model of inclusion

Growing approach helps kick preschool expulsion habit

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Teacher Dee Gilmore talks with two preschoolers at the Bal Swan Children's Center about tools.

Last year at preschool, Elena would stomp her foot when she got upset. When her teachers sternly told her there would be no foot-stomping in the classroom, she simply stomped harder.

It was a power struggle with no victors.

Elena, who has autism, was miserable at school. Her teachers were frustrated— ultimately telling Elena’s mother, Kristin Miesel, that the girl might have to be physically removed from the classroom if her emotions continued to escalate.

Miesel, a school psychologist at a Jefferson County elementary school, chokes up remembering that moment.

“It’s like, ‘Really? You need to physically remove my child because she’s stomping her feet or getting upset like that?’” she said.

Fast-forward a year. Four-year-old Elena now attends preschool at Bal Swan Children’s Center in Broomfield and Miesel has finally breathed a sigh of relief.

“This place is like heaven,” she said.

The center, where about one-third of children have special needs, uses an approach that Miesel and school leaders credit with creating a welcoming environment for every kind of child—even those who elsewhere might get kicked out for biting, hitting or other behaviors.

This 2011-12 data is from The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.
This 2011-12 data is from The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

It’s called the Pyramid Plus Approach and launched six years ago at four demonstration sites in Colorado, including Bal Swan. Today, it’s used at around 200 centers and preschools in the state.

While the program has grown slowly but steadily since 2009, it’s getting a closer look in light of recent state and national conversations about the alarming frequency of preschool expulsions.

Colorado Pyramid Plus Demonstration Sites

  • Bal Swan Children’s Center, Broomfield
  • Creative Options Center for Early Education, Denver/Aurora
  • Primetime Early Learning Center, Norwood
  • Fremont County Head Start, Canon City

Not only are preschoolers expelled at higher rates than their K-12 counterparts, a 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Education revealed that boys and minorities are disproportionately expelled from preschool.

Geneva Hallett, director of the Pyramid Plus Center at the University of Colorado Denver, said getting expelled at 3, 4 or 5 often leads to a lifetime trajectory that includes more of the same.

Bal Swan director of education Patti Willardson calls preschool expulsion her hot-button issue. She finds it frustrating that the default response to challenging children at some local centers is to send them to Bal Swan.

“We take as many kiddos as we can,” she said. “But I just keep telling other administrators, ‘You can’t depend on one school in the whole area to take these kids. You all need to learn to help them yourself.’”

A Full Toolbox

The Pyramid Plus Approach was created in Colorado, building off a free national framework for early childhood social emotional practices called the Pyramid Model. More than 24 school districts have adopted that model over the last eight years with support from the Colorado Department of Education.

The “Plus” in Pyramid Plus refers to its emphasis on including children with disabilities in early childhood classrooms.

Pyramid Plus includes an 18-session training and follow-up coaching. The idea is to give early childhood staff a full set of tools for teaching young children social-emotional skills and managing challenging behaviors.

Speech therapist Melissa Cain talks to a preschooler at the Bal Swan Children's Center.
PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Speech therapist Melissa Cain talks to a preschooler at the Bal Swan Children’s Center.

For example, teachers might learn when to ignore bad behavior so as not to reinforce it with a burst of attention. Or how to use puppets to demonstrate toy-sharing or teach students to be aware of their own emotional state.

At Bal Swan, you won’t typically hear admonishments like “no,” “stop,” or “don’t.” Correction is rephrased in a positive way. You’ll also see teachers using the same social skills they tell students to employ, like getting someone’s attention with a tap on the shoulder.

Pyramid Plus also includes a series of parent classes—called Positive Solutions for Families—that offer many of the strategies and tools that teachers use in the classroom. Miesel said even with her background as a psychologist, she’s learned a lot from the sessions.

“The language they use here has been educational for us,” she said.

The Pyramid Plus Approach is not the only program aimed at cultivating healthy social-emotional development in young children—or the only one cited as a remedy to preschool expulsions. Another evidence-based program called The Incredible Years, run by the Denver-based Invest In Kids, provides similarly themed trainings to teachers and parents.

Early childhood mental health consultants, who are typically called in to help teachers work with the highest needs students, represent another expulsion prevention strategy, but their ranks are relatively small in Colorado.

Diminishing problems

Using Pyramid Plus doesn’t mean that aggressive or disruptive behaviors magically disappear. They may occur less often, but many Pyramid Plus advocates say the biggest transformation is in the level of confidence teachers display when problems do arise.

“When they have a plan and they know they can deal with these things. They don’t see challenging behavior as a problem anymore,” said Alyson Jiron, a Bal Swan counselor.

“It’s not like there’s kids that people are like, ‘Oh I don’t want that kid in my class,’” she said. “Truly, across the board now…everyone’s like, ‘We got this. We can do this.’”

