Teresa Hunter and daughter Ivy (left) pictured alongside Barb Lito, GrowSmart’s Program Coordinator (far right).

The Power of Conversation in Virginia Beach

How the city is investing in its future by replicating Providence Talks

By Ivy Gilbert

When first-time parents Teresa and Isaiah Hunter originally learned about Virginia Beach’s GrowSmart program in October of 2017, they wanted to explore any opportunity that could support their 2-month old daughter. GrowSmart, a city initiative whose mission is to “promote and improve the healthy development, school readiness, and reading proficiency of young children” had just launched a program for infants and toddlers called LENA Start, and the Hunters went to an informational meeting at their local recreation center to learn more. During that first meeting, Program Coordinator Barb Lito shared that “parents have the power” to impact their children’s lives from the start.

That message stuck with Teresa Hunter. “I truly believe that parents have the power to change our babies’ lives, and when Barb said that at the end of the first session, I knew this was going to be a great program,” she recalled. “The atmosphere was open, honest, positive, and filled with zero judgment.” From that moment on, she could feel that she was in the right place for her daughter and for her and Isaiah as new parents; she was surrounded by like-minded people who wanted to make a measurable difference — eager to learn how they could prepare their children to succeed from day one.

Over the past 20 years, a large and growing body of research has shown that the amount of language children are exposed to between the ages of zero and four is strongly predictive of their developmental and academic growth. This research has driven expanded federal investment in Head Start programming and has spurred the creation of city-based early intervention programs such as Providence Talks in Providence, Rhode Island. More recent research has shown that conversational turns — the back and forth interactions between children and their adult caregivers — are particularly important, serving as a predictor of brain development and longer-term academic outcomes.

In 2013, Providence was named the winner of the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge for its Providence Talks program proposal. Leveraging the $5 million investment from Bloomberg Philanthropies, Providence Talks brought a new approach to the space of early language and brain development, testing educational innovation at the municipal level and utilizing data reports and new technology to equip parents with the knowledge and skills to prepare their children to be ready for kindergarten and purposefully increase their children’s exposure to words and conversation. After a successful pilot, the program launched citywide in 2015. Since then, the Providence Talks model has inspired a community of local governments and cities invested in using data to improve outcomes for their youngest residents — cities like Virginia Beach.

Lito, with over three decades of experience in social work and community solutions, joined the Virginia Beach GrowSmart team in 2010 to work on critical issues affecting children in their earliest years.

“It’s that first phase of human development, from zero to five, that can be a gamechanger,” shared Lito. “If we can connect young families to services that are available to them, that kind of support can change the trajectory of any child. Getting this right in their early years — and months — is crucial to putting children on the right path for the future.”

Virginia Beach was no stranger to designing programs to empower parents and improve children’s readiness for kindergarten; the city had a rich history of partnering with local non-profits and other community organizations to ensure children were meeting reading benchmarks since the late nineties. But, engaging families in those efforts was something the city struggled with.

When Lito and the broader GrowSmart team — a collection of twenty different organizations working across a set of shared goals to improve outcomes for Virginia Beach’s children — heard about Providence Talks and how the program was able to engage the community, they were intrigued. “We were inspired by the work that was happening in Providence,” said Lito. “If we are going to get this work right, we have to learn from each other and adopt best practices to be supportive of our families and children in all aspects. No one group can do this on its own.”

Children participating in the program wear a vest and talk pedometer that turns conversations into data — similar to a fitness tracker.

One aspect of the Providence Talks program that Virginia Beach adopted was its partnership with LENA, a national non-profit organization that provides city partners with technology in the form of “talk pedometer” devices that capture the number of words spoken in the home or classroom, as well as the back-and-forth conversations between the parent or caretaker and the child. LENA software translates these conversations into data reports that show parents just how much they actually talk with their children. Parents are able to see conversations with their children represented through data and visualize conversational turns in the same way that a wearable fitness tracker objectively reports on activity.

“Once parents get the first report, the magic of getting that feedback and data — of seeing how many adult words and conversational turns parents exchange with their children — kicks in,” shared Lito.

And through the LENA Start program that GrowSmart adopted for Virginia Beach in 2017, parents participated in in-person classes where they were able to connect with one another, get feedback from the data collected from their talk pedometers, and learn various strategies for how to measurably increase interactive talk with their children. It was this kind of hands-on support and community building that was vital to the success of the program.

“You don’t realize how much your baby is talking until you see the report. To be able to see the talking turns with my baby — it really got me going. Getting that first report and seeing how I engage with her was eye opening to me. I do have things to say to her. I can talk with her,” Teresa Hunter said enthusiastically. “There is the science to prove that this program actually works, and being around the other parents was helpful to me as a new mom — I was able to ask questions and share parenting stories.”

