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.’”

The mayor's role

Duggan’s schools commission has already brought charter and district leaders to the table. Here’s what else it can do (and what it can’t)

Mayor Mike Duggan plants to appoint Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to a commission that will focus on issues facing students in district and charter schools.

For the first time in years, Detroit’s mayor will have a small hand in shaping education in the city.

A new commission, whose nine members will be appointed by Mayor Mike Duggan, will include representatives of the main Detroit school district and charter schools, whose competition for teachers and students has made them reluctant to come to the same table.

The group will focus on services that have fallen between the cracks in a city where decisions about transportation and after-school programming are made by dozens of unaffiliated charter schools in addition to the main district.

The commission will run a new bus route that will transport students to both district and charter schools on Detroit’s northwest side — a controversial proposal that got official approval from the Detroit school board this week.

It will lead an effort to grade city schools, taking over for the advocacy group Excellent Schools Detroit, which dissolved last year. The rating system has the potential to dramatically impact the fortunes of schools whose survival depends on their enrollment figures.

And it will serve as a conduit for philanthropic dollars that could lead to other cooperative programs between district and charter schools typically wary of working together.

The mayor’s involvement is politically delicate in a city where years of state intervention in local schools have left voters wary of outsiders overruling the elected school board.

The school board’s decision to support the effort was controversial, with critics at a public meeting this week arguing that the board was giving up too much authority to the mayor.

But Vitti argued successfully that the district is carefully limiting its involvement in the effort with an eye toward preserving local control. He pointed to guidelines for the commission that insist, in bold print, that it “will not encroach” on work being done by existing school operators in Detroit.

Following the board’s approval, Vitti will be among the mayor’s appointments to the commission, which will also include parents and educators from both district and charter schools, a teachers union representative, and community leaders (see below for a full list).

The commission plans to meet eight times a year, and will voluntarily submit to state open records laws, according to its guidelines. It will not begin meeting until Duggan has formally appointed directors to the commission. It’s not clear when that will be.

But as plans for the commission emerge, equally important is what’s missing.

It won’t have the power to hold district and charter schools to performance standards. It won’t be able to determine which schools in the city open and close, and — crucially for a city where many neighborhoods lack access to a quality school — it won’t decide where new schools are located.

Earlier proposals, including one for a powerful central body called the Detroit Education Commission, would have done all of those things, placing substantial school oversight responsibilities in the hands of Detroit’s mayor for the first time since mayoral control of schools ended in 2005. Following a fierce lobbying effort, state lawmakers rejected the plan in 2016.

That was a defeat for advocates who have long pushed for an organization that can bring cohesion to the city’s schools. They argue that the proliferation of school options in Detroit and elsewhere is creating problems for families in low-income, urban districts. Detroit has plenty of schools, but large swaths of the city lack a quality option, and some families must make extreme sacrifices to navigate the system.

Other cities with high concentrations of charter schools have created centralized school agencies. In New Orleans and Washington, parents can go to a single agency to learn about individual schools and enroll their children.

The intent of the Detroit commission is similar, but its scope has been constrained by fierce opposition from both ends of the ideological spectrum.

On one side, those criticisms have not dissipated. Vitti sought to reassure board members on Tuesday that the commission won’t undermine local control.

“A rating system is inevitable, and this allows us to create a rating system with Detroit stakeholders, not led by a process in Lansing,” he said.

That argument was enough to win over most the board, but not everyone was convinced. Voters “elected a board that would work with them,” said LaMar Lemmons, one of the “nos” in a 5-to-2 vote. “I am vehemently opposed to giving away our authority.”

Lemmons also opposed the Detroit Education Commission when it went before the state legislature in 2016. “The mayor should not have anything — absolutely anything — to do with the schools,” he said Tuesday.

He was joined in that view in 2016 by Betsy DeVos, now the U.S. Secretary of Education, whose school choice advocacy groups donated $1.45 million to state legislators in a matter of weeks to forestall what they viewed as a new layer of charter school oversight.

This time, however, charter advocates didn’t show up to oppose the pared down commission.

“We all need to work together on how schools are evaluated,” Dan Quisenberry, president of a charter organization, the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said. “Transportation? Yes, please.”

