crunching numbers

Full-day kindergarten among possible budget cuts in Aurora

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Kindergarteners in Aurora’s Kenton Elementary spent an afternoon last week playing math games. Some kids built towers that had to be exactly 20 blocks high. One boy played a game on a laptop doing simple addition. Across the room, the teacher sat with a girl who was counting blocks aloud and practicing writing.

More than halfway through the year, the four and five-year-olds are able to recognize numbers through 50 or even through 100, Kenton officials said.

Now, as Aurora Public Schools searches for ways to cut its 2017-18 budget, free full-day kindergarten like Kenton’s is among one of scores of programs that could fall victim.

“It’s a concern for all of us,” said Heather Woodward, Kenton Elementary’s principal.

Scaling full-day kindergarten back to a half day was one scenario district officials floated when asking for community input on what to prioritize. District officials have said they are not ready to take anything off the table in trying to trim next year’s budget by an estimated $31 million.

Exact cuts will depend on state funding, which won’t be finalized until later this spring, and on how much the district can save through administrative changes like negotiating different health plans for employees. Patti Moon, a district spokeswoman, said cuts could still be presented later this spring.

Earlier this year, the district presented more than 40 budget-cutting ideas at public meetings and through a request for online feedback. The ideas included adding furlough days, cutting middle school sports and changing school schedules. Changing kindergarten to half-day would save the district an estimated $4.9 million.

But the idea got significant pushback. One of the common messages from those who provided the district feedback asked to avoid cutting full-day kindergarten.

“Our Kindergarten students are required to learn a large amount of information by the end of the year,” one response stated. “It’s very hard to get these students to where they are required to be even with a full day of instruction. Taking away a half day of instruction would be a huge injustice to these students.”

The first known budget cut in Aurora will likely come from a decrease in school staff by increasing the ratio of students to staff. Superintendent Rico Munn is scheduled to ask the Aurora school board Tuesday night for guidance on how much to increase the ratios per school.

A final staffing recommendation will be part of the draft budget presented in April.

In Aurora schools, kindergarteners get a daily math lesson in addition to at least an hour of reading or writing, a period of language development and 50 minutes of either art, music, technology or physical education.

Judith Padilla, a mother of three children in Aurora, is adamantly opposed to cutting full-day kindergarten.

“There would be a tremendous impact for parents who have to work,” Padilla said. “For my son it was a great benefit to be in kindergarten a full day so he could develop. He had some learning problems and some language problems and he had special classes to help him learn things like holding a pencil. Now they say he is at his level.”

Woodward, the Kenton principal, said making sure kids leave kindergarten on track to reading by third grade, and to be proficient in English so that they can learn in all their classes, are two major goals for educators.

For kids who leave kindergarten already behind, “we know there’s going to be a continual gap moving forward,” she said.

Bruce Atchison, director of early learning instruction for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, said his team is doing research on how to get more children to reading proficiency at the end of third grade. Having high-quality full-day kindergarten emerged as one of six policies considered effective for reaching that goal.

“It’s probably the most significant issue for education policy makers,” Atchison said. “Policy makers are typically aware of the abysmal reading proficiency rates across the country. It’s 41 percent of low-income children still are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade. That’s a huge issue.”

In Aurora, 45 percent of kindergarteners are English language learners, and 70 percent or kindergarteners qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a common measure of poverty.

According to 2016 state data, 18.6 percent of Aurora third graders met or exceeded expectations on reading tests compared to 37.4 percent of third graders across Colorado.

In Colorado, the state only pays districts for about a half-day of kindergarten. Districts can choose to pay for the rest, or offer it to families for a fee. In Aurora, the district made full-day kindergarten free for all students after voters approved an increase in taxes in 2008.

Patrick Hogarty, an Aurora teacher and elected delegate for the Colorado Education Association, said even at higher grade levels, teachers are concerned about the lasting impact the kindergarten cuts would have.

“It would be basically catastrophic due to the learning these children need to have,” Hogarty said. “It’s sometimes almost impossible for students to catch up to as they progress through the levels of education.”

