year in review

Colorado’s year in early childhood: Bright spots and persistent challenges

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

Efforts to improve child care quality in Colorado gained steam in 2016 amid ongoing concerns about abysmal pay for child care workers and excessive regulation in the field.

The year kicked off with a red-letter moment for the state’s child care rating system, Colorado Shines, which awarded its top Level 5 rating to the first two programs in the state. (Today, there are 25 child care facilities with Level 5 ratings.)

In the spring, a group of teen moms from Denver’s Florence Crittenton High School led the charge for a law change that makes it easier for teen mothers and domestic violence victims to secure state financial help for child care. The state also ushered in rules to inspect child care centers more often and give higher reimbursements to child care providers that earn high ratings.

But the focus on quality wasn’t just for licensed child care providers. Programs aimed at training unlicensed providers, including Spanish-speakers and undocumented immigrants, also ramped up in 2016.

On the innovation front, Westminster Public Schools’ in August began using a new financing mechanism to pay for full-day preschool — an effort that will be closely watched by other school districts over the next couple years.

The same month, U.S. Secretary of Education John King sang the praises of Colorado’s work to improve its early childhood systems during a visit to Denver.

One of 2016’s biggest unresolved early childhood conversations was about the suspension and expulsion of young children from preschool and early elementary school. While advocates had hoped to bring forward legislation on the issue during the 2016 session, a variety of factors, including concerns about the accuracy of discipline data, stymied those efforts.

Still, the state did significantly expand a program designed to help child care providers handle challenging behavior before it spirals into suspension or expulsion. In addition, a one-of-a-kind child care center opened in a poor northeast Denver neighborhood with a mission to serve local children, including those with challenging behavior.

Finally, there was much public conversation about the problem of harsh early childhood discipline — including a Chalkbeat Colorado’s panel discussion on the topic in May, a meeting of state and national experts at the Governor’s Mansion in August and a series of fall meetings by advocates planning for legislation during the 2017 session.

This is the first in a series of posts this week looking back at the year in Colorado education. 

digging into discipline

Jeffco Public Schools suspended an average of four young students a day last year — and district officials are paying attention

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jefferson County work on their assigned iPads during a class project.

Jeffco Public Schools handed out more suspensions to young students than any other Colorado district last school year, and did so at rates that are among the highest in the state among large districts, a review of data by Chalkbeat has found.

The 86,000-student district, Colorado’s second largest, gave nearly 700 out-of-school suspensions to kindergarten through second-grade students in 2015-16 — an average of four every school day.

Neighboring Denver Public Schools — the state’s largest district at 91,000 students — handed out 500 suspensions in those grade levels during the same period, and affluent Douglas County — the state’s third largest district — gave out just 77.

At a time of growing national concern about the long-term impact of harsh discipline tactics on young children, along with efforts in Colorado and around the nation to curb the use of suspensions and expulsions, the numbers in Jeffco are startling.

Dave Kollar, director of the district’s student engagement office, said he’s “certainly not happy” about the early elementary suspension numbers but believes they’ll drop as various efforts, including training on restorative justice and cultural awareness, take hold in district schools.

“Any time kids are out of class, that’s not where we want them to be,” he said.

Jeffco is not the only large district in Colorado that hands out early elementary suspensions at high rates. In fact, among the state’s 10 largest districts, the 28,000-student Colorado Springs District 11 hands them out most often relative to its kindergarten through second grade enrollment — averaging one suspension for every 14 children last year.

Jeffco, and Adams 12 in the north Denver suburbs, are just behind it — both handing out an average of one suspension for every 27 K-2 students.

The large districts that hand out suspensions least often relative to their K-2 enrollment are Douglas County, Poudre and Boulder Valley. Douglas County, in particular, serves few poor students, followed by Boulder Valley. Nearly one-third of Poudre’s students come from low-income families, about the same as in Jeffco.

While Jeffco administrators are hopeful about turning the tide, the trend line isn’t headed in the right direction. For the last few years, the district’s total number of elementary-level suspensions has been rising, peaking at 1,800 last year after being in the 1,300s from 2012 to 2014.

Some observers say the district’s recent struggle to pass local tax measures limits funding for efforts that could push down suspensions. Jeffco voters rejected two ballot initiatives last fall, and while most of the funds were earmarked for building renovations and teacher raises, some would have paid for part-time elementary school counselors.

More than 80 schools serve kindergarten through second-grade students in Jeffco, and suspension rates range widely among them. A handful of schools didn’t suspend a single child last year, while five schools gave out dozens of suspensions.

As is the case in districts across the state and nation, Jeffco’s early elementary suspensions are disproportionately given out to boys and Hispanic and black students.

The numbers, provided to Chalkbeat by the Colorado Department of Education, refer to the number of suspensions given, not the number of children suspended. At some schools, students are suspended multiple times during the year. Experts say sending little kids home for acting out doesn’t help change bad behavior and sets the stage for the school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately affects boys and men of color.

