Funding gap

Families scramble as highly regarded Clayton Early Learning closes center, limits program eligibility

A preschooler builds a toy robot at Clayton Early Learning (Photo by Ann Schimke)

Clayton Early Learning, which has gained national attention for providing quality early childhood education to low-income families, will close its center in far northeast Denver and limit enrollment at its flagship school to families who receive federal assistance through Head Start.

The changes mean that about 30 tuition-paying families and a dozen families who rely on a state child care subsidy will need to find other options by Aug. 18, officials said.

Clayton first began operations in Denver in the 1980s, and began receiving Head Start and Early Head Start federal funding to serve low-income communities the next decade. At the invitation of private investors, the nonprofit opened its second location on a campus with multiple schools in the far northeast Green Valley Ranch neighborhood at the start of 2013.

“We felt like it was going to be another very strategic location, and that we could make very visible what high-quality learning and care looks like for all children,” said Charlotte Brantley, the Clayton president and CEO.

Brantley said Clayton’s public and private funding did not cover the cost of its operations when the program first expanded to its second school, but hoped more public funds would become available over time to help the program succeed.

The funding gap did not close significantly, she said, and last week Clayton’s board of trustees voted to close the Green Valley Ranch center, and for tuition-paying families and families receiving state Child Care Assistance Program subsidies at both locations. Clayton will continue to operate for families enrolled in Head Start and Early Head Start at its original school, at 3751 Martin Luther King Boulevard in northeast Denver.

The changes will affect a handful of tuition-paying families and nearly a dozen families receiving the state subsidy at the Green Valley Ranch campus, and will affect 29 tuition-paying families at the flagship center.

Head Start and Early Head Start families at the Green Valley Ranch school will have the option to enroll at Clayton’s original school, or enroll in Clayton’s home-based program where instructors work with the child in their home a few times a month, Brantley said.

Amber D’Angelo Na, whose three-and-a-half year old son is enrolled at Clayton’s flagship campus and three-month-old is on the waitlist, said she was informed of the changes Wednesday by her child-family educator, who is a designated liaison between Clayton and its families. Na, a tuition-paying parent, said she was “completely blindsided” by the news.

“Of course we would have been open (to paying more) if they said, ‘We’re struggling and raising tuition,’” she said. “We would’ve expected that.”

Brantley said the board considered raising tuition, but said “very few parents … could afford the full cost” of Clayton’s comprehensive programming. Clayton, which offers care for infants starting at six weeks of age, provides extensive staff training, in-depth assistance for parents and has very low staff-child ratios.

Keith Valentine, also a tuition-paying parent of two children, said he heard “through the rumor mill” that his children would no longer have access to Clayton’s services. With six weeks’ notice, both Valentine and Na said it will be near-impossible to find comparable early childhood care.

“I’ve never, ever expected my two sons to get an ounce more than anybody else,” Valentine said. “I come from Clayton’s target community (and) my wife is a refugee from Ethiopia. Struggling is nothing new to us. All I’ve ever wanted was equal treatment and to have my kids be able to have the same access to the quality that Clayton provides.”

Brantley said Clayton was “upset” to part ways with the families, especially some whose children had been involved with Clayton for several years.

Down the line, Brantley said she hopes that the program will be able to reopen to families who rely on the state subsidies or pay tuition — if Clayton can seek the additional funds it needs to reestablish those spots.

“We very intentionally decided to have mixed income kids in our classrooms,” she said. “We firmly believe that we shouldn’t be segregating children based on incomes … so there’s a lot of this that we are not happy about, either. But it was becoming an untenable situation.”

Many of the 27 staff members at the Clayton center closing in far northeast will get a chance to move to the flagship center, Brantley said. She said Clayton has held off on filling 21 openings at that campus to give the affected staff members a chance to say they’d like to move there.

(Very) early education

Helping expectant and new mothers can lead to health and education gains for children, new paper says

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
A toddler at Loveland's Teaching Tree Early Childhood Learning Center, draws on an outline of his foot.

A new paper released Monday identifies health and educational benefits for children whose mothers participated in a home visitation program that provides medical assistance and early childhood development.

The Nurse-Family Partnership program begins in prenatal stages and ends when the child turns 2. The program offers care to disadvantaged, first-time and single mothers. Registered nurses visit the women’s homes and assist both with medical needs and early education.

University of Chicago Professor James Heckman, in tandem with four other professors and researchers at major American universities, analyzed a Nurse-Family Partnership program in Memphis, Tennessee. The paper concludes, among other things, that Nurse-Family Partnership programs improve cognitive skills for babies of both genders by age 6, and specifically social and emotional skills for girls. At age 12, males whose mothers were involved in Nurse-Family Partnership program perform better academically.

It is very important to provide a strong start early in life,” said Maria Rosales-Rueda, a professor at the University of California, Irvine and one of the paper’s authors. “We have seen several research children arrive to school already with big gaps between low socioeconomic status and high socioeconomic status. Programs like Nurse-Family Partnership target low income very disadvantaged families, first-time mothers, sometimes teenagers, by helping them to invest in their children.”

Nurse-Family Partnership receives federal funding from the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program. The funding expires Sept. 30. If Congress does not reauthorize the program, Nurse-Family Partnership and other early childhood programs could lose crucial federal dollars, said Fran Benton, a spokesman for the program’s national office.

Rosales-Rueda said she hopes the paper will help raise awareness about the effectiveness of Nurse-Family Partnership.