In the last few years, districts in Colorado and across the country have moved to add full-day kindergarten programs.

In 2007, about 40 percent of Colorado kids enrolled in full-day kindergarten, according to Atchison. That percentage is now up to 77 percent.

“Districts, principals, education leaders are seeing the advantages of full-day kindergarten,” Atchison said.

The challenge for those that haven’t added the programs is usually the money.

“You are hard-pressed to find policy makers who don’t want full-day programs,” Atchison said. “They understand that children benefit from full day kindergarten programs, but it really comes down to the funding issues.”

All over the map

What do children need to know when they start kindergarten? You might be surprised.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

How many letters should kids recognize when they enter kindergarten? Should they be able to cut with scissors? How long should they be able to sit still?

Such basic questions seem like they should come with clear-cut answers, but parents and teachers — and even Colorado state standards — differ widely in their expectations for entering kindergarteners

Early childhood leaders in Larimer County discovered just how much variation exists after they surveyed 800 local parents, preschool teachers and kindergarten teachers in 2015.

“The answers were all over the map,” said Bev Thurber, executive director of the Early Childhood Council of Larimer County. “A lot of times it was way above what research says is developmentally appropriate.”

Such findings spotlight the lack of consensus about what it means to be ready for kindergarten. The survey found parents and preschool teachers generally had higher expectations for youngsters than kindergarten teachers or state standards, suggesting that some parents and preschool teachers may be focusing too much energy on teaching academic skills to young children.

“Our concern is not only do you have this variability, but also this pressure on the academic side … when that’s really not the most important thing, especially at this young age,” said Thurber.

To help parents sort it all out, Thurber and a team of early childhood teachers and advocates created a new eight-page parent guide called “Ready Set Kindergarten.” Available in English and Spanish, the whimsically illustrated booklet gives parents tips for building academic and social-emotional skills — things like simple counting, recognizing the letters in a child’s name, naming feelings and taking turns. It also includes a month-by-month schedule for the pre-kindergarten year highlighting logistical details like registration windows and meet-the-teacher opportunities.

All three Larimer County school districts, — Poudre, Thompson and Estes Park — have agreed to use the guide, which is being distributed through preschools, elementary schools, doctors’ offices and libraries.

But some experts say too much emphasis on getting children ready for kindergarten relieves schools of their obligation to serve students regardless of their background or experience.

“It’s critical for schools to take responsibility for being ready for children – not the other way around,” said Sherry Cleary, executive director of the New York Early Childhood Professional Development Institute at the City University of New York.

Cleary reviewed the guide and worried that it would create unneeded stress for families and set up teachers to have unrealistic expectations for kids.

Thurber said many teachers and parents already have unrealistic expectations for entering kindergarteners, according to survey results. The guide scales those back, she said, and offers a more reasonable list of activities that are based on state standards and Colorado’s early learning and development guidelines.

“This is what experts have said is developmentally appropriate,” Thurber said.

“I completely buy in that schools have to meet kids where they are at,” she said. ”However, within that, there is a certain anxiety among families when you have all these differing expectations.”

Karen Rattenborg, executive director of the Colorado State University Early Childhood Center and an assistant professor at the university, saw the disparity in expectations when she analyzed the survey data.

Take letters, for example. State standards say kids should recognize at least 10 letters when they start kindergarten, specifically the letters in their name. Survey results showed most parents and preschool teachers believed entering kindergarteners should recognize more than 20 letters. Kindergarten teachers opted for a lower 11-20 range.

The same dynamic held true for counting — about half of parents and preschool teachers thought kids should be able to count higher than 20 while state standards say 10 is enough.

In some cases, both preschool and kindergarten teachers placed a high value on tasks that state standards and other common benchmarks don’t mention. Both groups rated cutting with scissors as the second most important fine motor skill for entering kindergarteners, but state standards and the state’s early learning guidelines are silent about scissors.