The Jeffco school with the highest number of suspensions in the last two years for which state data are available is Lumberg Elementary, a high-poverty school in the Edgewater neighborhood near Jeffco’s border with Denver. It had 49 suspensions last year and 48 the year before. (Data from prior years is unavailable because the education department has only broken out suspensions by grade since 2014-15.)

Lumberg Principal Rhonda Hatch-Rivera said, “We recognize that suspensions are not the optimal approach,” but added that safety considerations play a key role when she and her two assistant principals choose to suspend a young student.

Lumberg parent Joel Newton, who is also executive director of the community nonprofit Edgewater Collective, said he was surprised by the school’s high number of early elementary suspensions and wouldn’t have guessed it from the school’s culture.

“Now, I do know students come in with a lot of stress from family poverty,” he said. But so many suspensions is “definitely an indicator that something’s not right.”

Hatch-Rivera, who is in her third year as principal, said the school’s already made a dent in early elementary suspensions this year. To date, 27 suspensions have been given out to 10 kindergarten through second-grade students, according to preliminary numbers. (Last year, the 49 suspensions were divvied among 18 students.)

Hatch-Rivera said several recent or planned changes will help reduce suspensions. Those include last year’s shift from a part-time to full-time social worker and the addition of a part-time therapist from the Jefferson Center for Mental Health.

Last year, the school also launched a structured recess program through the nonprofit Playworks, which has helped reduce recess-related incidents, Hatch-Rivera said. Next year, Lumberg will begin using a restorative justice approach to discipline.

Like Lumberg, most Jeffco schools with high K-2 suspension numbers serve many poor students. Still, there are some schools with similar populations that buck the trend. They include Edgewater, Allendale, Fitzmorris, Lasley and Pleasant View elementaries. All of them get extra federal money because of their large low-income populations but gave out five or fewer suspensions last year.

Edgewater Elementary School is only a mile away from Lumberg, is about the same size and serves similar proportions of poor and Hispanic students.

“They’re doing something right over there,” said Newton, whose organization focuses on schools in the 80214 zip code, including Edgewater and Lumberg.

Principal Katherine Chumacero said a variety of efforts help limit suspensions of kindergarten through second-graders, including the hiring of a dean who is helping the school adopt restorative justice practices and district trainings on creating an environment that recognizes students’ culture and background.

She said it gets as specific as talking to teachers about what tone of voice to use with children, what words they use to describe students — “our kids” not “those kids” — and how they control their reactions when students misbehave.

Chumacero said she was called to a classroom last year when a young boy had a major meltdown, sweeping everything off the desks so the carpet was covered with crayons and other supplies. Although she described his actions as violent, it was the first time he’d ever behaved that way and he was not suspended.

“The first step is try to find out what is going on with this child,” she said.

For such offenses, she said, administrators often call parents and have students fill out a form reflecting on their transgression, talk with the school social worker or therapist, or do schoolwork during an in-school suspension.

“Punishment is not the way to go right away,” Chumacero said. “It’s about learning.”

Out-of-school suspensions are usually reserved for cases where kids repeatedly have shown significant aggressive behavior, she said.

Newton said while it’s worth digging deeper into the practices that keep suspensions down at Edgewater, it shouldn’t lead to finger-pointing at Lumberg.

The problem “needs to be fixed as a whole community,” he said.

A group of advocates and lawmakers tried for a statewide solution earlier spring, proposing legislation that would have limited the reasons preschoolers and early elementary kids could be suspended. After rural districts rose up against the bill, it died in a Senate committee.

Kollar said there was some trepidation among district staff about how the law would have worked in practice, but philosophically they agreed with it.

Denver, where discipline reform efforts have been in the works for a decade and voters easily pass school tax measures, is one district that has recently taken a strong stand against suspending young children. In March, the district announced a new policy that would eliminate suspensions and expulsions of preschool through third-grade students except for the most serious incidents. The policy, which still must be finalized, is set to take effect July 1.

opting out

Amid Colorado’s push to get child care providers to seek higher ratings, some say, ‘No thanks’

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Loveland's Teaching Tree Early Childhood Learning Center was one of the first two centers in the state to get a Level 5 rating in the Colorado Shines rating system.

Dede Beardsley says she’s always received rave reviews about the Montessori preschool and kindergarten program she’s led in Boulder for nearly four decades.

Parents and state licensing representatives have complimented her on the way the classrooms run and the teachers’ high levels of education, she said.

On paper, however, Mapleton Montessori School is not a high-quality program. It has the lowest possible rating on the state’s child care rating scale — a Level 1.

All Colorado preschools and child care centers get a score on the state’s five-level rating system, called Colorado Shines. But providers are not required to seek higher marks and some — including Beardsley — say the effort is not justified.

“I run this school by myself,” she said. “I don’t spend my time jumping through hoops that I don’t feel really benefit us.”

That well-regarded operators choose to accept the lowest rating is an early challenge for Colorado Shines, a two-year-old system meant to better inform parents and lift the quality of child care in Colorado. Some providers balk at costs associated with pursuing a higher rating, underscoring the broader problem of a lack of funding in the early childhood system.

