kindergarten Boot Camp is about the kids,” Buckman said. “For us, it’s about the parents.”

About 100 parents attended the classes this summer in nine elementary schools and the church to build on the belief that “parents are the child’s best teacher,” Buckman said.

Parents also are involved in programs sponsored by Living Arts, a nonprofit arts organization, that is offering a range of programming in Detroit through Head Start to help preschool children and their parents get ready for the first day of school.

“Our movement, drama and music activities encourage children to learn how to be part of a line to transition to another part of the day such as going outside, the bathroom or a circle,” said Erika Villarreal-Bunce, the Living Arts director of programs. “The arts help children understand this new space they’re in is not like things were at home, and helps children learn to function in those spaces.”

Although not all camps require parent involvement, they offer similar lessons to prepare children for kindergarten.

In suburban cities such as Southfield and Huntington Woods, the Bricks 4 Kidz program uses models made of brightly colored bricks to teach preschool children letter recognition, patterns, colors, counting, and vocabulary. Maria Montoya, a spokeswoman from the Grand Valley State University, the largest charter authorizer in Detroit, said she wasn’t aware of any similar summer kindergarten readiness programs. They also did not receive grant funding for the pre-kindergarten initiative.

The best of them teach basic academics, instruct children in a classroom setting, and engage parents in student learning, Jacob said.

“Educators have thought about school readiness for a long time, but understanding how important that summer transition period can be is something that people have started to think about more carefully recently,” she said. “Summertime is a key time where kids can be learning.”

Regina Bell, a W.K. Kellogg Foundation program officer, said the foundation funded Detroit’s Kindergarten Boot Camp because of the importance of focusing on the earliest years of life to ensure students’ success in K-12 and beyond.

“Part of this is recognizing that most of the the human brain is developed by the age of 5, and when you think about early learning opportunities, those are the foundation for the future,” she said. “It is that foundation that really takes children into the K-12 system.”

Kindergarten Boot Camp, funded by a $3 million Kellogg grant, is only one part of the Detroit district’s efforts to increase parent involvement to improve student attendance, discipline issues, and test scores. The three-year grant also funds the Parent Academy and teacher home visits. (Kellogg is also a Chalkbeat funder).

As for Abraham Gonzalez, the twins’ father, parenting and teaching children doesn’t come naturally. So he says the early learning opportunity for his sons is essential for them — and their parents, although they spent a year in preschool at the Mark Twain School for Scholars in southwest Detroit.

“We are trying our best to teach these kids,” he said, and it’s even more challenging teaching them when Spanish is their first language.

Now, he said, the boys’ are getting so proficient at English, they understand more than their parents.

“They are understanding what the people tell them,” he said. “Sometimes, we don’t.”

School funding

Poll: Most residents want Michigan to change the way it funds schools

PHOTO: (Photo by Ariel Skelley via Getty Images)
Members of the School Finance Research Collaborative are calling for equitable school funding so all Michigan students get the education they deserve.

Most Michigan residents believe the state’s current method of funding schools is both insufficient and unfair.

Those were the findings of a new statewide poll that was conducted in June by the School Finance Research Collaborative, a prominent group of Michigan educators, policymakers, and business leaders that has called for major changes to the way schools are funded.

The poll of 600 Michigan residents found that 70 percent believe the state’s schools are underfunded, and 63 percent think they are not funded fairly.

“The results of the poll should really be a wake-up call for policymakers on both sides of the aisle, and to anyone seeking elected office,” said Wanda Cook-Robinson, a School Research Collaborative member and superintendent of Oakland Schools. “They need to listen to the Michiganders and use the school finance research collaborative study as a road map for a new, fair schools funding system.”

The poll follows a report the collaborative released in January, which recommended sweeping changes to the way schools in Michigan are funded. Instead of sending schools the same amount per student, the report recommended providing schools with additional funds for students who are learning English, living in poverty or facing other challenges.

The group spent nearly two years and about $900,000 producing the report but it did not get much immediate response from Lansing. The education budget signed by Gov. Rick Snyder this summer included increases to school funding, but made no changes to the funding formula.

Michael Addonizio, a professor of Education Policy Studies at Wayne State University and a member of the collaborative, said the poll offers another reason why lawmakers should pay attention to the issue.

“It’s time for a new school funding system that meets the unique, individual needs of all students, whether they are enrolled in special education, living in poverty, English language learners, and [whether] students attend school in geographically isolated areas of the state,” he said.

Details about the survey including the specific questions asked are below.