“It’s things like that where we had these a-ha moments,” said Rattenborg.

In some cases, there was agreement. For instance, the vast majority of both preschool and kindergarten teachers said the ability to communicate needs and wants was the top communication skill kindergarteners need.

Rattenborg said the diversity of views made one thing clear.

“We realized having a common guide throughout Larimer County would be helpful for virtually everyone involved,” she said.

Diane Umbreit, a kindergarten teacher at Kruse Elementary School in Fort Collins and a member of the committee that conceived the guide, agreed.

Over the years, she’s seen plenty of confusion and anxiety among parents. Some push their kids hard to acquire new skills before kindergarten. Some want to do learning activities with their children, but aren’t sure where to start.

Others, she said, are “shocked that their child needs to know the letters in his name.”

Umbreit said of the new kindergarten guide, “Hopefully, it evens the playing field.”

Alliance

Memphis just gained an important ally in its legal battle with Tennessee over school funding

PHOTO: MNPS
The board for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools voted Tuesday to become a co-plaintiff in Shelby County Schools' funding lawsuit against the state of Tennessee.

For more than two years, a funding lawsuit by Memphis school leaders has been winding through the state’s legal system.

Now, as the litigation inches closer to a court date next year, Shelby County Schools has gained a powerful ally in its battle with Tennessee over the adequacy of funding for its schools and students.

The board for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools voted unanimously Tuesday to become a co-plaintiff in the case.

The decision ends almost three years of talk from Nashville about going to court.

In 2015 at the urging of then-director Jesse Register, the district’s board opted for conversation over litigation with Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration about how to improve education funding in Tennessee.

But Register moved on, and the board’s dissatisfaction grew as the percentage of state funding for the district’s budget shrank. Adding to their frustration, Haslam backed off last year from an enhanced funding formula approved in 2007 during the administration of his predecessor, Phil Bredesen.

“We’ve just come to grips with the harsh reality that we are a chronically underfunded school system,” said Will Pinkston, a board member who has urged legal action.

Nashville’s decision is welcome news for Memphis. A statement Wednesday from the state’s largest district called the lawsuit “the most important civil rights litigation in Tennessee in the last 30 years.”

“When you have the two largest school districts in Tennessee on the same side, I think it’s very powerful,” added former board chairman Chris Caldwell, who has championed the lawsuit in behalf of Shelby County Schools.

Both boards are working with Tennessee-based Baker Donelson, one of the South’s largest and oldest law firms. It has offices in both cities.

“We believe that our original case had a strong message about the inadequacy of education funding in Tennessee,” said Lori Patterson, lead attorney in the case from Memphis. “We believe that having the second largest district in the state join the suit and make the same claims only makes the message stronger.”

PHOTO: TN.Gov
Gov. Bill Haslam

Haslam’s administration declined to comment Wednesday about the new development, but has stood by Tennessee’s funding model. In a 2016 response to the Shelby County lawsuit, the state said its formula known as the Basic Education Plan, or BEP, provides adequate funding under state law.

But Shelby County, in its 2015 suit, argues that not only does the state not adequately fund K-12 schools, it doesn’t fully fund its own formula. And the formula, it charges, “fails to take into account the actual costs of funding an education,” especially for the many poor students in Memphis. To provide an adequate education, the lawsuit says the district needs more resources to pay for everything from math and reading tutors to guidance counselors and social workers.

States often get sued over funding for schools — and frequently lose those cases. In Tennessee, state courts heard three such cases from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, siding with local districts every time. Those suits keyed in on built-in inequities in the state’s funding formula that cause some districts to get more money than others.

This time, the argument is about adequacy. What is the true cost of educating today’s students, especially in the shift to more rigorous academic standards?

Tennessee is also the defendant in a separate funding lawsuit filed in 2015 by seven southeast Tennessee school districts including Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga.

Pinkston said Nashville opted to join the Memphis suit because its arguments are most applicable to the state’s second largest district. “Our student populations are very similar in terms of high socioeconomic needs,” he said.