Q&A

Denver’s citywide effort to help poor children read better — explained

PHOTO: Lisa Roy
Lisa Roy, Denver Public Schools' new executive director of early childhood, started in October

Lisa Roy became Denver Public Schools’ executive director of early education — a newly created position — in October.

She’ll play a key role in launching the “Birth to Eight Roadmap,” a community effort aimed at improving literacy outcomes among young children living in areas of concentrated poverty in Denver.

Before coming to DPS, Roy was executive director of the Denver-based Timothy and Bernadette Marquez Foundation and did consulting for Grantmakers for Education, a national network of education grant-makers. She’s also worked for two other Denver-based foundations: the Piton Foundation and the Daniels Fund.

We sat down with Roy this week to discuss her background, her new position and the road map’s recommendations.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What was your own early childhood experience like?
My great-grandfather was the superintendent of schools for Frederick County, Maryland, and he built one of the first high schools for African-American kids. So he was what was called the Superintendent of Colored Schools at the turn of the last century.

My grandmother and all of her siblings were teachers, and so my early childhood experience was actually my grandmother. She was a stay-at-home grandmom and took care of me and my cousins and siblings and we got a great experience. Of course, there was the ruler when I mispronounced words — a little slap on the hand — and I had to do my little rhyming before I could eat lunch or breakfast.

What was it like when your school was integrated when you were in kindergarten?
I didn’t really think about it. I had seen white kids on television and in the supermarket. I don’t think that part was as shocking. As I got older, it was a little different because I realized I was invisible. Obviously, I tested well and was put in an advanced track. It was myself and one other schoolmate that went through this advanced track together until we graduated from elementary school.

For me growing up, there was also this dissonance around if you were doing well in school somehow that meant you were trying to assimilate as opposed to this was my family background. I didn’t know how else to be.

What is the Birth to Eight Roadmap?
It’s a partnership between the City and County of Denver, Denver Public Schools and a myriad of nonprofit partners to provide supports and services around language and literacy from birth to third grade.

We have 11 different recommendations — from having an early opportunity system which ensures that kids have the developmental screenings they need and are provided the services to keep them at grade level, to hubs, which could be community-based or school-based opportunities to provide supports and services to families.

Has Denver Public Schools done anything like this before?
No, not like this. DPS and the city did work hand-in-hand with then-Mayor (John) Hickenlooper on the first Denver Preschool Program ballot initiative (which provides preschool tuition assistance for Denver 4-year-olds through a city sales tax ), but it was a very discrete ballot initiative. It wasn’t meant to solve every issue around birth to age 8. It was 4-year-olds only.

This has never been done before because it’s crossing the boundaries of what DPS is responsible for and what the community and parents are responsible for. It’s this opportunity to collaborate with parents, collaborate with nonprofit programs and child care centers, collaborate even within the district, across departments.

What is the goal of the Birth to Eight Roadmap?
The ultimate goal is that kids are reading proficiently and above by third grade.

We understand that when kids get to kindergarten it’s too late. About 38% of our children have no formal pre-K experience. We want to ensure our teachers are able to individualize according to where kids are, and their backgrounds and experiences … but also to try to the raise the percentage of kids who have some type of exposure (to early learning).

Not all parents are going to pick formal pre-K. But some of them might be willing to do a play-and-learn group or join the family literacy program or do Parents as Teachers or Home Instruction for Parents and Preschool Youngsters. We want to provide more opportunities like that with the collaboration.

What will the resource hubs will entail?
One example that we have in Denver Public Schools already is College View Academy, which has everything from play-and-learn groups to English as a Second Language and GED (classes) for parents. They even have opportunities for parents who are interested in going into the teaching profession to start off as a paraprofessional.

Again, this underlying theme around language and literacy is there throughout the building— with other supports that families need to succeed. Keep in mind that every neighborhood looks different.

How many hubs will there be and where?
We’re hoping to launch five, but keep in mind these are not hubs from scratch. These are hubs that have a lot of comprehensive services (now).

