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.

digging into discipline

Jeffco Public Schools suspended an average of four young students a day last year — and district officials are paying attention

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jefferson County work on their assigned iPads during a class project.

Jeffco Public Schools handed out more suspensions to young students than any other Colorado district last school year, and did so at rates that are among the highest in the state among large districts, a review of data by Chalkbeat has found.

The 86,000-student district, Colorado’s second largest, gave nearly 700 out-of-school suspensions to kindergarten through second-grade students in 2015-16 — an average of four every school day.

Neighboring Denver Public Schools — the state’s largest district at 91,000 students — handed out 500 suspensions in those grade levels during the same period, and affluent Douglas County — the state’s third largest district — gave out just 77.

At a time of growing national concern about the long-term impact of harsh discipline tactics on young children, along with efforts in Colorado and around the nation to curb the use of suspensions and expulsions, the numbers in Jeffco are startling.

Dave Kollar, director of the district’s student engagement office, said he’s “certainly not happy” about the early elementary suspension numbers but believes they’ll drop as various efforts, including training on restorative justice and cultural awareness, take hold in district schools.

“Any time kids are out of class, that’s not where we want them to be,” he said.

Jeffco is not the only large district in Colorado that hands out early elementary suspensions at high rates. In fact, among the state’s 10 largest districts, the 28,000-student Colorado Springs District 11 hands them out most often relative to its kindergarten through second grade enrollment — averaging one suspension for every 14 children last year.

Jeffco, and Adams 12 in the north Denver suburbs, are just behind it — both handing out an average of one suspension for every 27 K-2 students.

The large districts that hand out suspensions least often relative to their K-2 enrollment are Douglas County, Poudre and Boulder Valley. Douglas County, in particular, serves few poor students, followed by Boulder Valley. Nearly one-third of Poudre’s students come from low-income families, about the same as in Jeffco.

While Jeffco administrators are hopeful about turning the tide, the trend line isn’t headed in the right direction. For the last few years, the district’s total number of elementary-level suspensions has been rising, peaking at 1,800 last year after being in the 1,300s from 2012 to 2014.

Some observers say the district’s recent struggle to pass local tax measures limits funding for efforts that could push down suspensions. Jeffco voters rejected two ballot initiatives last fall, and while most of the funds were earmarked for building renovations and teacher raises, some would have paid for part-time elementary school counselors.

More than 80 schools serve kindergarten through second-grade students in Jeffco, and suspension rates range widely among them. A handful of schools didn’t suspend a single child last year, while five schools gave out dozens of suspensions.

As is the case in districts across the state and nation, Jeffco’s early elementary suspensions are disproportionately given out to boys and Hispanic and black students.

The numbers, provided to Chalkbeat by the Colorado Department of Education, refer to the number of suspensions given, not the number of children suspended. At some schools, students are suspended multiple times during the year. Experts say sending little kids home for acting out doesn’t help change bad behavior and sets the stage for the school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately affects boys and men of color.

The Jeffco school with the highest number of suspensions in the last two years for which state data are available is Lumberg Elementary, a high-poverty school in the Edgewater neighborhood near Jeffco’s border with Denver. It had 49 suspensions last year and 48 the year before. (Data from prior years is unavailable because the education department has only broken out suspensions by grade since 2014-15.)

Lumberg Principal Rhonda Hatch-Rivera said, “We recognize that suspensions are not the optimal approach,” but added that safety considerations play a key role when she and her two assistant principals choose to suspend a young student.

Lumberg parent Joel Newton, who is also executive director of the community nonprofit Edgewater Collective, said he was surprised by the school’s high number of early elementary suspensions and wouldn’t have guessed it from the school’s culture.

“Now, I do know students come in with a lot of stress from family poverty,” he said. But so many suspensions is “definitely an indicator that something’s not right.”

Hatch-Rivera, who is in her third year as principal, said the school’s already made a dent in early elementary suspensions this year. To date, 27 suspensions have been given out to 10 kindergarten through second-grade students, according to preliminary numbers. (Last year, the 49 suspensions were divvied among 18 students.)

Hatch-Rivera said several recent or planned changes will help reduce suspensions. Those include last year’s shift from a part-time to full-time social worker and the addition of a part-time therapist from the Jefferson Center for Mental Health.

Last year, the school also launched a structured recess program through the nonprofit Playworks, which has helped reduce recess-related incidents, Hatch-Rivera said. Next year, Lumberg will begin using a restorative justice approach to discipline.

Like Lumberg, most Jeffco schools with high K-2 suspension numbers serve many poor students. Still, there are some schools with similar populations that buck the trend. They include Edgewater, Allendale, Fitzmorris, Lasley and Pleasant View elementaries. All of them get extra federal money because of their large low-income populations but gave out five or fewer suspensions last year.

Edgewater Elementary School is only a mile away from Lumberg, is about the same size and serves similar proportions of poor and Hispanic students.

“They’re doing something right over there,” said Newton, whose organization focuses on schools in the 80214 zip code, including Edgewater and Lumberg.

