crying fowl

Chickens face eviction from Colorado preschools

PHOTO: Abby Miller
At this Boulder County preschool, collecting eggs from the nesting box is one of the most coveted jobs.

The preschoolers and kindergarteners at Countryside Montessori in Boulder lovingly care for the 10 hens that scratch around a large chicken run on the school’s one-acre lot. The students feed them grass and dandelions through the fence and don latex gloves to collect their eggs.

The whole idea at this and other schools that keep chickens is to foster hands-on learning and forge strong connections to the natural world.

Now, Big Mama, Super Chicken and their peers hunting and pecking on preschool grounds across Colorado may have to fly the coop.

A new state health rule that went into effect Jan. 14 forbids live poultry, including chickens and ducks, at licensed child care facilities. Health officials say it’s a common-sense effort to reduce the risk of salmonella, a type of food poisoning that causes diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps.

Center directors, however, argue that chickens are a safe, longstanding and much-loved part of their programs. They say the ban is an example of excessive regulation that threatens to further disconnect kids from nature.

More than 1,670 people have signed an online petition opposing the rule and even Temple Grandin, a Colorado State University professor renowned for her work in the livestock industry, has weighed in on the issue.

The poultry rule, part of a larger set of health rule changes, applies to child care classrooms serving kindergarteners and younger children. (A similar rule, that took effect April 14 last year applies to kindergarten classrooms in schools.)

Standing with state health officials in support of the rule package are a gaggle of health and early childhood organizations including Children’s Hospital Colorado, the Colorado Health Foundation, the Colorado Children’s Campaign, Livewell Colorado and Qualistar Colorado.

“Salmonella is something we’re constantly fighting. It’s not a rarity,” said Therese Pilonetti, unit manager for the state health department’s division of environmental health and sustainability.

That said, the health department couldn’t provide Chalkbeat with data on salmonella outbreaks related to live poultry in Colorado, and offered national data instead.

Nancy Ahlstrand, director of Countryside Montessori School, said she believes the new rule hatched from the state’s desire to avoid a lawsuit rather than a true need to address child safety.

“This rule is utterly ridiculous,” she said.

A teaching tool 

The state health department doesn’t track how many Colorado child care facilities keep chickens or ducks, but it appears there are a dozen or more—many of them Montessori or Waldorf-themed.

A child at a Boulder County preschool watches the school's chickens eat.
PHOTO: Abby Miller
A child at a Boulder County preschool watches the school’s chickens eat.

Countryside Montessori has kept fowl since it opened 28 years ago.

“It’s the greatest opportunity in the world for city kids to be exposed to some element of where their food comes from,” Ahlstrand said. “It’s an integral part of our program.”

Abby Miller, the director of a Montessori preschool in Boulder County, said her center’s four chickens—Ginger, Tilly, Dandelion and Twinkydink—live in a fully enclosed pen. The children can collect eggs from a nesting box accessible from outside the pen, but they don’t walk in the pen or pick up the chickens. And they always wash their hands after collecting eggs.

Like Ahlstrand, she said she’s never had a case of salmonella at the center, which she asked not be named.

“Of all the things that we do, the chickens seem like one of the least concerning. If someone gets hurt here, it’s going to be a fall or something,” said Miller.

Pilonetti said there have been 45 salmonella outbreaks nationwide since 1990, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Children under 5 are most likely to get salmonella, which can come from eating contaminated foods like poultry, meat or eggs, from contact with live animals such as chickens, ducks, lizards, turtles and snakes, or from contact with certain animal habitats or enclosures.

Amphibians and reptiles are also prohibited as classroom pets at child care facilities, but that rule isn’t new.

Enforcement coming

With the poultry rule only a few weeks old, Pilonetti said no health inspectors have yet encountered the issue.

Any violation of the rule will be considered a “critical violation.” While such violations typically must be remedied within 10 days, Pilonetti said there may be some leeway since it can be challenging to relocate live animals.

“Given a reasonable amount of time, we will take it very seriously,” she said.

Pat Waddick, director of Mt. Sopris Montessori Preschool in Carbondale, said she’d be sad to part with the center’s three chickens—known as “the girls”—but would if her child care license depended on it.

“I guess I’m just going to have to wait and see,” she said.

The following statements are from Temple Grandin and Democratic State Sen. Irene Aguilar of Denver. Grandin emailed her statement to opponents of the poultry rule. Aguilar posted her statement on the petition site

“When I was a child, we played in the dirt, and I often visited a flock of chickens that lived next door.  Children need to have contact with chickens, other animals, and the natural world.  We are so worried about a possible health problem that kids do not get the opportunity to learn that there is more to life than electronics. When kids get addicted to electronics, it stifles their creativity.  They need to learn that there is a big wondrous world that is more interesting than electronics.”Temple Grandin

“I certainly support the opportunity of children to learn the many lessons afforded by pet ownership, I also understand the need to keep little ones, and especially the very young, safe from any kind of disease. As a physician, I am particularly aware of how quickly infectious diseases can spread among little children who are know for touching and holding everything in sight. For this reason, I think the lessons that children can learn from animals are available without adopting chickens and ducks and the potential risk they may pose.”Irene Aguilar


crunching numbers

Full-day kindergarten among possible budget cuts in Aurora

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February.

