Preschool on the ballot

Voters weigh sales tax measure for Denver Preschool Program

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Preschoolers attending the Hope Children's Center in northeast Denver listen to speakers at a June 11 press conference announcing a campaign to ask voters to renew and raise a sales tax to fund the Denver Preschool Program.

Eight years after Denver voters narrowly approved the sales tax ballot measure that created the Denver Preschool Program, they are being asked in ballot issue 2A whether to continue and expand that tax.

Advocates of the DPP program, including a host of political heavy-hitters, say it’s helped ensure school readiness, boost third-grade test scores and improve preschool quality in the city. There is no organized group opposing the measure, but skeptics like City Councilor Jeanne Faatz say providing preschool subsidies should be the state’s role not the city’s and that the program’s universal approach means that tax-payers are subsidizing preschool for affluent families who don’t truly need the help.

The DPP program provides preschool tuition credits to four-year-olds in Denver, with a tiered scale that means low-income families whose children attend highly-rated preschools get the most assistance and higher-income families whose children attend lower-rated preschools get the least.

If 2A passes, the sales tax would be raised from .12 percent to .15 percent, or 15 cents for every $100 spent in Denver on taxable items. The additional revenue would be used to reinstate summer preschool programs, increase the amount of tuition credits and offer help with extended-day preschool. The measure would extend the tax until 2026.

DPP By the numbers

Kids

  • Children served annually: 5020
  • Children served since DPP’s inception: 31,816
  • DPP students attending 3- or 4-star preschools: 89%

Money

  • Average tuition credit: $322 per month for full-day programs
  • 2015 budget if ballot measure passes: $19 million
  • 2015 budget if ballot measure fails: $15.3 million
  • Current cap on administrative expenses: 5%
  • Administrative expense cap if ballot measure passes: 7%

Timing

  • Expiration of current sales tax: December 2016
  • Expiration if ballot measure passes: 2026

The existing DPP sales tax, which passed with 50.6 percent of the vote in 2006, won’t expire until December 2016. Both sides agree that if the ballot measure fails next month, voters will have other opportunities to consider a sales tax extension for DPP before the tuition credits stop at the end of the 2016-17 school year.

Still, Jennifer Landrum, president and CEO of DPP, believes now is the time for a renewal.

“There is an urgency for voters to vote this year,” she said. “First off, the city decided that this was the year to go back to the voters…We’ve raised the money. We’ve launched the campaign. We’re on that course.”

A boon for student achievement?

There are now seven years of academic data available from students who’ve participated in the DPP program. Much of it comes from annual evaluations conducted by the Denver consulting firm Augenblick, Palaich and Associates in tandem with Clayton Early Learning Institute.

The most recent report from the firm indicates that about 90 percent of DPP students score well enough on national literacy and math assessments to be considered school-ready. DPP’s 2013 Report to the Community actually cites higher rates—98 percent for literacy and 99 percent for math—but the  report explains that those numbers are based on cut scores the authors believe are too low to accurately reflect school-readiness.

With the first two DPP cohorts now in fourth and fifth grade, there’s also evidence that DPP participants do better on third-grade state tests than non-DPP students. Overall, 64 percent of DPP kids were “proficient” or “advanced” on 2014 reading tests compared to 56 percent of non-participants.

The spread was about six points in math, with 63 percent of DPP participants  proficient or advanced compared to 57 percent of non-participants. Such differences in proficiency rates held true for participants and non-participants of all races as well as those who are English-language learners.

What about the state?

While there doesn’t seem to be a fundamental argument about preschool’s value this election season, there are questions about Denver’s approach. Faatz believes the state’s Colorado Preschool Program, which funds preschool and some full-day kindergarten for more than 23,000 at-risk children, represents a better way to go. She said it makes more sense to expand the reach of the state’s program than have another layer of bureaucracy working only for Denver children.

“I think the state is more efficient in the way it does it,” said Faatz, who cast the lone no vote when Denver’s city council decided in August to put the DPP sales tax question on the ballot.

Faatz also worries that DPP’s administrative costs are excessive. Although administrative expenses are capped at 5 percent by city ordinance, she said some line items don’t seem properly categorized and administrative costs would far exceed the cap if they were.

