Navigating a tricky system

Latino parents aren’t happy with southwest Denver preschool options, report says

PHOTO: Volunteers of America Colorado Branch
A teacher reads with children at the new Volunteers of America Early Childhood Education Center in southwest Denver.

A new report focused on southwest Denver sheds light on the difficulties some Latino parents face finding affordable, high-quality preschool spots for their kids.

The report, released Wednesday by the advocacy group Padres & Jovenes Unidos, found that some parents who responded to the group’s community survey were placed on waiting lists at sought-after preschool sites. Others found open slots, but only at centers with Level 1 ratings, the lowest of five tiers on the state’s child care rating system, Colorado Shines.

Officials from Denver Public Schools, interviewed by phone, say more could be done to connect parents with preschool options in southwest Denver, but too few slots isn’t the main problem there. Such shortages are more pressing in pockets of southeast Denver, they say.

DPS Acting Superintendent Susana Cordova, who spoke at the report release event at the Corky Gonzalez branch of the Denver Public Library, said expanding preschool access is a key strategy for the district, but noted that the state plays a major role in preschool funding and other early childhood issues.

Padres recommendations

  • Provide free full-day preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds from low to moderate income families.
  • Prohibit suspensions and expulsions in preschool.
  • Require preschool providers to adopt consistent policies to meet the needs of dual-language learners.
  • Fund preschool appropriately so that all employees earn a living wage.
  • Ensure preschool staff are trained on classroom management, implicit bias, developmentally appropriate discipline methods, dual language instruction and the use of inclusive culturally affirming practices.

“Let’s start talking about the legislative agenda we want to push forward,” she said.

The report, which marks Padres’ first major effort to address early childhood issues, drew from a survey of 330 southwest Denver parents. Several of the issues highlighted, including the high cost of care, barriers to access and the use of expulsions in preschool, are recognized problems across the state.

For example, there was enough space to serve only about 44 percent of Colorado children who needed care in 2013, according to the 2015 KIDS COUNT report by the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

As noted in the Padres report, there are also big differences in preschool-going rates for low-income and higher-income families. KIDS COUNT found that 38 percent of low-income Colorado children attend preschool while 57 percent of more affluent children do.

A spotlight on Southwest

The Padres report shines a spotlight on eight heavily Latino neighborhoods in southwest Denver where many families struggle financially. They are West Colfax, Villa Park, Sun Valley, Barnum, Barnum West, Westwood and Athmar Park.

District officials say compared to other parts of the city, the lack of spots there isn’t the biggest problem.

In fact, administrators considered closing some classrooms at the district’s highly rated Pascual LeDoux Academy preschool in Westwood because of low enrollment last fall, said Cheryl Caldwell, the district’s director of early childhood education. Ultimately, they decided against it.

Still, she agreed that connecting families to preschool can be a problem in southwest.

“I know there are kids that aren’t getting preschool and that we had openings that were not filled.”

She said the district could improve its preschool marketing efforts. Right now, outreach efforts vary a lot by school. Some school leaders man booths at preschool expo events, go door to door distributing information to families and post fliers at local churches and grocery stories. Others do less.

A patchwork quilt

For many parents, especially low-income parents who qualify for state or federal financial help, the preschool landscape is just plain confusing. Options vary depending on whether the care is offered in school or community sites, the length of the day, the child’s age and language ability, and the funding streams available to pay for the care.

Parents of 3-year-olds often face an even more daunting task because there are fewer subsidized slots for that age group.

Another piece of the early childhood puzzle is Colorado Shines, the state’s new rating system that only last month awarded the first two Level 5 ratings in the state—to centers in Denver and Loveland. Currently, about three-quarters of the state’s child care providers have Level 1 ratings.

Finally, there’s the red tape of application forms and financial documents.

Parent Elsa Oliva Rocha, co-executive director of Padres, said she recently discovered the challenge of preschool enrollment firsthand. She wanted to find her daughter, now 2 ½, a spot in a 3-year-old classroom next year.

First, she had trouble locating the application form on the district’s website and when she visited Pascual LeDoux to drop off the form, she found that not only had she filled out the wrong form, she had missed the center’s 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. drop-off window. She had to return to the school—which has a Level 4 rating on Colorado Shines—a couple days later to submit the paperwork.

She found the experience frustrating and worries such snafus create needless barriers for struggling families.

