Bloomberg praises $5M 'Providence Talks' proposal

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg called Providence's plan to boost the language skills of low-income children "revolutionary" Wednesday and said he hopes the program can be used as a model in cities across the country.

Rhode Island's capital city won the $5 million grand prize from Bloomberg Philanthropies for its "Providence Talks" plan to equip low-income children with recording devices that count the words they hear, then coach parents on ways to build their language skills. Studies show poor children enter school having heard millions fewer words that more affluent children - a problem known as the word gap.

Bloomberg called the idea a "direct, simple, revolutionary" way to determine which children need help, then give it to them.

"It's going to have a big impact on how they do in school, and how they do in life," he said.

Bloomberg formally announced the winners of his Mayors Challenge contest Wednesday in New York. More than 300 cities entered the contest. Houston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Santa Monica, Calif., were selected for $1 million runner-up prizes. Bloomberg, Taveras and other winning mayors spoke to reporters on teleconference call Wednesday.

Providence officials will now begin to hammer out the details of "Providence Talks," working with social service agencies and Brown University to decide how to implement what they acknowledge is an ambitious idea.

"This is a program that could really make a huge difference to young children," said Taveras, who traveled to New York for the awards announcement. "We know from research that kids from low-income backgrounds hear millions of fewer words than their counterparts from high income backgrounds."

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.

Providence's proposal is designed to address a language skills deficiency found in many children from low-income families. Research indicates that children in families receiving welfare hear less than one-third the number of words per hour as children from more affluent backgrounds and will turn four having heard 32 million fewer words than children from professional families.

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 conversations will be deleted once the devices' data are analyzed. To prevent a 3-year-old from losing or damaging the recorders, the devices come with specially designed clothing to hold them in place.

The program will begin with a small number of children participating and gradually expand to 2,850 families by 2018.

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