But Landrum said city ordinance defines exactly what is counted as administrative costs—things like staff salaries, facility costs and accounting fees–and that DPP is in compliance.

And Landrum pointed out that even with repeated efforts at the state level to expand CPP, there still aren’t enough slots for all eligible children.

“The city and county of Denver is trying to do better.”

Focus on quality

One aspect of the Denver Preschool Program that everyone seems to agree on is the focus on helping preschools improve and sustain their quality. Ten percent of the program’s budget is dedicated to quality improvement measures. This may mean providing coaches to help preschool providers prepare for rating visits, paying for teacher training or making facility improvements.

Do your homework

“I think the thing that’s really exemplary about what DPP is doing…is they’re investing not just in kids but in quality,” said Cheryl Caldwell, director of early childhood education for Denver Public Schools.

Last year, that quality improvement money paid for 15 hours of training for paraprofessionals at the district’s DPP sites as well as for teachers to attend a major early childhood conference.

In addition to designating part of its budget for preschool improvement,  Landrum said DPP’s tiered reimbursement model incentivizes parents to select higher-quality programs by providing larger tuition credits. It’s a model that seems to be catching on across the country.

“Denver has been at the forefront around that idea,” she said. “Quality is expensive and having higher tuition support for higher quality programs helps maintain quality.”

Nearly 90 percent of DPP participants attend preschools with the top two ratings from Qualistar, a highly-regarded rater of early childhood programs in the state. Up till now, those ratings have been voluntary and providers were not required to go through the process, but many Denver providers did because of DPP.

Landrum said when DPP launched in the fall of 2007 only 52 preschool providers in Denver had been rated by Qualistar. That number is now 227, with an additional 18 that have national accreditation equivalent to Qualistar’s top four-star rating.

“At the end of the day I think this is good for Denver…preschool is the beginning of a successful academic career,” she said.

2013 DPP Expenditures | Create Infographics

School Finance

Why some IPS schools are facing big budget cuts, and others are mostly spared from the pain

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 107 is expected to lose about $230,000 next year, one of the larger cuts in the district.

At campuses across Indianapolis Public Schools, principals are grappling with a painful prospect: cutting hundreds of thousands of dollars from their school budgets. And that may be just the beginning.

The district is looking to cut about $21 million from its $269 million general fund budget for 2018-19, including about $8.9 million that will come from budgets for schools and certified staff such as teachers, according to a preliminary budget document. Officials declined to give school-by-school breakdowns until they are finalized later this summer.

The district initially planned to fill its budget gap by asking voters for nearly $1 billion in extra funding in May, but after the proposal received little support, the board first shrunk and then delayed the request. The cuts that begin next year could continue if the state’s largest district isn’t able to find other savings or win voter support for a referendum to increase taxes and school funding in November.

“We have the hope of a referendum,” said Weston Young, the district’s chief financial manager.

Chalkbeat has the details on what types of schools are expected to lose the most, what schools might cut, and what this means for the future of the district.

Big schools — including high schools — are taking the brunt of the cuts.

When it comes to cutting spending, large schools are carrying more of the burden, according to the preliminary documents. That includes middle and high schools, as well as some elementary schools. At some of the district’s smallest campuses, however, officials say budgets are already too lean for significant cuts.

Indianapolis Public Schools sends money to schools using a formula known as student-based allocation, which gives them funding based on how many students they enroll and student needs. But every school also has a baseline amount of money district officials believe they need to operate.

Small schools that serve wide grade spans, which might only have one class at each grade level, often get extra money to be sure they reach the minimum. In contrast, large campuses typically get enough from the per student formula to be above baseline. On a basic level, the district budget is based around the idea that it costs less per child to educate students in large, efficient schools.

Because of that approach, campuses that were already at minimum funding levels won’t see significant cuts, Young said. On the flip side, however, bigger campuses are shouldering a larger share of the cuts.

That could be bad news for the four high schools that will remain open in the fall. The schools will be among the largest campuses in the district, and they are expected to face significant cuts.

Last month, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee told Chalkbeat that cuts would not damage the effort to revamp high schools because, in addition to baseline funding, the schools will have donations from private partners such as Salesforce.