Currently, its programs are widely available in Colorado, according to Michelle Neal, director of the program at the Denver-based organization Invest in Kids. While federal funding makes up a smaller portion of Nurse-Family Partnership’s revenue, Neal said if the federal funding is not reauthorized, Colorado’s program could be in jeopardy.

“In Colorado at least we have great support for the program in that we’re available in all 64 counties,” she said. “A (paper) like this can have an impact on our advocacy to have the federal funding be reauthorized because that’s up in the air. We need that funding to continue flowing after October 1.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated when federal funding for the Nurse-Family Partnership expires.

building blocks

Why a Colorado researcher believes preschool students should learn — and play — with math

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

What do preschoolers need math for? Doug Clements argues preschoolers use math everywhere from reading to play — and engaging early mathematics instruction can help better prepare young students for later learning.

Clements, the executive director of the University of Denver’s Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy, has spent nearly his entire career studying and advocating for introducing math concepts in early childhood education. He and his wife Julie Sarama, Marsico’s co-executive director, developed preschool lessons and tests for teaching mathematics to early learners. Their hallmark program, Building Blocks, has taken hold in cities such as Boston and Buffalo, N.Y., where both Clements and Sarama have conducted research.

Clements took the helm at Marsico in 2013, where he and Sarama have worked on a new iteration of their math-focused early childhood curriculum that incorporates literacy, social-emotional learning and science.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Clements shared memories from the classroom and the benefits — and fun — of teaching math concepts to preschoolers. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How did you become fascinated with early math education?

I served as a graduate assistant to a math (education) professor because I liked math as a student myself. We drove a big van around with 1960s curriculum from National Science Foundation and showed teachers this stuff.

When I started teaching kindergarten I was very sensitive to the fact that I wanted to do mathematics better, so I was always casting about for curriculum or ideas to teach mathematics. I was just skeptical these kids could do it, so I was hesitant many times to ask them to do these kinds of things. But lo and behold, they took to it. It surprised me. If you talk to (kids) about their strategies and what they’re thinking about the mathematics, it just reveals so much more competence than you’d normally think that really young kids had.

I just became more and more interested in pushing the  envelope of these kind of abilities kids had mathematically. Teachers often will say, “I got into preschool so I didn’t have to teach mathematics.” And instead we tell them, “We don’t want you to give kids the kind of experiences that led you to dislike mathematics.”

Do you have a specific examples or story of a time where you saw the benefits of early math instruction in action?

We were reading a book and the (students) noticed the hexagons in a beehive, and they came up with all these different reasons that bees would make hexagons. The kids had a delightful time thinking of different reasons. For example, one of the reasons was the bees saw the hexagons in the school and thought, “That’s a great shape. We should use that in our beehive.” And this boy happened to say, “I think they chose hexagons because they fit together real well.”

The kind of natural interest and competence they have in mathematics — if given the opportunities, the interactions with the teachers, the intentional teaching that the teacher does — leads to spontaneous use of mathematics throughout their lives.

We know from research kids who come from lower-resource communities don’t have a heck of a lot of those experiences so it’s really important that those schools we are working with, with kids with huge percentages of free and reduced lunch. All kids need better and more mathematics. It’s especially important for equity reasons, for those kids who have fewer resources in their homes and communities, to be able to go to a preschool where their kind of fire of interest in mathematics is provided by the teacher and the curriculum.

What are some of the key findings you have drawn from your research on the link between early math and early literacy?

Doing math with kids actually helps them build the ability to learn and use new vocabulary words even if those vocabulary words were not mathematical in content. They have to dig down deep to explain their own thinking and that really helped them build more complex grammatical structures, and that’s an outcome of the mathematics. And then they were more able to answer inferential questions.

Well-done mathematics doesn’t just teach mathematics, it’s cognitively fundamental and helps kids learn a variety of abilities.

How are these concepts integrated in the classroom?

What’s most effective is to combine methodologies. We don’t just do whole group, we don’t just do small group, we don’t just do learning centers, we don’t just do computer — we do all four of those. We keep it short, interesting. So, for example, kids will stomp around classroom marching and (counting alternately quietly and loudly).

What does it do? It builds, of course, the verbal counting strength. But look at what else — it builds the knowledge of one-to-one correspondence because they’re stamping per each count. Not only that, it builds intuition about pattern because we’re saying one quietly, two loudly. And then lastly they’re building intuition about even and odd numbers, because all the odd numbers are said quietly, all the even numbers are said loudly.

So you don’t have to do, sit down, look at the paper, write the number two, to be doing fundamentally interesting mathematics.

How many preschools are actually integrating early math concepts into their programs the way you think it should be done? Is there anything holding back programs from doing so?

Most people understand that the goal of literacy is to be able to read and write and think, but often people think the goal of math is to be able to compute accurately. That’s such a limited view of mathematical thinking writ large. So we have a lot of work to do to change people’s conception of mathematics as well as their skills in understanding the math, understanding the kid’s thinking and understanding how to teach to develop that kid’s thinking.

But it is coming along — there is more general knowledge and awareness at least, interest in it, and — this is important in early childhood the youngest years, the preschool years — less resistance to doing mathematics (because of the perception) that it’s developmentally inappropriate which it’s not. But still, in some circles (they say), “Kids should play, kids should be kids. Why would they do math? That should wait until later. Math is just school, boring stuff, and kids should be kids and play.”