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.’”

School deserts

New study shows just how hard it is to find a decent public school in Detroit — especially in 10 city neighborhoods

An alarming new study shows just how difficult it is to find a quality school in the city of Detroit — especially for families that live in certain neighborhoods.

The study from the nonprofit research organization IFF identified ten city neighborhoods where it’s extremely difficult to find a seat in a quality school.

Those neighborhoods are home to 30,000 children, but had just eight “performing” schools. The study defined them using the color-coded school ratings that state education officials assigned for the 2015-16 school year based primarily on test scores.  

That doesn’t mean Detroit doesn’t have enough schools. In fact, the study found that many of the city’s schools are half empty. The main Detroit district had physical space for more than  80,000 students in the 2015-16 school year but served fewer than 45,000 kids that year.

Some Detroit families travel long distances — at great personal sacrifice — to find better schools but even families with the means to travel can have difficulty finding a spot in a decent school.

The study found that the vast majority of Detroit children — 70,000 of the 85,000 Detroit children who attend public school in the city — are in schools that don’t meet the state’s criteria for performance.

“This report is not about criticizing our public schools without offering a path forward,” said Chris Uhl, IFF’s executive director in a press release. The purpose, he said, “is to give everyone with a stake in improving Detroit’s education system — the district, charter schools and their authorizers, the city, foundations, and, of course, our families — the neighborhood-by-neighborhood data they need to work together to find shared solutions.”

The study includes an online tool that allows Detroiters to see which neighborhoods have performing schools as well as the conditions of those schools, and the basic demographics of the students who attend them.

Click here to use that tool — and scroll down to read the full report below.

What's in a name?

Detroit has one of the nation’s only schools named for a Trump cabinet member. That name could change soon.

PHOTO: Detroit Public Schools Community District
Dr. Benjamin Carson, now U.S. secretary of housing and urban development, on a visit to the Detroit high school that was named for him.

A member of the Trump administration may have his name stripped from a school in Detroit — though not because of politics.

The Detroit school board will consider on Tuesday night a recommendation that would bar naming schools after living people. If approved, the measure would force the renaming of several schools in the city that are already named for living people. Among them is the Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine.

The school, located in Detroit’s midtown neighborhood near the Detroit Medical Center, opened in 2011 to serve students from around the city who are interested in pursuing health professions.

It is named after Dr. Benjamin Carson, a native Detroiter who made a name for himself as a brain surgeon before entering politics, running for president, and eventually accepting a role in the Trump administration. He’s currently Trump’s secretary of housing and urban development.

The board plans to debate the policy on Tuesday night before a planned vote at the January meeting.

“When you name a school after a living person whose life is incomplete, sometimes they disappoint you,” said LeMar Lemmons, a school board member. “You may not want to have a school named after that person.”

Another school that would get a name change if the board moves the issue to a final vote is the Bates Academy, which is named after Alonzo Bates, a former school board member and city councilman. He was convicted of five felonies, including theft from a program receiving federal funds.

“Naming a school after someone is to really speak to and honor their legacy, and it’s really difficult to know a complete legacy of a person until after they’ve passed,” said Misha Stallworth, a board member. “We really want to make sure that the names of schools reflect the values of the district and the community.”

Lemmons said the board also plans to review names that were given to schools during the years when the district was controlled by state-appointed emergency managers. That includes Palmer Park Academy, which had been the Barbara Jordan Elementary School, and East English Village High School, which replaced Finney High School on the city’s east side.

Lemmons said he’d also like the board to discuss changing the names of schools that are named after “former holders of enslaved persons.”

Lemmons acknowledged that, in a city home primarily to Democrats, Carson’s status as a powerful Republican could come into play.

“Quite frankly, it is a political thing,” Lemmons said. “We named a school after an individual who is in the Trump administration.”

The principal of the school, Charles Todd, did not respond to request for comment, but has said in the past that Ben Carson has generously contributed to the school. It’s unclear what impact the change of the name will have on his relationship with the school.

A spokesman for Carson did not respond to a request for comment.