Currently, 53 percent of Colorado’s 4,264 child care providers carry a Level 1 rating on Colorado Shines. That rating means they are licensed by the state and meet basic health and safety standards.

Providers can stay at Level 1 indefinitely, but they may not look as good to parents who search provider ratings in the state’s online database. Without contacting providers individually and doing other research, it’s impossible to tell which Level 1 sites may be providing lower caliber care and which ones offer excellent care but have decided not to climb the ratings ladder.

Experts say measuring child care quality — and helping lower-quality programs improve — is important because high quality programs help prepare kids, especially those from poor families, for kindergarten.

“Low quality settings are actually harmful,” said Susan Hibbard, executive director of the BUILD Initiative, a national organization that helps states develop early childhood systems.

“If you care about all the children in the state you have to care about increasing the level of quality and making sure that public dollars go where they’re needed the most.”

All in

Up until a couple years ago, Colorado’s child care rating system was voluntary and only a fraction of the state’s providers chose to participate. Then, with a surge of Obama administration money for early childhood efforts, the state launched the mandatory Colorado Shines system in 2015. Now, every licensed provider in the state — with some limited exceptions — has a rating.

Currently, about 30 percent of Colorado providers have Level 2 ratings, which means they’ve taken some steps to improve, but are not yet considered high quality. Level 3, 4 and 5 ratings are all considered high quality, requiring a site visit by a specially trained evaluator and evidence of everything from parent engagement to sound business practices. Providers typically say reaching one of the top three rating levels takes months of work.

Stacey Kennedy, the state’s child care quality initiatives director, said via email that she expects more providers to earn ratings of Level 2 or higher “as the system matures and market drivers, such as parent demand for quality, also increase.”

But Hibbard cautions that relying on parents to drive demand for quality— one of the original goals of quality rating systems nationwide — is still far from reality.

“It’s a lovely little idea,” she said, but doesn’t acknowledge that that high quality care is often inaccessible to families because it’s too pricey or far away.

“Really the role that (quality rating and improvement systems are) playing in many states now is defining a quality framework around which the state can organize its resources,” she said.

Not interested

Providers decide to stick with Level 1 ratings for many reasons. Some private programs have long waiting lists and will be packed no matter their rating.

“They, from their perspective, really don’t need to go through the ratings process and … demonstrate anything,” said Nicole Riehl, director of programs and development at Denver’s Early Childhood Council.

Other providers fear the rating won’t accurately reflect their quality or worry about the time and expense involved. Beardsley, who believes most visitors would guess her school is a Level 5, falls into that category. One of her concerns is that Colorado Shines criteria don’t always accommodate approaches like Montessori, where class size or other features may be different from mainstream programs.

“I think they’re looking at (quality) through very limited lenses,” she said.

(The Colorado Shines database shows that a number of Montessori preschools in the state have achieved Level 3 and 4 ratings.)

A study underway of Colorado Shines by the nonprofit research group Child Trends included an invitation earlier this month to Montessori providers to give their feedback. Study results are due out this summer and will help guide improvements to the rating system, state officials said.

Providers who speak a language other than English make up another group that stays at Level 1, Riehl said. While there have been efforts to translate some Colorado Shines materials into Spanish or give Spanish-speaking providers alternative routes to higher ratings, challenges remain.

They’re “not going to have equitable access to the materials and the (online) platform,” Riehl said.

Giving it a try

Hiwet Ogbazion, who runs a licensed child care program out of her home in Denver’s Montbello neighborhood, was initially unsure about the rating system. She recalled attending a meeting about Colorado Shines a couple years ago and hearing other providers, say, ‘“No, we don’t need to join this. We don’t need to do this.”

Ogbazion, a former middle school teacher in the east African country of Eritrea, was confused. She called Denver’s Early Childhood Council the next day and a staff member explained the system’s process and benefits.

She took a number of online trainings available through Colorado Shines and earned her Level 2 rating in 2016.

“They really helped me in order to improve myself and (understand) how to work in the daycare…how to interact with the kids,” she said.

Ogbazion, who someday hopes to open a child care center, said the higher rating allowed her to get a grant that helped buy a slide and water table for her yard, and blocks and music CDs for inside the house.

Worth their while

While many parents make child care decisions based on cost, or proximity to their home or job, some providers worry low ratings could eventually affect enrollment.

Beardsley, of Mapleton Montessori, said she’s never had a parent ask about her Colorado Shines rating, but has no way of knowing if anyone’s steered clear after looking it up online.

While top ratings may help attract families, programs have a variety of other incentives for earning higher ratings. These include special quality improvement grants, and for providers with one of the top three ratings, higher reimbursement rates for serving low-income kids who qualify for state child care subsidies.

Advocates say getting providers to go for higher ratings can also provide valuable data to organizations that provide training and support.

Staff at Denver’s Early Childhood Council realized that many providers were scoring low in the business administration category as they sought higher ratings, Riehl said. The council subsequently developed a six-session training on basic financial practices. The first group enrolled in that course recently finished.

Riehl recounted how one provider said, “For the first time ever I have a budget and I know how much money I made from enrollment.”