Providence Talks, Providence, United States
Providence Talks, Providence, United States - ©By Will Hart -, CC BY 2.0,

Providence Talks

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Main actors

City Government, NGO / Philanthropy, Community / Citizen Group, Research Institutes / Universities

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Project area

Whole City/Administrative Region

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Ongoing since 2013/07

Providence Talks is an early childhood program that puts parents at the heart of their child’s cognitive development. It helps disadvantaged children close the achievement gap by increasing parent-child interactions at a critical age.

Academic research shows that, by the time they enter kindergarten, children growing up in low-income households in the United States will have heard 30 million fewer words than their peers from middle and high-income households. This “word gap” undermines school readiness and performance.

The City of Providence is no exception to the problem – approximately two-thirds of prospective kindergarteners will arrive on their first day of school behind on national academic benchmarks. These disheartening outcomes continue as only 52% of fourth grade students in Providence read at grade-level proficiency. 

In an effort to remedy this issue at a citywide scale, the City of Providence launched Providence Talks, an innovative initiative working to close the word gap.  Providence Talks provides families with a “word pedometer,” a piece of technology that counts the number of words and conversations that children are exposed to in the home. Families are visited twice monthly by a coach who helps parents to understand the importance of words to early childhood brain development and monitor their own progress, while offering tips for improvement.

Sustainable Development Goals

Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
Reduce inequality within and among countries
Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels

Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge

This project was awarded the 'Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge' in 2013 in the following category: Grand Prize Winner.

Providence, United States

Size and population development
As of the 2010 census the population of Providence comprised 178,042, made up of 162,389 house-holds and 35,859 Families with a growth rate of 2.5%.

Population composition
Providence has a racially and ethnically diverse population. 2010 census date states people of Hispanic or Latino origin comprised 27.8% of the city's population. The largest Hispanic groups are those having origins in Puerto Rico, Colombia, Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, and Guatemala. African Americans constitute 16% of the city's population. Asians are 6% of the population and the largest Asian groups are Cambodians (1.7%), Chinese (1.1%), Asian Indians (0.7%), Laotians (0.6%), and Koreans (0.6%). Another 6% of the city has multiracial ancestry. Native Americans and Pacific Islanders make up the remaining 1.3%. 49.8% of the population are white Americans, with 14% claiming Italian ancestry, 8% claiming Irish and 5% claiming Jewish.

Main functions
Providence is the capital and most populous city in the U.S. state of Rhode Island and has 25 official neighbourhoods. It is located at the head of Narragansett Bay, with the Providence River running into the bay through the centre of the city, formed the confluence of the Moshassuck and Woonasquatucket Rivers. Providence is one on many cities claimed to be founded on seven hills like Rome and is one of the oldest cities in the United States.

Main industries / business
Providence is a major industrial, commercial, medical, and financial center for New England with an economy based on manufacturing and service enterprises, in particular, education, health care and finance. As the capital of Rhode Island, Providence supports a number of government-related jobs. Providence is a major supplier of jewelry and silverware to the United States and Europe. Tourism and conventions are emerging industries.

Sources for city budget
Federal Government and taxation revenues

Political structure
As the State capital, Providence houses the Rhode Island General Assembly as well as the offices of the Governor and the Lieutenant Governor in the Rhode Island State House.

Administrative structure
Providence's city government has a mayor-council form of government. The Providence City Council consists of fifteen city councilors, one for each of the city's wards. The council is tasked with enacting ordinances and passing an annual budget. Providence also has probate and superior courts. 

In 1995, researchers Betty Hart, Ph.D. and Todd Risley, Ph.D. uncovered a startling correlation between family income, household auditory environments and success in school and beyond. For a child’s vocabulary to develop on an appropriate trajectory, children need to hear at least 21,000 words per day. But children in the lowest income bracket miss that benchmark by more than 5,000 words every day. Low-income children hear 73% fewer words than children in high-income households and 54% fewer words than children in middle-income families This has proven to have a negative impact on long-term educational attainment, health outcomes, economic prospects and future family stability.

Providence Talks combines a new technology capable of measuring language environments with a comprehensive coaching curriculum for parents. This model supports parents in improving the language environments of their children, at the time when brain development science indicates that language development is most critical and with a goal of ultimately preparing them for academic success in kindergarten and beyond.

The Providence Talks model is using innovative technology -  small, wearable recording devices, or “word pedometers,” record up to sixteen hours of what a child hears in the course of a day. Software automatically analyzes the recording and counts the number of words, interactions (called conversational turns), and media exposure. The recording, which is never listened to, is then securely deleted. A feedback report on the day is generated based on the data from the analysis, which enables families to measure their progress over time. This technology was developed by the Colorado-based LENA Research Foundation. 