Pressing problems in Southeast

District officials say the shortage of preschool slots is most acute in parts of southeast Denver, where more than two-thirds of students are poor, schools are overcrowded and there are fewer community-based preschool providers.

On a color-coded district map showing the areas with the most pressing 4-year-old preschool needs, that area is the only one shaded red. Much of southwest Denver is shaded a less urgent yellow, while parts of northwest and northeast Denver are an even better green.

Four construction projects that would add preschool seats to district schools are under consideration for the 2016 bond that will go before Denver voters next November. The two most pressing early childhood projects are in southeast Denver— at Placebridge Academy and Shoemaker Elementary. The other two are in southwest Denver—at Fairview Elementary School and Pascual LeDoux.

That said, all four projects have lower priority rankings than several elementary, middle and high school projects and may not be funded.

Even so, there’s at least one new prospect for southwest parents seeking high-quality preschool.

Up to 45 new seats are on the way as a new center in the Westwood neighborhood ramps up its capacity. The Volunteers of America Early Childhood Education Center, which has a Level 4 Colorado Shines rating, moved into its new facility last July from rented quarters in a church gym.

It currently serves 74 neighborhood children, but will eventually serve around 120, said Lindi Sinton, vice president of program operations for the Volunteers of America Colorado Branch.

“Starting now, we’re recruiting for next year,” she said.

words matter

NYC Chancellor Carmen Fariña on pre-K diversity struggles: ‘This is parent choice’

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Carmen Fariña

Chancellor Carmen Fariña is again drawing criticism from school integration advocates — this time for appearing to excuse racially segregated pre-K programs as products of “parent choice.”

When asked about diversity in the city’s pre-K program at a state budget hearing Tuesday, Fariña seemed to skirt the issue:

“The pre-K parent, rightly so, wants whatever pre-K program is closest to home. They’re in a rush to get to work. They have to do what they have to do. And the one thing that I can say [is] that all our pre-K programs are the same quality … Whether you’re taking a pre-K in Harlem or you’re taking a pre-K in Carroll Gardens, you’re going to have the exact same curriculum with teachers who have been trained the exact same way.

But I, as a parent, am not going to be running to another part [of the city]. So it’s a matter [of] applying. Parents apply. This is parent choice — the same way you can go to private school, parochial school, charter school, you can go to any pre-K. You have an application process, you fill it out. And generally, this year, I think people got one of their first top choices, pretty much across the city. So this is about parent choice.

… So I actually do not agree with this. I think if you’re counting faces, then it’s true. If you’re counting parent choice, it’s totally different. So I think to me diversity is also, we are now taking more students with IEPs [Individual Education Plans] in our pre-K programs. We are taking more students who are English Language Learners in our pre-K programs. Diversity has many faces.”

Fariña’s response didn’t sit well with some integration advocates, who want the chancellor to offer a more forceful commitment to tackling diversity issues.

“It’s basically an argument for separate but equal — that what really matters is drilling down on resources and teachers,” said Halley Potter, who has studied segregation in New York City’s preschools as a fellow at the think tank the Century Foundation. “The problem with that argument is that, in practice, that is rarely if ever true.”

In a recent study, Potter found that the city’s pre-K program is highly segregated. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students come from a single racial or ethnic background. And, Potter said, research shows quality goes hand-in-hand with diversity: Children in mixed pre-K classrooms learn more and are less likely to show bias.

Matt Gonzales heads school integration efforts with the nonprofit New York Appleseed. He said excusing segregation as a by-product of parent choice seems to “completely absolve officials” from taking steps to increase diversity in pre-K classrooms.

“That’s disappointing because we’re in a place where we’re looking at ideas and potential solutions to segregation in the city, and I worry whether pre-K is being left out,” he said.

The city called the critique unfair. “By any measure, these are extreme mischaracterizations of a thoughtful response on our commitment to pre-K quality,” Department of Education spokeswoman Devora Kaye wrote in an email. “Divisive rhetoric doesn’t move us towards solutions. The chancellor has always been committed to inclusive schools and classrooms, and we’ll continue our efforts to strengthen diversity in our schools.”

This isn’t the first time Fariña struck observers as tone-deaf on diversity. In October 2015, she suggested rich and poor students could learn from each other — by becoming pen pals.

