First Person

Recession hitting Colorado kids hard

Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children's Campaign
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children's Campaign

Colorado is quickly losing its ability to provide adequately for its youngest residents, according to the first systematic measurement of the Great Recession’s impact on children in the state.

The 2011 Kids Count report, released Thursday, shows the number of youngsters statewide living in poverty rose by 31,000 between 2008 and 2009, cementing Colorado’s distinction as the state with the fastest-growing level of childhood poverty.

More than a quarter – 28 percent – of Colorado’s children live in a family where no adult has full-time employment. And in 2010, there were more than 18,400 homeless students enrolled in public schools in Colorado, up 53 percent from the 2006-07 school year.

While the bulk of them were living doubled-up as guests in other people’s homes, nearly a thousand were living in motels and 684 were living in cars or campgrounds or abandoned buildings.

“While economists proclaimed the end of the Great Recession more than a year ago, the end was nowhere in sight for many Colorado families, and especially for our children,” said Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, which releases the report annually.

“Though economic indicators can change quickly, the impacts on lives are often much longer-term.”

Even for parents who are working, affordable child care continues to be an issue, with child care costs increasing twice as fast as the median income in the past 10 years.

In 2009, the state was the fourth least-affordable state for full-time infant care at a center and fifth-least affordable for a 4-year-old’s care. At roughly $12,000 per year, full-time care for an infant in a daycare center eats up an average of 44 percent of a single mother’s income.

Measuring the recession’s impact

The Kids Count report provides state and county-level data on 40 components that contribute to the well-being of children, including health, education and economic status.

“The minute the resources come back, we’ll put them back in to schools.”

While the data is collected annually, it typically lags a year or more behind by the time the report is released. Thus, last year’s report measured data collected before the full effects of the nation’s recent financial crisis and the resulting recession took their toll.

The 2011 report gives a more accurate picture of the challenges now confronting the state.

“This has a significant impact on the state’s quality of life,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said at a morning press conference in the state Capitol.

“And quality of life is a significant driver in why businesses want to move here.”

Hickenlooper acknowledged the irony of receiving the report on the heels of his proposed state budget, which would cut $332 million from K-12 education funding in Colorado.

“You are held captive to your resources,” he said, noting that no other budgetary category could yield that much in cuts. “The minute the resources come back, we’ll put them back in to schools.”

Kids Count is a national state-by-state project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation to provide data about and track the status of children in the United States. The Colorado Children’s Campaign has been producing the state report since 1993.

Some ‘advantages’ of poverty

Not all the news in Colorado is gloomy, Watney said. She pointed to a number of indicators in which Colorado is showing improvement, including a drop in the number of children who lack health insurance.

That is one of the few advantages of poverty, experts note. Families whose income in the pat was too high to qualify for public insurance now may find themselves eligible for Medicaid or other programs.

Homemade paper dolls greeted lawmakers Thursday, reminding them to focus on children.

As a result, just 12 percent of Coloradans under 18 now lack health insurance. That’s still greater than the national average of 10 percent, but it’s a significant decrease for Colorado in the past two years.

Today, 38 percent of Colorado children are enrolled in Medicaid or CHP+, a low-cost insurance program for children whose families do not qualify for Medicaid.

Also, the number of children enrolled in full-day kindergarten – as opposed to half-day – has increased 70 percent since 2007, to 41,729 children.

Benefits of full-day kindergarten include greater academic success, improved social skills and a more stable daily schedule. Full-day programs also can lessen the financial burden on a family struggling to pay for child care.

Watney steered clear of editorializing about the findings. Nowhere in the report are there recommendations for policy changes. Rather, the report is all about the data.

“What gets measured, gets changed,” she said.

Hickenlooper said he hopes the state can use the data contained in the report to spot trends and act on them.

“We should hold ourselves to a higher level of accountability,” he said. “We should be able to predict outcomes based on data like what is in the Kids Count report.”


  • In 2009, there were 1,242,976 children in Colorado, putting the state in the top 10 in terms of growth of the child population since 2000.
  • Colorado’s children are 30 percent Hispanic, 59 percent non-Hispanic white, 4 percent black, 3 percent Asian, 1 percent American Indian and 3 percent of mixed race.
  • Since 2000, the proportion of non-Hispanic white children in Colorado has declined by 7 percent and the proportion of Hispanics has increased 6 percent. Others have remained stable.
  • 73 percent of Coloradan under age 18 live in a household headed by a married couple, and 28 percent in a single-parent household.


  • The majority of children in immigrant families are long-term residents. Only 2 percent – 5,000 children – had parents who arrived in this country less than five years ago.
  • Eighty-seven percent of children in immigrant families were born in the United States.
  • The bulk of children in immigrant families – 67 percent – are Latin American. Eight percent have European parents, 14 percent have Asian parents and 4 percent have African parents.
  • Nineteen percent of school-aged children in Colorado speak a language other than English at home.

Family economics

  • The number of children in families with incomes at 250 pecent or more of the Federal Poverty Level ($55,125 for a family of four) is decreasing, going from 56 percent in 2008 to 55 percent in 2009. But the number of children living in extreme poverty (incomes under $11,000 for a family of four) is growing, up from 5 percent in 2008 to 8 percent in 2009.

Geography of poverty

  • The areas most impacted by economic changes caused by the recession are on the Western Slope.
  • The counties with the highest poverty rates are in the San Luis Valley and the urban cores.

Ethnicity of poverty

  • Black and Hispanic families have been more impacted by the recession than white families. The total increase in children living in poverty rose by 17 percent, but for non-Hispanic white children, the rate of increase was  just 12 percent. It was 27 percent for black children, and 17 percent for Hispanic children.

Child health

  • The teen birth rate has been in steady decline since 2000. In 2009, 50 percent of  babies in Colorado were born to women in their 20s, and almost 30 percent were born to women in their 30s. Only 3 percent were born to girls 17 or younger.
  • Childhood obesity continues to plague Colorado. Although the state was ranked with the second lowest rate of overweight or obese children in 2003, by 2007 it ranked tenth, with 27 percent of children above a healthy weight. One national survey puts Colorado’s rate of increase in childhood obesity as second fastest in the nation, behind Nevada.

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First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.