Starting early

Homework for preschoolers? Aurora parents make the case

A group of preschool parents from Aurora Public Schools made a surprising request last spring.

They asked administrators to give their 3- and 4-year-olds homework.

More specifically, they asked for a year-round homework calendar detailing things they should be working on at home with their kids — not hours of pencil-and-paper work, but rather daily activities with an educational twist. They also asked the district’s Colorado Preschool Program Advisory Council to add a section on homework to the parent handbook.

These requests, which district officials have agreed to address, may sound unusual in an age when many parents and educators worry that inappropriate academic work is weaseling its way into kindergarten and preschool.

But they also bring up compelling questions about the definition and value of homework, and how those things should be articulated for both parents and teachers. They also raise the thorny issue of how homework resources will impact children whose parents don’t have the time or ability to work with them at home.

Nevertheless, for Aurora parents active in the recent campaign, homework represents a commonsense approach to helping their children succeed in a district and metro area studded with race- and income-based achievement gaps.

“We’re just looking for simple things,” said Diana Castro, whose 4-year-old daughter Miranda attends the Jamaica Child Development Center. “Most of us, which are minorities, don’t have access to printers and computers, so we don’t really know what to do to help them.”

Getting started

The Aurora parents active in the preschool homework campaign came together through a nonprofit called RISE Colorado. The group, founded in 2012 by two Teach for America alumni and a third co-founder, aims to educate and empower low-income parents and parents of color.

More than 80 percent of Aurora students are minorities, about 70 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, and more than one-third are English language learners. Districtwide, fewer than half of students scored proficient or advanced on state reading tests in 2014.

The preschool parents banded together last fall after RISE held education events at the district’s preschool centers detailing the “opportunity gaps” children would encounter during their educational careers.

As the parents talked together about their biggest concerns, homework quickly rose to the top of the list.

There was no consistency, they agreed. Some teachers didn’t send any assignments or activity suggestions home at all. Others did, but sporadically and they didn’t always tie in to what children were learning at school.

Parent Sipinga Fifita-Nau described getting homework “here and there” last year for her middle child Lisia, who will soon begin her second year at Laredo Child Development Center. Sometimes, the mother of three turned to Pinterest to come up with activities for Lisia.

“With 3- and 4-year-olds you’re educating them about the habit of doing homework,” she said, echoing a sentiment voiced by several parents.

RISE co-CEO Veronica Palmer said while the organization coached parents on how to raise concerns, navigate district bureaucracy and join decision-making bodies, it was parents who spearheaded the homework charge.

Castro, who arrived in the U.S. from Mexico at age 15, said before getting involved in RISE, “I didn’t even think about talking to the principal about these things that I wanted to happen.”

The impact of homework

For older students, the research on homework is mixed, without clear connections to increased achievement. For the youngest learners, there’s little data either way.

In part, it’s a terminology issue. That’s because what some people might call preschool homework — things like counting shapes around the house, thinking of words that start with “A,” or reading books together — others would  call “nurturing,” “playing” or “spending quality time.”

Kyle Snow, director of the Center for Applied Research at the National Association for the Education of Young Children, said “parent engagement” is the best way to think of homework at the preschool level.

“We know that engaging families in children’s learning, helps child development,” he said.

A 2013 report on parent engagement by the National Center for Children in Poverty demonstrated the positive effects of parent-led extracurricular activities. Things like playing alphabet games, telling stories, doing art projects, or visiting the library were associated with improved language, literacy, social, and learning skills in preschoolers. Similarly, parent-child activities like board games, counting, and comparing amounts of items, were associated with preschool math skills.

One potential drawback to these activities when they’re framed as homework is the assumption they makes about parents’ ability to comply. For example, notes or written materials sent home by teachers assume that parents can read proficiently, that they understand the language in which instructions are written, and that they have time to work with children after school.

District spokeswoman Patti Moon said homework calendar activities are meant to be easy and quick for parents to undertake.

Palmer acknowledged that some parents, perhaps some from the district’s large refugee community, may not be able to read the homework calendars, but said they are a resourceful group likely to seek help from friends, neighbors or teachers.

In addition, with some parents already doing enrichment activities on their own, she believes the daily calendars will better equip the parents who weren’t doing much at home.

“To me its closing the gap as opposed to widening it,” she said.

Regardless of what form homework takes, Snow said districts should have homework policies for students at every grade level, including preschool.

