Providence, RI, wins $5M Bloomberg contest with plan to boost poor children's language skills

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Rhode Island’s capital city has won a $5 million contest created by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg with a high-tech plan to overcome a language skills problem known as the word gap that puts low-income children at a profound disadvantage in the classroom.

Providence was one of 305 cities that pitched an idea to Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge, a contest designed to spur innovation in America’s cities. Houston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Santa Monica, Calif., were selected for $1 million runner-up prizes. The winners are set to be announced Wednesday in New York.

Providence’s winning proposal will equip low-income children with recording devices that count the words and conversations they are exposed to. Combined with coaching lessons for parents,, the plan is designed to help poor children overcome a language skills deficit that develops before they even start kindergarten.

A landmark 1995 study found that children in families receiving welfare hear less than one-third as many words per hour as their more affluent peers and will reach age four having heard 32 million fewer words than children from professional families. Research shows the word deficit is tied to later academic performance and employment opportunities.

“Education is the path out of poverty; I know, because I have followed it,” Providence Mayor Angel Taveras told The Associated Press. “We need to make sure that path is available to more kids. The first teacher in a child’s life is a child’s parent. We can do something to help them.”

The selection committee at Bloomberg Philanthropies selected Providence’s proposal because it takes a new approach to a systemic problem and could be replicated in other cities.

“Mayor Taveras found an evidence-based solution to a major challenge — the word gap for low-income children — that has potential to move us forward in a cost effective, scalable, and sustainable way,” Bloomberg said in a statement. “The Mayors Challenge aimed to find the most powerful ideas that have the greatest potential to spread — and each of these five mayors knocked it out of the ballpark.”

Called “Providence Talks,” Taveras’ plan will make use of a pager-sized recorder put in a child’s pocket that acts as a language pedometer, recording every conversation and word spoken to them through the course of their day. The city intends to offer the voluntary program to children in low-income families, as determined by newborn screening assessments. Their parents will receive monthly coaching sessions from social workers in which they learn ways to boost a child’s vocabulary, and social work agencies will be given bonuses if a child’s language skills improve.

The recording devices work in English, Spanish and other languages and automatically screen out conversations from television and radio. The recordings will be kept confidential and once the devices’ data are analyzed, any conversations on the recordings will be deleted. To prevent a 3year-old from losing or damaging the recorders, the devices come with specially designed clothing to hold them in place.

Providence Talks would begin with a small number of children participating and gradually expand the program to 2,850 families by 2018.

One third of Providence children live in poverty, and two-thirds of kindergarten-age children enter school already behind on national school readiness benchmarks. Less than half of Providence fourth-graders are deemed proficient in reading and math, and roughly one third of city students will drop out of high school.

The city, which has tested the proposal in a small-scale pilot initiative, cites research that show that similar programs can boost the number of words spoken to a child by 55 per cent. Data from the project will also help city and school officials target literacy and educational programs to neighbourhoods and residents who need it most, according to the mayor’s office.

The other pitches submitted to Bloomberg Philanthropies included Milwaukee’s plan to promote urban agriculture in vacant lots and Phoenix’s proposal to create “smart energy districts.” Applications came from cities in 46 states, according to James Anderson, who oversees government innovation programs at Bloomberg Philanthropies.

“We’re trying to encourage a bold round of public-sector innovation to help a handful of these ideas take root,” Anderson said. “There were many, many more good ideas than there were prizes.”

The four cities selected as runners-up will receive $1 million each.

Houston won with its proposal to allow residents to mix trash, recyclables and lawn waste in a single bin ready for automatic sorting.

Santa Monica hopes to become the first American city to create a citizen well-being index, using economic vitality, social relationships, health, education and environmental factors to inform city policy decisions.

Philadelphia plans to use its $1 million prize to reform city procurement policies to encourage entrepreneurs and “social innovators” to submit bids and solutions to city challenges.

Chicago plans to harness computers to create a data-driven “predictive analytics platform” to track trends and allow city leaders to identify problems before they are obvious.

When Bloomberg’s contest was first announced last year, Taveras’ advisers brainstormed several ideas before the mayor settled on Providence Talks. Taveras said his decision was based on his own experience growing up poor — and the birth of his daughter, now a year old. He said he was “thrilled” that Bloomberg chose Providence, a city that has struggled in recent years with high unemployment and yawning budget deficits.

“Improving education helps everyone,” he said. “It helps develop the leaders of tomorrow. It helps economic development. It means having a safer city, a healthier city. This is a blessing and we are grateful.”