Metro

Literacy program schedules start date

Providence Talks, which aims to expand low-income students’ literacy, is slated to start in 2014

By
Staff Writer
Thursday, April 11, 2013

Providence has set a 2014 start date for Providence Talks, the program for which it won a $5 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies in March.  The city will work with a Brown research team to collect data, monitor the program’s progress and assess its effectiveness in improving the vocabulary of young children.

By the time children in low-income households turn four years old, they have heard approximately 30 million fewer words than their peers from wealthier backgrounds, according to Providence Mayor Angel Taveras’ website. By exposing children at a younger age to a larger vocabulary, the program’s organizers hope to correct this discrepancy and improve children’s reading levels.

The Mayors Challenge was organized by Bloomberg Philanthropies, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s charitable foundation that donates to education initiatives among its other causes, according to the foundation’s website. Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston and Santa Monica, Calif. also received $1 million prizes to execute their own education programs, according to the mayor’s website.

The Mayors Challenge encouraged cities to come up with programs to improve early childhood literacy rates.  The program had submissions from 305 cities in 45 different states. When designing their programs, the cities were required to adhere to four criteria — the policy’s goal, feasibility, effectiveness and ability to be reproduced in other cities.

In Rhode Island, nearly one-third of kindergartners read at levels below national proficiency standards based on state-administered assessments, according to the Huffington Post. Less than half of fourth grade students scored at or above the national benchmark, the Providence Journal reported. Through Providence Talks, Taveras hopes to raise reading proficiency to 70 percent for rising fourth grade students by 2015, the Journal reported.

Providence Talks has partnered with the LENA Research Foundation to use a recording device to measure the number of words a child hears, The Herald reported last month. Coaches will  visit children and families enrolled in the program to encourage the use of a broader vocabulary, according to the mayor’s website. Providence can create a “verbal landscape” for young children through innovative use of this technology to address social problems in ways that are still being explored by education policymakers, said John Tyler, professor of education.

Mentors will work with children from infancy until about their second birthdays, identifying families interested in participating through the state’s universal newborn screening process, said Toby Shepherd, Taveras’ deputy director of policy. Since the “word gap is geographically neutral,” families will be offered an opportunity to participate based on an assessment of “different developmental and biological risk factors,” he said.

Since the challenge required every city to design their programs within a $1 million budget, the mayor anticipates that the additional grant money will enable the city to implement Providence Talks more quickly and with more participating families than originally planned, Shepherd said. The city intends to begin work with the first families as soon as early 2014.

A research team at Brown — led by Professor of Education Kenneth Wong — is working with the city to independently assess the effectiveness of Providence Talks. The team will examine whether the program increases children’s vocabulary and if others with similar backgrounds would benefit from such additional tutoring, Wong said.

The evaluation will have to balance informing participating families about the importance of collecting data from the program while respecting confidentiality and obtaining reliable information, Wong said. The team will assess the information from the electronic recording devices by working with LENA to see how many words children absorb. It also will be looking at social influences, such as the parents’ education level, racial and cultural differences and family history to determine whether the program is particularly beneficial for certain households, Wong said. By adding 500 to 600 families over the coming years, there will be a lot of data available to see how effective the program is at supporting both children and their families, Wong said.

Since the problem of childhood literacy is a “national phenomenon,” Providence Talks could be effective in cities across the country, Shepherd said. Though the program is still in its planning stages, it could be replicated on a national level if it is affordable, supportive of cities’ existing infrastructure, ably delivered by the service providers doing home visits and encouraged by parents, Tyler said. For now, it is “an exciting partnership between the city and Brown,” Wong said.

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