Right now, we have College View Academy, Place Bridge Academy, a school for immigrants and refugees; Florence Crittenton High School, a school for pregnant and parenting teens; and Focus Points Family Resource Center, near Swansea Elementary.

What do you see as the biggest challenge in implementing the Roadmap recommendations?
Well, it could be like herding cats. When you’re dealing with a lot of different people that have to raise their own funding, that are in various communities … it makes an interesting avenue to launch this kind of work.

What’s the timeline for the Roadmap?
Some of these things will be going to go on into perpetuity I would hope. But for the next three to four years we’re going to intensively look at three different phases. By the end of four years, it will really take shape, in a way you can say, “Yes, that’s the result of the Birth to Eight Roadmap.”

Enter to win

Denver organization to launch national prize for early childhood innovation

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

A Denver-based investment group will soon launch a national contest meant to help scale up great ideas in the early childhood field — specifically efforts focused on children birth to 3 years old.

Gary Community Investments announced its Early Childhood Innovation Prize on Wednesday morning at a conference in San Francisco. It’s sort of like the television show “Shark Tank,” but without the TV cameras, celebrity judges and nail-biting live pitch.

The contest will divvy up $1 million in prize money to at least three winners, one at the beginning stages of concept development, one at a mid-level stage and one at an advanced stage. Gary officials say there could be more than one winner in each category.

The contest will officially launch Oct. 25, with submissions due Feb. 15 and winners announced in May. (Gary Community Investments, through the Piton Foundation, is a Chalkbeat funder.)

Officials at Gary Community Investments, founded by oilman Sam Gary, say the contest will help the organization focus on finding solutions that address trouble spots in the early childhood arena.

The birth-to-3 zone is one such spot. While it’s an especially critical time for children because of the amount of brain development that occurs during that time, it’s often overshadowed by efforts targeting 4- or 5-year-olds.

Steffanie Clothier, Gary’s child development investment director, said leaders there decided on a monetary challenge after talking with a number of other organizations that offer prizes for innovative ideas or projects.

One foundation they consulted described lackluster responses to routine grant programs, but lots of enthusiasm for contests with financial stakes, she said.

“There’s some galvanizing opportunity to a prize,” she said.

But Gary’s new prize isn’t solely about giving away money to create or expand promising programs. It will also include an online networking platform meant to connect applicants with mentors, partners or investors.

“We’re trying to figure out how to make it not just about the winners,” Clothier said.

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Public investment

This Colorado ski town had an early childhood education crisis. Here’s what local leaders did about it.

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

Greta Shackelford moved to Breckenridge 13 years ago on a whim. She was young and single at the time — a Virginia native enjoying life in a Colorado ski town.

Today, Shackelford is married with two young children and heads a local child care center called Little Red Schoolhouse. She’s also one beneficiary of Breckenridge’s decision a decade ago to pump hundreds of thousands of dollars annually into the town’s child care industry.

Back in 2007, she got a substantial raise when town officials boosted salaries for local child care teachers by 30 percent and today, she and her husband, a general contractor, get help covering preschool costs for their 3-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter. In addition, because the town helped pay off some centers’ mortgages, there’s a financial cushion in case the boiler breaks or the roof leaks at Little Red Schoolhouse.

The effort in Breckenridge is among a growing number of initiatives across the state that use public money — usually gleaned from local property tax or sales tax — to improve child care and preschool options. Beyond helping prepare young children for school, these initiatives can be a vital cog in the local economy, keeping parents in the workforce and businesses adequately staffed.

And more could be coming soon. Leaders in San Miguel County, where Telluride is the county seat, are gearing up for a November ballot initiative that would help expand child care facilities and boost teacher pay. In Estes Park, advocates are just beginning a process to determine the town’s child care needs and explore funding options.

“It’s because some child care deserts are seemingly insurmountable and entrenched that local leaders in early childhood are looking at all possibilities,” said Liz Houston, executive director of the Early Childhood Council Leadership Alliance.

Experts say local efforts can be a heavy lift for community leaders charged with galvanizing support for tax hikes or other publicly funded proposals. But when successful, they provide much-needed stability to an industry plagued by low pay, high turnover, a shortage of slots and wide variations in quality.