“Obviously, we won’t have all the resources that we’d like to have,” he said, “but we will be in a good position come August of 2018.”

Magnet schools and career and technical education get extra money — and extra cuts.

On top of their regular budgets, choice programs, such as Montessori, International Baccalaureate, and career and technical education, receive millions of extra dollars each year. That spending is also on the chopping block as the district cuts costs.

But because the district had already planned spending on those programs and some areas are easier to reduce than others, cuts won’t be spread evenly, said Aisha Humphries, director of budget and strategy for the district. In Montessori schools, for example, instructional assistants are integral to the model, she said. In order to cut that, the district would have to change the school model.

“When you do budget cuts, it may be that we want to cut equally and make everybody feel the pain equally,” Humphries said, “but you may not be able to do that.”

But there are other areas where the district can more easily cut back, Humphries said, such as by reducing the number of foreign languages offered in middle school.

Schools are giving up technology, teachers, and other staff.

As the district cuts budgets, principals ultimately decide what painful trade offs to make. Under the new budgeting approach the district rolled out this year, principals are given a set amount of money, and they have control over how they spend most it. If a principal wants to make class sizes slightly larger to pay for a school social worker, for example, they can. When it comes to budget cuts, the approach is the same.

“They are still in the driver’s seat,” Young said.

When schools got budgets earlier this year, they were built on the assumption that the district would win the May referendum. But principals knew that additional funding might not come through, and some planned for potential cuts when they created their budgets, Young said.

When principal Jeremy Baugh learned School 107 is expected to lose about $230,000 next year, he already had some potential cuts in mind. The school will cut back on new technology, instructional supplies, and professional development. Baugh also won’t go through with his plan to hire two new educators.

School 107, which enrolls just over 600 students, is expected to have one of the larger budget cuts in the district. But in part because the school is growing and will get more money for those new students, he doesn’t expect to cut current staff.

“We didn’t have to make significant cuts that were impacting staff right now,” Baugh said. “So we felt pretty lucky.”

career prep

A growing Jeffco program trains future early childhood workers while they’re still in high school

Julian Salazar, 18, plays with preschool children at an internship that's part of his high school's early childhood pathway program.

Julian Salazar pushed preschoolers on swings, weaving deftly between them as the children careened back and forth. Earlier in the afternoon, the 18-year-old had worked mazes, played a number-themed card game, and snacked on Goldfish crackers with the 3- and 4-year-olds.

It was all part of Salazar’s weekly internship in a preschool classroom a couple miles away from his high school, Jefferson Junior/Senior High in the Denver suburb of Edgewater.

The internship, which ended in early May, is one component of a new early childhood career pathway offered at the high school. The year-long program also includes two early childhood classes and leads to an entry-level certificate from Red Rocks Community College that qualifies students to be assistant preschool or child care teachers.

Salazar — and students in similar concurrent enrollment programs around Colorado — represents one segment of the child care field’s next generation. With their professional lives just beginning, the students are laying the foundation to earn further credentials and become the lead preschool teachers and directors of the future. It’s a vision straight out of the state’s three-year plan to build a strong early childhood workforce. But in a field known for low pay and high turnover, keeping these students in the pipeline is no small task.

Julian Salazar, 18, helps a preschooler with his jacket during his internship.

Still, organizers of the Jeffco school district’s early childhood pathway are optimistic. Enrollment in the program at Jefferson is set to more than double from 19 this year to 43 next year, and plans are in the works to expand to two other district high schools — McLain Community and Arvada West — by 2020.

The district offered similar early childhood training programs at certain district high schools in the past, but they fizzled out. One had targeted teen moms enrolled at McLain, for example, but many of the students weren’t ready for college-level work, said Janiece Kneppe Walter, who leads the early childhood education program at Red Rocks and helped the district set up the pathway program.

A few years ago, Kneppe Walter and her colleagues won a grant to revamp the two introductory early childhood classes. Then in the fall of 2016, teacher Nicole Kamman launched the pathway program at Jefferson with eight students. At first, it was just a sequence of two college courses modified for a high school audience. This year, leaders decided to add the 22-hour internship to give students more hands-on practice.