“If there’s no policy at all that’s the worst-case scenario for everyone involved,” he said.

While there are no current plans to establish a school board-approved homework policy in Aurora, Moon said by 2016-17, the preschool handbook will include “language about how individual sites support homework.”

Homework in a cultural context

With Aurora students coming from more than 100 countries, it’s no surprise that some RISE parents come to the homework debate with different cultural perspectives.

Kumar and Shova Dahal, who immigrated here from Nepal several years ago and have a 4-year-old daughter at Laredo, talked about the “homework culture” in which they were raised.

“Since childhood we have been bombarded by homework, no matter how small you are,” said Kumar, who is a business development manager at an electronics company.

“That’s how we grew up and we come here, it’s a little bit of a shock,” said Shova.

The Dahals said in addition to homework that aligns with school lessons, they want parents to be held accountable for ensuring it gets done—perhaps by having teachers check off the work each day.

Snow said both parents and teachers should be accountable to each other, but how that looks will depend on continuing conversations in the district.

“Homework is a product of the relationship between the school and the family,” he said. “This all has to be driven by a dialogue about what the relationship should look like.”

The response

School and district administrators say they are happy to work with parents on the homework issue and have them as members of the Colorado Preschool Program Advisory Committee.

Laredo’s principal, Cynthia Andrews, said that when parents asked to meet with her in the spring she wasn’t expecting homework to be their focus, but she’s glad they brought it up.

“I love that they came to me,” she said. “I knew it was important and knew … I wanted to start engaging parents more in those conversations.”

She quickly convened a homework committee of about 10 staff members and is working with parents to develop a “homework brochure” that will describe what form preschool homework will take and what research recommends.

“We wanted it to be the right kind of homework, the things that are developmentally appropriate for 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds.”

Andrews knows that some parents might not feel it’s rigorous enough.

“Even when we say this is our idea of homework, I’m not sure it will match their idea,” she said. “I’m interested in seeing how it all plays out.”

For now, the RISE parents are pleased with the results of their efforts. They say the summer homework calendar, published in both English and Spanish, and the eventual handbook language on homework represent a good start.

Perhaps even better was the reception they got from district staff—a bit hesitant at first, but ultimately receptive.

“They heard us. That’s the main thing,” said Shova Dahal. “They are really respectful of what we want for our kids.”

 

A new responsibility

In first for Aurora, charter school to run center for special education students

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

When Rocky Mountain Prep replaces Fletcher Community School in Aurora, the charter school will become the first in the district to operate a center for students with special needs.

As a district-run school, Fletcher for years has operated a regional program for students with autism. After the district decided last year to phase out the low-performing school and replace it with a charter school, conversations began about the fate of the program.

“From the beginning we’ve been really open and consistently stated that we would be excited to take it on if that’s what the district felt was best,” said James Cryan, CEO of Rocky Mountain Prep. He said serving all students including those with special needs fits into the charter’s mission.

Now, district and charter officials have worked out a transition plan that will give the charter school a year to prepare — including hiring a new director to oversee the special needs programs and research best practices — to take over the center by fall of 2019.

“We recognize the good work that’s been happening at that center program,” Cryan said. “It’s a program that’s serving students really well.”

The program at Fletcher this year served 21 students with autism that come from the surrounding neighborhoods. Aurora Public Schools has 17 autism center classrooms spread across the district at district-operated schools.

Aurora officials last year started exploring how charters can share the responsibility of serving students with special needs, but there was no strategy or process behind the work, said Jennifer Gutierrez, director of student services.

“This is our opportunity to do this,” Gutierrez said. “I anticipate that down the road if we have more charters to come aboard that this might be something we would explore.”

She said having the option of putting a program in a charter school could be especially useful in neighborhoods with crowded schools.

“We continue to have space issues,” Gutierrez said. “If we need a targeted clustered program in a certain neighborhood, it can be really hard to find classroom space.”

Rocky Mountain Prep began phasing in its program at Fletcher in the 2016-17 school year by operating the school’s preschool. In the fall, the charter will take over the kindergarten through second grade classrooms, and by the fall of 2019, the charter will run the entire school.

As Rocky Mountain Prep takes over more grades, the school will need to train teachers so they can help integrate students from the autism center when their individual plan calls for them to be in a general population classrooms some or most of the time.