The "calm box" is a place in the classroom where kids can go when they feel upset.
The “calm box” is a place in the classroom where kids can go when they feel upset.

When a child recently jumped up on a table in the class Clarissa Villareal co-teaches, she ignored the behavior and instead focused her attention on a child nearby who had her feet on the floor. The table-stander soon got down on her own.

“A huge part of it is our reaction,” she said.

At Bal Swan and other centers that use the Pyramid Plus model, expulsion isn’t an option. In fact, providers sign an agreement beforehand stating they won’t resort to it.

Hallett said without that policy, expulsion could be a tantalizing option when the toughest cases rear up.

“That’s not a back door they can get out of…and that’s hard,” she said.

Slow build

While there are now 2,200 providers trained in the Pyramid Plus approach in Colorado, that represents only a fraction of the state’s early childhood workforce.

“It has been a slow steady build,” said Hallett. “The fact is this is very hard work.”

Pyramid Plus, which includes a 45-hour training costing up to $500 per person, can be a tough sell for time-crunched, cash-strapped childcare centers.

Elizabeth Steed, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver, said she’s visited hundreds of preschool classrooms and many don’t have the budget, leadership or staffing flexibility to take on the program.

“They feel very stretched already,” said Steed, who is a member of a state policy team promoting the Pyramid Model and inclusion practices.

Bal Swan, named for a philanthropist who donated to the school, is perhaps better positioned than smaller, less stable centers to embrace an effort like Pyramid Plus. Most of the school’s 350 slots are tuition-based. In addition, class sizes are small and the pay is above average. Willardson said teachers with a degree typically start at $18 an hour and go up to $23—at many centers it’s closer to $13-14 an hour.

Thriving

These days, Miesel doesn’t brace herself for bad news when she picks up her daughter at the end of the day.

Even when Elena slips up, she knows its not a stepping stone to ultimatums or expulsion.

feelings wheel

Take, for example, a recent day when Elena bit a classmate.

There were no gasps or scoldings. Instead, a teacher consoled the injured child and then enlisted Elena’s help to get an icepack and deliver it to the girl. Instead of being punished for hurting her friend, she was praised for helping her feel better.

Miesel admits she was mortified when she found out what happened, but Elena’s teacher and Willardson counseled her against overreacting.

“Don’t feed into it,” they told her.

While such a low-key reaction from teachers and parents can feel counterintuitive, it’s effective, said Willardson.

That’s what she likes about the Pyramid Plus approach.

“It’s changed our teaching skills…It’s changed our understanding of who children are,” said Willardson.

overruled

Lawmakers take first step to ease testing burden for young English language learners

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/Denver Post
Justin Machado, 9, reads on his iPad during his 3rd grade class at Ashley Elementary in 2015.

State lawmakers from both political parties are seeking to undo a controversial State Board of Education decision that called for schools to test thousands of Colorado’s youngest students in English — a language they are still learning.

House Bill 1160 cleared its first legislative hurdle Monday with unanimous support from the House Education Committee.

The bill would allow school districts to decide whether to use tests in English or Spanish to gauge whether students in kindergarten through third grade enrolled in dual-language or bilingual programs have reading deficiencies.

The bill is sponsored in the House of Representatives by Reps. Millie Hamner, a Frisco Democrat, and Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican.

If the bill becomes law, it would overrule a decision by the State Board of Education last year that required testing such students at least once in English. That meant some schools would need to test students twice if they wanted to gauge reading skills in a student’s native language.

Colorado’s public schools under the 2012 READ Act are required to test students’ reading ability to identify students who aren’t likely to be reading at grade-level by third grade.

The bill is the latest political twist in a years-long effort to apply the READ Act in Colorado schools that serve a growing number of native Spanish-speakers.

School districts first raised concern about double-testing in 2014, one year after the law went into effect. The state Attorney General’s office issued an opinion affirming that the intent of the READ Act was to measure reading skills, not English proficiency. The state board then changed its policy to allow districts to choose which language to test students in and approved tests in both English and Spanish.

But a new configuration of the state board in 2016 reversed that decision when it made other changes in response to a 2015 testing reform law that included tweaks to early literacy testing.

The board’s decision at the time was met with fierce opposition from school districts with large Spanish speaking populations — led by Denver Public Schools.

Lawmakers considered legislation to undo the board’s decision last year, but a committee in the Republican-controlled Senate killed it.

Capitol observers believe the bill is more likely to reach the governor’s desk this year after a change in leadership in the Senate.

Some members of the state board, at a meeting last week, reaffirmed their support for testing students in English.

Board member Val Flores, a Denver Democrat who opposed the rule change last year, said she opposes the bill. In explaining her reversal, Flores said she believes the bill would create a disincentive for schools, especially in Denver, to help Spanish-speakers learn English.

“If the district does not give the test in English, reading in English will not be taught,” she said.

Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, said he still believes the intent of the READ Act was to measure how well students were reading in English.

“I think this is a serious departure from what the legislature intended initially,” he said last week. “The READ Act had everything to do with reading in English.”

Hamner, one of the sponsors of House Bill 1160, also sponsored the READ Act in 2012. She disagrees with Durham and told the House committee Monday that the intent was always for local school districts to decide which language was appropriate.

“We’re giving the local educators and districts the decision-making authority on what’s best for the students,” she said.

Multiple speakers on Monday said the requirement to test native Spanish speakers in English was a waste of time and money, and provided bad information to teachers.

“A teacher who teaches in Spanish will not be able to use data from an English assessment to drive their instruction, much like a hearing test would not give a doctor information about a patient’s broken arm,” said Emily Volkert, dean of instruction at Centennial Elementary School in Denver.

The bill only applies to students who are native Spanish speakers because the state has only approved tests that are in English and Spanish. Students whose native language is neither English nor Spanish would be tested in English until the state approves assessments in other languages.

“The question is can you read and how well,” said bill co-sponsor Wilson. “We’re trying to simplify that.”

Regrouping

Tennessee pre-K took it on the chin in a 2015 Vanderbilt study. Here’s what the state is doing about it.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students at Casa Azafran, a Nashville pre-K center that collaborates with Vanderbilt University researchers to serve as a model for best practices in early childhood education

Catalyzed by a landmark study showing its public prekindergarten program is ineffective, the Tennessee Department of Education is tying funding to quality and evaluating teachers as part of a sweeping overhaul.

The changes are in response to a Vanderbilt University study that showed the benefits of Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program faded by the second grade — and that students who attended eventually performed worse than their peers. The state department has since been exploring how to improve the quality of pre-K classrooms while staying true to 2005 initiative’s original goal: helping students from low-income families start kindergarten on an equal footing with their more affluent peers.

“We know the findings from the 2015 Vanderbilt study are real, and we’ve got to take those study findings seriously,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said last week. “We have made changes to the VPK application to focus on quality and ensure we are funding programs that are high quality and serving students who most need this strong start.”

The state won’t change its $86 million in funding for Voluntary Pre-K, and the goal of the overhaul isn’t to cut programs. Department officials hope that revamping how districts can access the money will push them to improve their pre-K practices. Before, distribution was based on how many students were served by districts; from now on, it will be based on a rigorous application process.

The state also has hired an assistant commissioner to oversee early education and literacy, part of Tennessee’s priority to improve the reading skills of its youngest readers.

The study’s surprising results shook the nation’s pre-K community and prompted concerns from Tennessee pre-K advocates that state lawmakers might even scrap state funding for pre-K. Instead, state officials heeded the urgings of Vanderbilt’s researchers to look into quality. While the program wasn’t working as a whole, some districts were getting pre-K right, according to Vanderbilt’s Dale Farran and Mark Lipsey.

For instance, more successful programs limit whole-class instruction and focus on hands-on learning so that students stay engaged throughout the day. Meanwhile, less effective ones have their students spending a lot of time switching locations or waiting in line for the bathroom. That takes away from learning time.

The new application for state funding asks districts for details about curriculum and how they’ll structure their days to maximize student engagement and learning. It also asks that localized plans be developed for getting parents and families involved in their child’s pre-K experience. Research shows that parental involvement, like reading to students at home and attending parent-teacher conference, helps students be more successful at school.

“The Vanderbilt report has opened our eyes to (what programs need),” said Candace Cook, who directs Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program. “We’re focusing on what we can do to better serve our children.”

The new application, which seeks funding for the 2017-18 school year, is due in April. District officials have been attending trainings this month to understand what the state is looking for, and why.

“We are currently … meeting with VPK directors to go through these changes in detail and provide them with tools and resources,” said Elizabeth Alves, the state’s newly hired assistant commissioner of early education and literacy.

Districts also are being asked to take a harder look at which students enroll in their pre-K classrooms. Vanderbilt researchers found that nearly 20 percent of students statewide did not meet the state’s high-needs criteria.

“We have been really trying to advocate for using this (state) money in the way it was intended, which is to serve low-income pre-K students,” Cook said.

The pre-K evaluation system is Tennessee’s first. It goes into effect next school year for pre-K and kindergarten teachers as part of the 2016 Pre-K Quality Act, and will use videos and portfolios of student work in reading, language, counting and shapes to determine teachers’ effectiveness. The state already has developed a similar model for evaluating first-grade teachers, as well as teachers of fine arts and foreign language.

Ultimately, McQueen says the tool should help district administrators and the Department of Education figure out how to better support pre-K teachers.

“We’ve not had the ability to really dig into the effectiveness of our (pre-K) teachers,” she said. “The intent of portfolios … have really been about making sure that we are training and educating our teachers.”