Principal Katherine Chumacero said a variety of efforts help limit suspensions of kindergarten through second-graders, including the hiring of a dean who is helping the school adopt restorative justice practices and district trainings on creating an environment that recognizes students’ culture and background.

She said it gets as specific as talking to teachers about what tone of voice to use with children, what words they use to describe students — “our kids” not “those kids” — and how they control their reactions when students misbehave.

Chumacero said she was called to a classroom last year when a young boy had a major meltdown, sweeping everything off the desks so the carpet was covered with crayons and other supplies. Although she described his actions as violent, it was the first time he’d ever behaved that way and he was not suspended.

“The first step is try to find out what is going on with this child,” she said.

For such offenses, she said, administrators often call parents and have students fill out a form reflecting on their transgression, talk with the school social worker or therapist, or do schoolwork during an in-school suspension.

“Punishment is not the way to go right away,” Chumacero said. “It’s about learning.”

Out-of-school suspensions are usually reserved for cases where kids repeatedly have shown significant aggressive behavior, she said.

Newton said while it’s worth digging deeper into the practices that keep suspensions down at Edgewater, it shouldn’t lead to finger-pointing at Lumberg.

The problem “needs to be fixed as a whole community,” he said.

A group of advocates and lawmakers tried for a statewide solution earlier spring, proposing legislation that would have limited the reasons preschoolers and early elementary kids could be suspended. After rural districts rose up against the bill, it died in a Senate committee.

Kollar said there was some trepidation among district staff about how the law would have worked in practice, but philosophically they agreed with it.

Denver, where discipline reform efforts have been in the works for a decade and voters easily pass school tax measures, is one district that has recently taken a strong stand against suspending young children. In March, the district announced a new policy that would eliminate suspensions and expulsions of preschool through third-grade students except for the most serious incidents. The policy, which still must be finalized, is set to take effect July 1.

(Very) early education

With a major but little-noticed move, New York City signals that learning starts at birth

PHOTO: Rob Bennett
Mayor Bill de Blasio visits pre-K class at P.S. 239 with Chancellor Carmen Fariña in 2014.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans last month to extend pre-K to 3-year-olds, a massive expansion of his popular Pre-K for All program. But a little-noticed element of the proposal could be just as significant: He called for the Department of Education to take over programs that reach children as young as six weeks old.

As planned, the department would create a cradle-to-college approach that shepherds students and families from infancy through 12th grade. The shift signals a recognition that learning starts at birth — and so do the inequities that drag down academic achievement later in life.

Shael Polakow-Suransky, president of the Bank Street College of Education, called the decision “a big deal” and said it would put New York City in line with other nations that already prioritize infant and toddler learning.

“If you aren’t creating a really nurturing environment where there’s opportunity for learning and exploration for infants and toddlers,” he said, “you’re actually cementing a set of challenges in terms of how their brains develop and what their opportunities are going to be once they get to the point of pre-K or kindergarten.”

Under the proposal, the education department would assume responsibility for EarlyLearn programs, which currently fall under the purview of the city’s child welfare agency, the Administration for Children’s Services. EarlyLearn was launched under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg to streamline services for low-income families enrolled in Head Start pre-K or home-based daycare, for example.

Now, the city plans to take that consolidation even further, with Pre-K for All serving as a model. The city has been lauded for quickly rolling out universal pre-K for 4-year-olds while also ensuring quality through teacher training and regular site reviews.

“We really want to extend that structure to the younger ages and help all these programs get better,” Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack said in an interview.

At a city budget hearing Tuesday, Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the mayor’s executive budget proposal includes more than $20 million to improve EarlyLearn programs. She also stressed that bringing early childhood services under the Department of Education will help students make a seamless transition to elementary school and enlist parents as early partners in their children’s education.

“Our commitment is just to start with kids — especially with literacy skills — as early as possible,” Fariña told Council members.

Consolidating programs could also simplify a process that now forces low-income parents to navigate four different city agencies for child care and creates a compliance maze for providers.

“It’s just easier when you’re dealing with one coherent system,” Wallack said.

Success is far from guaranteed. With more than a million students, the education department already oversees the country’s largest school system. EarlyLearn programs serve about 20,000 children ages 3 and younger.

Experts said the DOE will have to resist the perhaps natural inclination to focus too narrowly on preparing children for academics, when much of early childhood education should center around social and emotional learning.

“There are right and wrong ways to do education for those children, but children at that age are learning,” said Elliot Regenstein, senior vice president of advocacy at the Ounce of Prevention Fund. “Ideally, though, you’re going to create a segment of the education system where the joy of learning is actively cultivated.”

It remains to be seen just how sweeping the shift in responsibility will be. At least initially, the streamlining will only go so far: Voucher programs that help families afford child care are expected to remain under ACS.

Gregory Brender, co-director of policy and advocacy at the United Neighborhood Houses, which pushes for affordable childcare, said there are still unanswered questions. Discrepancies in pay between educators in city-run and privately-run centers, he said, will be chief among the concerns that will now fall to the DOE to resolve.

“What does [this move] look like for parents? We don’t really know yet,” he said. “And we don’t even know what that looks like for providers.”