The Providence Talks curriculum trains families on how to improve their homes’ language environments by increasing both the number and quality of adult words and the level of interaction between children and their caregivers. It is aligned to Rhode Island’s Early Learning and Development Standards and focuses on integrating skill development within the context of a families’ existing daily routines. By tailoring coaching and delivery of the curriculum to the individual needs and perspectives of each family, Providence Talks can help to ensure the success of all participants. Each session of the Providence Talks curriculum is composed of several elements to ensure quality and effective delivery of education to the parent/caregiver regarding literacy and language promotion strategies.

The Providence Talks pilot launched with the first coaching session in November 2013. It leveraged existing home visitation relationships that three local nonprofits (Children’s Friend, Family Service of Rhode Island, and Meeting Street) had with families. The pilot was designed to test the service delivery model for Providence Talks with a small number of agencies and participants, and to learn from that experience and perfect the model before rolling out citywide. The home visiting model used in the pilot delivered the curriculum through 13 in-home coaching sessions. Sessions were held bi-weekly for the first five months of the program and then moved to a monthly schedule for the following three months. Two follow-up visits were completed three and six months after completion of the program to assess and support retention of the skills gained throughout the program.

The completed pilot of the coaching model reached 170 families. The project team made changes to the model based on findings from the pilot, including feedback from end-users, home visits, and the Brown University evaluation team.

The program is rapidly expanding and will reach 2,500 children by 2017. The project team is continuing to refine the program model to reach more children and achieve cost efficiency at scale. This includes piloting a group model and a professional caregiver model. 

Providence Talks is positioned to lead the way in work that will be crucial for policymakers and partners across the country as they grapple with these issues.

The lead agency for the Providence Talks program is the City of Providence who also provides significant funding for the program.

In 2013 Providence Talks won the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayor’s Challenge prize of US$5million dollars.  

Partnerships have been formed with non-profit organizations:

  • Children’s Friend  
  • Family Service of Rhode Island 
  • Meeting Street

Brown University is providing analysis and evaluation of the program outcomes.

Providence Talks has completed a pilot phase, serving 170 families by leveraging existing home visiting programs of their partner nonprofit organizations. Preliminary pilot results demonstrate gains in key metrics predictive of a child’s academic success. All families completing at least 30% of the program improved their average daily adult word counts, with the most significant gains occurring for those with the lowest starting counts. 

  • Providence Talks families are improving the language development environments in their homes. Those who start out at the lowest levels are making the most significant progress, increasing words spoken in the home by 50%.
  • Ongoing coaching helps Providence Talks families maintain their word count gains and make behavioural changes throughout the program. 
  • Providence Talks’ families are making improvements in the amount of direct engagement between caregivers and children.
  • Overall, families report that being part of Providence Talks is a positive experience where they are learning new skills.

The City of Providence is partnering with Brown University to design and implement a rigorous, third-party evaluation of both short - and long-term impacts of Providence Talks.

The project team came to appreciate the value of prototyping and piloting as opposed to lengthy and arduous planning. At the start, progress was slow because the team didn’t want to do anything without it being 100 percent right. A leadership change at Providence City Council brought a new philosophy: test, learn, adapt. The leadership shifted the culture to one that sees failure as the best way to learn how to tackle the next challenge. This meant the team was able to explore new ideas quickly and effectively. For example, in developing new service delivery models for community groups and day care centers, the team piloted the use of a single provider. This allowed a variety of ideas and approaches to be tested before making final decisions about how the new program model would be rolled out across the network. 

A number of key findings have implications for the development of this model in order to reach significant scale in the City of Providence and position Providence Talks for potential replication in other municipalities.

  • Families are interested in participating in the Providence Talks program after they learn more about the model.
  • Families who left tended to do so early in the program.
  • The time between a family’s enrolment and the completion of the first recording and coaching session is critical to ensuring they remain in the program.
  • While TV time has decreased slightly for graduates, progress in Adult Word Counts and conversational turns is not necessarily related to a reduction in TV time.
Providence Talks has the potential to become a national model for ensuring that families have the tools and resources needed to support their children in being on track for success. Developing models that support families from the earliest stages of a child’s development is critical to the development of a successful plan to improve educational outcomes and close the achievement gap.

Providence Talks will continue to share materials that other cities can use to develop local programs. These efforts will increase as the program reaches greater scale and there is more evidence of impact.  

Bloomberg Philanthropies - Mayors Challenge - 

Mayors Challenge 2013 Grand Prize Winner: Providence, Rode Island - 

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Jakki Mann
Melbourne , Australia

Jakki Mann

Individual | Project Manager, Circles of Sustainability

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