Kindergarteners in Aurora’s Kenton Elementary spent an afternoon last week playing math games. Some kids built towers that had to be exactly 20 blocks high. One boy played a game on a laptop doing simple addition. Across the room, the teacher sat with a girl who was counting blocks aloud and practicing writing.

More than halfway through the year, the four and five-year-olds are able to recognize numbers through 50 or even through 100, Kenton officials said.

Now, as Aurora Public Schools searches for ways to cut its 2017-18 budget, free full-day kindergarten like Kenton’s is among one of scores of programs that could fall victim.

“It’s a concern for all of us,” said Heather Woodward, Kenton Elementary’s principal.

Scaling full-day kindergarten back to a half day was one scenario district officials floated when asking for community input on what to prioritize. District officials have said they are not ready to take anything off the table in trying to trim next year’s budget by an estimated $31 million.

Exact cuts will depend on state funding, which won’t be finalized until later this spring, and on how much the district can save through administrative changes like negotiating different health plans for employees. Patti Moon, a district spokeswoman, said cuts could still be presented later this spring.

Earlier this year, the district presented more than 40 budget-cutting ideas at public meetings and through a request for online feedback. The ideas included adding furlough days, cutting middle school sports and changing school schedules. Changing kindergarten to half-day would save the district an estimated $4.9 million.

But the idea got significant pushback. One of the common messages from those who provided the district feedback asked to avoid cutting full-day kindergarten.

“Our Kindergarten students are required to learn a large amount of information by the end of the year,” one response stated. “It’s very hard to get these students to where they are required to be even with a full day of instruction. Taking away a half day of instruction would be a huge injustice to these students.”

The first known budget cut in Aurora will likely come from a decrease in school staff by increasing the ratio of students to staff. Superintendent Rico Munn is scheduled to ask the Aurora school board Tuesday night for guidance on how much to increase the ratios per school.

A final staffing recommendation will be part of the draft budget presented in April.

In Aurora schools, kindergarteners get a daily math lesson in addition to at least an hour of reading or writing, a period of language development and 50 minutes of either art, music, technology or physical education.

Judith Padilla, a mother of three children in Aurora, is adamantly opposed to cutting full-day kindergarten.

“There would be a tremendous impact for parents who have to work,” Padilla said. “For my son it was a great benefit to be in kindergarten a full day so he could develop. He had some learning problems and some language problems and he had special classes to help him learn things like holding a pencil. Now they say he is at his level.”

Woodward, the Kenton principal, said making sure kids leave kindergarten on track to reading by third grade, and to be proficient in English so that they can learn in all their classes, are two major goals for educators.

For kids who leave kindergarten already behind, “we know there’s going to be a continual gap moving forward,” she said.

Bruce Atchison, director of early learning instruction for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, said his team is doing research on how to get more children to reading proficiency at the end of third grade. Having high-quality full-day kindergarten emerged as one of six policies considered effective for reaching that goal.

“It’s probably the most significant issue for education policy makers,” Atchison said. “Policy makers are typically aware of the abysmal reading proficiency rates across the country. It’s 41 percent of low-income children still are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade. That’s a huge issue.”

In Aurora, 45 percent of kindergarteners are English language learners, and 70 percent or kindergarteners qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a common measure of poverty.

According to 2016 state data, 18.6 percent of Aurora third graders met or exceeded expectations on reading tests compared to 37.4 percent of third graders across Colorado.

In Colorado, the state only pays districts for about a half-day of kindergarten. Districts can choose to pay for the rest, or offer it to families for a fee. In Aurora, the district made full-day kindergarten free for all students after voters approved an increase in taxes in 2008.

Patrick Hogarty, an Aurora teacher and elected delegate for the Colorado Education Association, said even at higher grade levels, teachers are concerned about the lasting impact the kindergarten cuts would have.

“It would be basically catastrophic due to the learning these children need to have,” Hogarty said. “It’s sometimes almost impossible for students to catch up to as they progress through the levels of education.”

In the last few years, districts in Colorado and across the country have moved to add full-day kindergarten programs.

In 2007, about 40 percent of Colorado kids enrolled in full-day kindergarten, according to Atchison. That percentage is now up to 77 percent.

“Districts, principals, education leaders are seeing the advantages of full-day kindergarten,” Atchison said.

The challenge for those that haven’t added the programs is usually the money.

“You are hard-pressed to find policy makers who don’t want full-day programs,” Atchison said. “They understand that children benefit from full day kindergarten programs, but it really comes down to the funding issues.”

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.