But he cautioned against the “other extreme,” in which official oversight powers would be handed to the mayor’s office.

Expected appointees to the Community Education Commission include Vitti, district teacher Marsha Lewis, charter school operator Ralph Bland; charter school teacher Rachel Ignagni; at least one parent of a child attending school in the city of Detroit; and Nate Walker of the American Federation of Teachers.

The remaining slots are expected to go to activists and non-profit leaders, including Monique Marks of Franklin-Wright Settlements; Tonya Allen of the Skillman Foundation; Teferi Brent of Detroit 300/Goodwill Industries; and Sherita Smith of Grandmont-Rosedale Community Development. All will be unpaid.

pink slips

One Detroit principal keeps his job as others get the ax. Next year’s challenge? Test scores.

PHOTO: Brenda Scott Academy
Students at Brenda Scott Academy will have the same principal, Eric Redwine, next year.

Educators and staff from a Detroit middle school took the microphone on Tuesday evening to save their principal’s job. Addressing the school board, they listed off Eric Redwine’s virtues, arguing that recent problems at the school can be attributed to its transition from state to district management.

And the board listened. Redwine, principal of Brenda Scott Academy, kept his job in a narrow 4-to-3 vote. He was the only one to survive among more than a dozen other administrators — and three other principals — who either lost their jobs or were reassigned to new ones.

The vote came amid a quiet year for “non-renewals,” shorthand for losing one’s job. In previous years, every administrator in the district was forced to re-apply for their job every year, a tactic designed to give state-appointed emergency managers flexibility in the face of an unstable financial situation. This year, by contrast, only 16 administrators — including four principals — were notified by the superintendent’s office that their contracts would not be renewed, as Superintendent Nikolai Vitti seeks to bring stability to a district still recovering from repeated changes in management.

The principals were singled out for their school management, Vitti has said — not because of how students performed on tests. Test scores will be a major factor in principal contract renewals next spring for the first time under Vitti, part of the superintendent’s effort to meet his promise of boosting test scores.

Seven of the 16 administrators who received “non-renewals” asked the board to reconsider the superintendent’s decision. But in a vote on Tuesday evening, only Redwine survived. He’ll remain as principal of Brenda Scott Academy, according to board member LaMar Lemmons.

The other officials were not named, but Chalkbeat confirmed independently that the district did not renew its contracts with principals Sean Fisher, of Fisher Magnet Upper Academy, and Allan Cosma, of Ludington Magnet Middle School. Vitti previously attempted to remove Cosma, then agreed to offer him a job as assistant principal at Ludington.

At an earlier meeting, Cosma’s employees gathered to vouch for his work. On Tuesday, it was Redwine who received vocal support.

Redwine himself argued publicly that the problems identified at his school by administrators — teacher vacancies and school culture — could be attributed to the school’s transition from a state-run recovery district back to the main district. The recovery district, called the Education Achievement Authority, was created in 2012 to try to turn around 15 of the most struggling schools in the district but the effort was politically unpopular and had limited success. Most of the schools were returned to the main district last summer when the recovery district was dissolved. The only exceptions were schools that had been closed or converted to charter schools.

“I’ve never been told your job is in jeopardy, never been presented a corrective action plan,” Redwine said. “I ask that you reconsider your decision.”

Of the 12 schools that returned to the district last summer, most still have the principals who were in place during the transition last summer. A few got new principals this year after their predecessors left and at least one other former recovery district principal was moved earlier in the year.

Many school leaders reported that the transition was very difficult. It occurred at a time when Vitti was new and still putting his team into place in the central office, making it challenging for principals of the schools to get information they needed about the new district.

When Marcia Horge worked for Redwine, she appreciated his openness to classroom experimentation and his schoolwide Sunday night email, which laid out a game plan for the week ahead.

Then the recovery district folded, Brenda Scott Academy rejoined the main district, and Horge found herself facing a steep pay cut. Rather than accept credit for only two of her 17 years of teaching experience, she left for the River Rouge district. But now, with the Detroit district planning to fully honor teacher experience starting this fall, Horge is contemplating a return to work for Redwine.

“He’s open to our ideas,” she said. “You can go to him. And when there’s a need, he steps in and makes sure we’re communicating.”