The city of Birmingham was selected as one of five American cities to replicate Providence Talks, a free, citywide early childhood program that aims to increase interactive talk with children to foster early brain development.

Supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, through its What Works Cities initiative, Birmingham is launching Birmingham Talks to serve 2,500 children across Jefferson County over the next three years. The other four cities that are replicating Providence Talks are Detroit, MI; Hartford, CT; Louisville, KY; and Virginia Beach, VA. Combined with local investments, the support provided across five cities totals nearly $12 million over three years. In addition to Bloomberg Philanthropies, Birmingham Talks is in conversations with other national and local funders to help scale the program to more children in the region.

Birmingham Talks was incubated by The Overton Project, a social impact entity founded by Birmingham native Jared Weinstein to bring evidence-based national programs to the city. Previous national replications include Venture for America, Breakthrough Collaborative and Microsoft TEALS. Two years ago, Overton identified early childhood education as a necessary community investment towards a foundational pathway to increased lifetime literacy for Birmingham’s children. “We know that the words children hear during their formative years profoundly impact healthy brain development and their life trajectories.”, said Liya Shuster-Bier, Managing Director of Overton. “And, we know that for children living in poverty, this early investment is particularly vital. But, we didn’t know how to empower parents and teachers, the adults that spend the most time with children, to drive better outcomes for their kids.”

Last August, Overton learned of the model utilized in Providence, a winner of the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge — an innovation competition for cities with bold, inventive ideas that address urgent challenges — and its interest was piqued. For the next year, Overton worked in partnership with the Mayor’s Office of the City of Birmingham to design Birmingham Talks. “We know that education is essential in preparing students to boost college completion and workforce readiness starts at birth,” said Mayor Randall Woodfin, whose administration has prioritized ‘cradle to career’ education initiatives. “We are eager to partner with Bloomberg Philanthropies, What Works Cities and Birmingham Talks to help our children succeed in kindergarten and beyond.”

Led by Ruth Ann Moss, a Teach For America alum, Birmingham Talks brings to bear a data-driven program that will be the first of its kind in Alabama. The innovative program integrates a specialized coaching curriculum with progress reports captured by a word pedometer that counts the number of words spoken in a child’s presence. “Research shows that for optimal brain development, children need to hear 21,000 words daily,” Moss said. “Our program helps parents and teachers reach that daily goal by developing new talking behaviors while receiving personalized feedback reports after each coaching session.”

Birmingham Talks will implement this unique combination of coaching curriculum and conversational tracking both at home and at daycares, in partnership with Nurse-Family Partnership-of Central Alabama (NFP-CA) and The Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity (JCCEO) respectively. Both NFP-CA and JCCEO will work with evaluators at the University of Alabama at Birmingham to evaluate the effectiveness of the technology/curriculum combination. The program will begin serving families in early October.

Birmingham Talks is optimistic about the program’s potential because of the success had in the Providence community. “Providence Talks shows just why we launched the Mayors Challenge: to help cities take on big challenges, test innovative ideas, and then spread what works best,” said Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Philanthropies and the 108th Mayor of New York City. “Providence Talks has had promising results, helping thousands of young children increase their language development. Today, we’re glad to help five new cities adapt the program and work to achieve similar progress.”

Bloomberg Philanthropies will support Birmingham Talks with a three-year grant and will also provide an in-kind donation of technology and software, including talk pedometer devices, software, and other tools required to build data-driven outcomes.

David Preston
David is a small business owner and contributing columnist to BamaPolitics.com. He attended the University of South Alabama and studied political science. He ran for his first and only political office in the city of Daphne, Alabama for city council where he lost by less than 200 votes to a sitting incumbent. David has a passion for all levels of politics, aviation, business development and recruitment, history (his dad drug him to Civil War battlefield for Summer vacation instead of Disney world and six flags) and the Mobile region.