According to Jess Simmons, LENA’s Director of Growth Strategy, “Data and the talk pedometers are important, but they need to be coupled with the support and coaching that comes along with the LENA programs. With LENA Start, the social convening is really one of the biggest benefits, bringing parents together to learn from each other and use the community’s resources.”

Lito concurs. “Our role is to facilitate conversations among parents and introduce brain science, give them high-quality resources, and let them learn from each other. That parent to parent connection has been amazing, seeing the sense of community strengthened. At the end of the program, families have a support network, they’re exchanging numbers, taking the information and setting goals for their families and continuing to embrace the integral role they play in their children’s learning.”

Parents like the Hunters are able to take the feedback gained in this supportive environment to set measurable goals that help them support their child’s healthy development. The GrowSmart team is seeing strong engagement and completion rates as a result of the community that is coming out of their classes — in the first graduating class, all nine families completed the program.

Teresa Hunter and her daughter Ivy

Where do Lito and her colleagues in Virginia Beach go from here?

Since graduating from the LENA Start program, Teresa Hunter has become an instructor and is driven to recruit new parents to the program. “A lot of families don’t know about these kinds of programs, and what you don’t know about, you can’t get involved in,” she explained. Now she is showing other parents in her community that they too have the power to positively impact their children’s growth and development from day one and is expanding the number of families that are involved.

The city is also using data to continue to understand the needs of its community and work with a rich network of community partners to design programs that work for the people for whom the services are built.

“It’s our goal to connect to all families, meet them where they are, and connect them to the program that is right for them,” said Lito. “When we launched LENA Start, we saw that this work helps all kinds of families. But we soon ran into families that had difficulties physically getting to the program that ended up not making it to the program’s graduation. We know there is a need to expand to a home visiting model for instances when the class model may not work.”

So, instead of losing interested parents, the city, through the support of a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, is launching a home-visiting model called LENA Home to serve more of Virginia Beach’s families with young children. The city is joining four other cities as part of a national effort to replicate aspects of the Providence Talks programming, or, in Virginia Beach’s case, expand on an existing successful program. This expansion is slated to be a part of Virginia Beach READS, a citywide initiative also run by GrowSmart that supports early literacy and school success.

Clarence Wardell, Director of City Solutions at What Works Cities whose team is leading the national Providence Talks replication efforts, said, “We’re very excited to support Virginia Beach as they expand their early childhood and language development programming. It is our hope that through this initiative, Virginia Beach will be able to continue to grow their efforts and support any family across the city that wishes to take part in this promising program.”

For the city and GrowSmart, being a part of this replication cohort means that it will have the support from national technical assistance providers and additional funding to expand their existing program offerings to explore the utility of a home-visit model to connect more families to the form of support that works best for them.

Partners such as local libraries and recreation centers are crucial to the success of community-driven programs like GrowSmart.

To implement LENA Home, the city will rely, as they always have, on community partners. As Lito explains, with a city population of nearly half a million people, “no one organization can reach everyone and have a meaningful touch and connection. The beauty of this was to bring partners together who interface with families in different ways.” These are partnerships that have been established and nourished for the better part of two decades, long-standing relationships that have found meaning and connection in achieving shared goals.

The LENA Start program, for example, required multiple community partners’ involvement for every class, from the library, recreation centers, and community colleges where classes were held and where parents were provided access to new resources and new places to “learn, grow, and play as a family” to the childcare partners who provided on-site care so that the parents could freely attend the classes. And LENA Home will require collaboration and partnership with those organizations that are already making home visits to families across the city.

For Virginia Beach, the efforts to strengthen the environments where their youngest residents are learning and playing, and support parents as their children’s first educators, are, ultimately, about investing in and creating future economic opportunities for their city. Citing a strong connection between early childhood and economic vitality, GrowSmart is strategically housed in the city’s Economic Development department and is seen as part of the city’s overall workforce development effort. Wardell noted that “when selecting cities to participate in this grant, we were struck by the visionary work already underway through their GrowSmart efforts, tying early childhood education to longer-term workforce development for the city.”

“To have a strong community, you have to have strong social and human capital. All communities have to focus on this and make sure young children and families are thriving,” shared Lito. “Investing in early childhood leads to a strong, vital workforce of the future, so we need to get this right.”

Ivy Gilbert is a Marketing and Communications Assistant for What Works Cities.

Virginia Beach will join Birmingham, AL; Detroit, MI; Hartford, CT; and Louisville, KY in replicating Providence Talks this fall. Using Providence Talks as a model, these cities will launch unique replication programs that are tailored to their communities’ specific needs with the support of Bloomberg Philanthropies, What Works Cities, and LENA. Learn more about the five cities and their specific projects, here.

Helping leading cities across the U.S. use data and evidence to improve results for their residents. Launched by @BloombergDotOrg in April 2015.

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