While Jefferson is one of the lower performing high schools in the district, it has posted improved graduation rates and test scores in recent years. The vast majority of its students are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, a proxy for poverty.

Kamman sees the early childhood program as a way to give these students valuable experience in a field where qualified workers are in high demand.

“Any opportunity to get them career-ready … I knew I had capacity to promote that,” she said.

At the same time, local preschoolers in Edgewater and nearby areas get the chance to see teenage role models from their own communities, many of whom speak Spanish, as they do.

On a spring day in Kamman’s classroom, her high school students discussed nine child temperament traits and then acted them out as classmates tried to guess the characteristic.

When it was Salazar’s turn, he mimed sweeping the floor, not giving up even after repeatedly fumbling with the broom and dustpan.

“Persistence,” a classmate guessed correctly.

Of the eight Jefferson students who completed the early childhood pathway program last year, four landed jobs at local preschools or child care centers, Kamman said, and a fifth enrolled at Red Rocks seeking a degree in early childhood education.

But for some students, perhaps even a majority, the pathway program is a stepping-stone to something else.

“I don’t think they necessarily see early childhood as their endpoint,” Kamman said.

One of her students hopes to become a pediatrician, so the early childhood classes are a useful stop in a longer journey.

Salazar, a self-assured teen who was as comfortable helping kids with stubborn jacket zippers as playing chase on the playground, described his internship in the preschool classroom at Jefferson County Open School as “amazing.” Asked if he planned to pursue early childhood education, he said he could see working as a teaching assistant for a short time, but not necessarily long-term.

“I’m looking more or less for a ‘now’ thing,” he said.

Another student in the pathway program, senior Sonya Hernandez, felt the same way. She plans to study event management at Metro State University next year, but enrolled in the pathway program to improve her short-term job prospects.

“For me, it was more so about having the opportunity to get a better job after high school rather than working a regular minimum wage job at a fast food place or retail,” the 17-year-old said. “I figured I might as well do it and also get the college credits.”

Kamman said the field’s wages are a bit higher than minimum wage and therefore competitive for teenagers just starting out. Nationwide, the median wage of early childhood workers is $10.60 an hour, according to a 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Education. Colorado’s minimum wage is $10.20 this year and will rise to $11.10 in 2019.

The shortage of early childhood workers is a perennial problem in the state. A recent survey of Colorado child care providers found an average annual turnover rate of 16 percent for lead teachers and 22 percent for assistant teachers. In addition, 70 percent of directors reported difficulty in finding teachers for vacant positions.

Early childhood pathway programs like the one at Jefferson Jr./Sr. High represent only a partial solution to the early education workforce crunch. But to Kneppe Walter, that’s OK. If some pathway students use early childhood jobs to work their way through college in unrelated majors, she doesn’t see that as problem.

“They’re still walking away with some great life skills,” she said. “If they could contribute for two to five years, I’d be tickled pink.”

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Ariadna Santos, a student at Jefferson Junior/Senior High School reads to preschoolers during her internship.

Ariadna Santos, a soft-spoken high school junior who also interned at Jefferson County Open School, may well fit this profile.

The 16-year-old, who said she has no younger siblings and has never worked as a babysitter, said the internship made her more comfortable with young children. On a recent day, she sat at a knee-high table and read a picture book about animals to a half-dozen preschoolers. As one little boy repeatedly touched his neighbor’s arms and shoulders, she calmly said, “Let’s not grab other people. Keep your hands to yourself.”

It was the kind of episode Santos found daunting at the beginning. Early in the internship when two children got in a sandbox fight, she had no idea what to do and the lead teacher had to intervene.

“Nowadays, it’s just easier to calm them down and get them to work with each other,” said Santos, whose other career interests include architecture and interior design.

“I don’t really know what I want to do as a career yet so I just really wanted to take this class as an opportunity to see what one of the options could be,” she said.

Even if Santos doesn’t stay in the early childhood workforce permanently, Kneppe Walter is hopeful that the pathway experience will be formative for others in the program.

“What’s lovely about early childhood is it’s got this strong core of social justice to it,” she said. “If students resonate with that idea, ‘I want to be empowered. I want to make a difference,’ then it’s not such a hard sell to go into early childhood.”