Officials have yet to decide how much the charter school will lean on district services provided to district-run schools operating special needs programs, including teacher training, coaching and consultants.

The charter is also still looking for funding to hire the director that would oversee special services and research best practices for running the program.

That work will also include figuring out if the model of the center program will change or stay the same. Right now, center programs include classes labeled with a level one through three. In level three classrooms students spend a lot of time in general education classrooms while level one classrooms serve the students that need the most individual attention.

Teachers work together across the levels to help move students, if possible, from one level to the next — or, potentially, back to a general education classroom in their neighborhood school.

What will look different at the center program is that it will have the Rocky Mountain Prep model. That includes the uniforms, having students respond to their classmates with hand signals during group instruction and school-wide cheers or meetings instilling the core values that make up the charter’s model.

“We consider all of our students to be our scholars,” Cryan said. “We integrate all students into our model.”

It won’t be the first time the Denver-based elementary charter school network will be running a program for students with special needs.

In one of its Denver schools, Rocky Mountain Prep began operating a center program for students with multi-intensive severe special needs this year after the district asked them to.

In recent years, Denver Public Schools has asked its charter schools to operate special education centers in return for access to district real estate, part of a “collaboration compact.”

Across the country, research has shown charter schools do not educate a proportionate share of special education students. DPS says that within three years, it expects Denver to be the first city in the country to provide equitable access to charter schools for students with significant disabilities.

Cryan said Rocky Mountain Prep has learned general lessons from running the program in Denver that will help plan ahead for operating the program in Aurora, most importantly he said it’s why he asked for a planning year.

“We’ve also learned that having strong and consistent leadership really has an impact,” Cryan said. “And we really want to take time to learn best practices.”

District staff on Tuesday updated the Aurora school board on the overall transition of the school, including pointing to staff surveys that show school teachers and employees were happy with the changes.

District staff said the district plans to use the experience at Fletcher to create a process for any future school turnarounds involving changing a school’s management.

First expansion

Aurora school board votes to approve DSST charter schools

PHOTO: Andy Cross/Denver Post
Sixth-graders at DSST: College View answer questions during class in 2014.

The school board for Aurora Public Schools on Tuesday voted to approve a charter application that will allow a high-performing charter network from Denver to open four schools in Aurora.

DSST applied to operate two campuses each with a middle and a high school. The first middle school would open in the fall of 2019. The application was written after Aurora’s superintendent invited the network to Aurora, offering to build the charter a new school with bond money approved in November.

Several people spoke during public comment, including students asking for the schools to be approved and teachers raising concerns about whether the charter will serve all students.

Two board members, Eric Nelson and Barbara Yamrick, voted against approving the application. Yamrick had said at a previous board meeting that she respected the school and its performance, but would vote against the application. Nelson said he wanted to postpone the decision to get more data about the outcomes of the charter school’s current students.

State law sets a timeline for voting on charter applications after they are submitted. DSST would have had to agree to postpone the vote Tuesday, but board president Amber Drevon said she was not going to ask for a delay after the work that had already gone into the application.

Board members also clarified that they will vote again in the fall to approve a contract with specific requirements around enrollment and performance.

DSST is known for intentionally seeking to build racially integrated schools, producing high state test scores and getting all of its students accepted into four-year universities. The network runs four of the five top high schools in Denver and has earned national attention, leading to donations from Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey.

DSST currently educates about 5,000 students and is planning to expand within Denver to operate 22 schools by 2024. The Aurora schools would be the network’s first ones outside of Denver.

Bill Kurtz, CEO of the network, said in an interview before Tuesday’s meeting that Aurora’s invitation and the community’s interest in the schools — the charter presented hundreds of letters of support with their application — was a big factor in accepting the invitation.

But, he said, Aurora was also a good fit for DSST because of its proximity to Denver, the area’s need for better schools and the district’s offer of a building.

Initially, Aurora asked the charter network to come up with half of the funding for a new building. DSST offered to help raise funds, but said the district should take on the responsibility.

The resolution the school board approved Tuesday night set a March 30, 2018 deadline for coming up with the money for the first DSST campus — leaving the exact division of fundraising between the district and the charter network vague.

Kurtz said it should be made clear that the district will be responsible for paying for the construction of the building.

“Aurora Public Schools will own the building,” Kurtz said. “Because they own the building, they own the responsibility. We are happy to assist and support that effort but ultimately that is their responsibility.”