Cover Story | Ten to Watch

Courtney Hawkins – Executive Director, Providence Talks

Watch Her Close the Word Gap


The Word Gap
Children need to hear about 21,000 words per day for their vocabularies to develop properly, but those in low-income homes hear fewer words than children in middle- or high-income households – to the tune of about 30,000 million fewer words by age four.

How Providence Talks is Helping
An early-intervention literacy program launched under Mayor Taveras that aims to close that word gap. The former mayor won $5 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies to launch the program, and the current mayor has recommitted to the program, appointing Courtney Hawkins as its first executive director.

The Woman Behind the Talks
Courtney is a Rhode Island native and University of Rhode Island grad who went on to receive her Master’s in Social Work from Columbia University. She remained in New York for 14 years, managing human service programs that served 25,000 people per year. Providence Talks lured her back home because “you don’t get a chance to try something new very often. People talk about being innovative but there are usually so many constraints.”

How It Works
Families voluntarily enroll through one of four provider agencies (Federal Hill House, Children’s Friend, Family Service and Meeting Street). They get a “word pedometer” to count the child’s daily intake of vocabulary, and receive 13 in-home visits from a coach over eight months, working with parents to monitor progress, set goals and develop individualized strategies.

Taking It To The Next Level
Hawkins plans to add new provider agencies and develop new models, like group sessions at schools and churches, and interventions in full-time child care settings. “If you want to run something at scale in a city you have to have multiple strategies because one model isn’t going to be right for all families,” she explains. She’s also launching an aggressive outreach effort, including new marketing materials, advertising and community events. The goal is to serve 2,500 families by December 2017. “Providence is interesting,” she says. “Its size means that we can actually try to solve something that other cities across the country have been struggling with and become a model.” 


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