Leaders in Breckenridge say child care is just as critical as plowing snow.

“Just like we need to plow our roads so people can get to our ski area, … this is just as important,” said Jennifer McAtamney, the town’s child care program administrator. “If we lose our workforce, it’s a huge problem.”

Some early childhood leaders hope these locally-funded projects can serve as a stepping stone to more ambitious statewide efforts in the future. (The state already runs programs that provide half-day preschool to at-risk children and child care subsidies for low-income families, but demand far outstrips supply.)

“Support for early childhood education is probably going to be built community by community by community until there is enough of a groundswell for it to be something that is statewide or nationwide,” said Jennifer Landrum, president and CEO of the Denver Preschool Program.

Like in Breckenridge, government funded early childhood initiatives have existed for years in Denver, Aspen, Boulder County and Summit County. A couple others — in Dolores and Elbert counties — have launched more recently, according to a list maintained by the business group Executives Partnering to Invest in Children, or EPIC.

One of the factors that unites communities that have taken on locally funded early childhood initiatives is a sense that things were at or near a crisis point. In Colorado’s resort towns, where many describe the cost of housing and other basics as astronomical, this is especially true.

Early childhood advocates in these communities can rattle off numbers that illustrate just how hard it is to find quality child care: waitlists that run into the hundreds, towns with few or no licensed slots for babies, centers that can’t find child care workers to staff their classrooms.

Shackelford, the director of Little Red Schoolhouse in Breckenridge, said the town’s effort, which includes another cash infusion to boost salaries in 2018, has reduced employee churn. Her own experience is a case in point.

Without the town’s financial help — with both child care and housing — “we would never have been able to afford to stay in Breckenridge,” she said. “It makes it, not cheap, but manageable.”

Gloria Higgins, president of EPIC, expects the number of municipalities that take on locally funded early childhood efforts to go up over the next decade.

By then, she said, “those communities in the most distress will probably have something and those are the mountain resort communities … They’re going to lead.”

But she also expects cities like Pueblo and some in the Denver suburbs to hop on board, too.

Higgins is an enthusiastic evangelist for such efforts. They fit well with Colorado’s local control ethos and can be tailored to each community’s needs. Still, she cautions those interested that it takes about four years of planning to get the job done.

“It’s a big deal to get the taxpayer to say yes,” she said.

While voters are often called on to approve dedicated sales tax or property tax hikes, some communities have earmarked public money for early childhood in other ways.

In Breckenridge, for example, the town council initially allocated money for its early childhood program from the general fund, a move that didn’t require voter approval. Six years in, the town did ask voters for a property tax increase to support the program, but the measure failed.

The council subsequently decided to continue funding the effort as before.

In Elbert County, a partnership between early childhood leaders and county human services officials led to a special grant program that pays for preschool scholarships for low-income children stuck on the waitlist for state-funded slots.

Cathryn Reiber, coordinator of the Elbert County Early Childhood Council, said that in an ultra-conservative community where new tax increases would never pass, the county partnership has been a great solution.

Landrum, who heads the Denver Preschool Program, said it’s also important to win backing from the business community. After two defeats at the ballot box in the early 2000s, business leaders helped shape and endorse sales tax measures to fund the program in 2006 and in 2014.

In addition to providing preschool tuition assistance for the city’s 4-year-olds, the Denver Preschool Program provides training, coaching and materials for child care providers.

In some communities, funding for early childhood services is one piece of a broader package. In 2010 when the Great Recession was in full swing, Boulder County officials asked voters to approve a five-year property tax hike billed as a temporary safety net measure that would help families afford food, shelter and child care.

Voters said yes, and when officials came back to them in 2014 for a similar 15-year measure, they said yes again. The second time around, the campaign was called “Neighbors Helping Neighbors,” drawing on the community camaraderie that developed after the 2013 floods, said Bobbie Watson, executive director of the Early Childhood Council of Boulder County.

“You have to frame it so your community will bite,” she said.