The city has taken some steps to integrate pre-K classrooms, allowing a number of schools to consider “Diversity in Admissions.” But as of September, the program is only open to public schools, and the majority of pre-K centers in New York City are privately run.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Department of Education have said they are working on a plan to improve school diversity, and hope to release details by the end of the school year.

Monica Disare contributed to this report. 

big debut

Memphis is about to open a major pre-K center. Advocates hope it’s just the start.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Porter-Leath's Early Childhood Academy readies for its grand opening on Friday. The center features a state-of-the-art preschool and teacher training institute.

Even the hallway walls of Memphis’ glowing new pre-K center are designed to engage 4-year-olds. Rows of textured blue grooves, symbolizing the city’s mighty Mississippi River, beg to be touched.

Classroom windows are positioned at eye level for small children to peek through. And an array of sturdy new props supports an environment for both learning and play.

Porter-Leath’s new Early Childhood Academy will open Friday as the first of its kind in Memphis. With 32,000 square feet of space developed with $9 million in private funding, the center will serve some 220 kids through Head Start, a federally funded program for the nation’s poorest children.

But equally important, the South Memphis center will become a hub of teacher training in an effort to bolster the quality of all of the city’s pre-K classrooms.

PHOTO: Porter-Leath
Porter-Leath serves children 5 and under in Head Start classrooms.

Porter-Leath has served the city’s poorest children since its founding in 1850 as an orphanage. Its offices are in the former orphanage building on land donated by Sarah Leath, a widow and mother who took the lead in organizing the charity. Today, the nonprofit organization has emerged as the lead provider of early childhood education in Memphis. In partnership with Shelby County Schools, it provides Head Start classrooms across the city and wraparound services such as special education screenings and health care.

Pre-K advocates are calling the new academy — and especially its focus on training quality pre-K teachers — unlike anything else in Tennessee.

How to define and measure “quality” pre-K has been a source of debate, especially since a Vanderbilt University study concluded in 2015 that academic gains achieved by students in Tennessee pre-K classrooms flickered out by third grade. The surprising findings prompted a reexamination of the quality of early learning programs across Tennessee, and state lawmakers responded by passing a 2016 law designed to improve pre-K classrooms.

The new Memphis academy represents a major investment by Porter-Leath and its supporters to determine what practices are most effective in its own classrooms and to share those lessons across the city through teacher trainings. Speakers and highly ranked teachers will be brought in to share their expertise.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
An observation room allows teachers in training to peek into a classroom.

“Thanks to the classroom observation rooms, educators who just came from a seminar will be able to see that skill they just learned about in action,” said Rob Hugh, the organization’s development director. “Before they leave, they will have to go into the classroom and practice for themselves. We see this as a chance to raise the quality of our staff and the staffs of daycares throughout the city.”

Porter-Leath will provide “relief teachers” for those who can’t afford a substitute to encourage Memphis daycare operators to let their teachers take advantage of the training.

Tennessee has a three-star evaluation system for early childhood providers, but it focuses more on safety and health than quality of instruction, said Daphanie Swift, early childhood director at PeopleFirst Partnership, a coalition of business, government, academic and civic leaders.

“The vast number of child care providers in the city have a long way to go with providing quality education,” Swift said. “This new training academy is a new concept for early childhood, and we hope will raise the bar for rigor in instruction.”

Hughes said all of Porter-Leath’s 300 classrooms across the city, which serve almost 6,000 students a year, have three stars. However, only 15 classrooms reach the level of instructional quality required to be accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which Porter-Leath views as the gold standard.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A worker assembles toys at the new academy.

The 16 classrooms added under Porter-Leath’s new academy are significant as the city searches to provide more pre-K seats, especially in low-income areas.

The academy is located next to Alton Elementary School, a strategic move. The hope is that its pre-K students will feed the Shelby County school, which serves one of Memphis’ poorest zip codes.

Memphis has a shortage of quality pre-K seats, and the academy already has a wait list of 144 families. Estimates of how many income-eligible children lack access to quality pre-K range from 2,200 to 5,000.

Swift said that PeopleFirst Partnership will continue to push for more quality pre-K seats — and philanthropic support to pay for them. The coalition organized a pre-K summit last summer to discuss what impact a recent $70 million federal grant has made on Memphis pre-K so far.

“I think a light bulb has finally come on in the city that pre-K is a needed investment,” Swift said. “We have to pay attention to those critical years of 0-5. So much of what we’re trying to address, from crime to low third-grade reading levels, can be warned against in those early years.”