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


Early education

Colorado gets good marks on preschool access for 3-year-olds, not so much on funding

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Preschoolers play dress-up on a recent morning at Fairview Elementary in the Westminster school district.

While Colorado ranks near the back of the pack for state preschool funding, it gets relatively high marks for providing preschool access to the state’s 3-year-olds, according to a report released Wednesday by the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Colorado ranked 11th for 3-year-old access among 33 states offering preschool to 3-year-olds. The state-funded Colorado Preschool Program, which is for children with certain risk factors, served about 5,400 3-year-olds and about 15,700 4-year-olds last year.

This chart shows the percentage of Colorado children served by state-funded preschool over time.
This chart shows how Colorado’s per-pupil preschool funding has changed over time.

Colorado ranked 24th of 44 states for 4-year-old preschool access in the state-by-state report, slightly worse than last year. Seven states, including Colorado’s neighbors, Wyoming and Utah, don’t fund preschool at all.

Besides gauging preschool funding and access, the new report revealed that Colorado meets five of 10 benchmarks designed to judge preschool quality. Last year, the state met six of the benchmarks, but several benchmarks changed this year in what the research institute described as an effort to raise the bar.

State officials said that observers should take Colorado’s middling benchmark score with a grain of salt because while the state didn’t get credit for having certain standards enshrined in state policy, the standards are widely practiced by school districts that participate in the Colorado Preschool Program. One example is the benchmark that calls for vision, hearing and health screenings of preschoolers — Colorado didn’t check that box, but most districts conduct the screenings.

Two other benchmarks that Colorado doesn’t meet include a requirement for lead teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and assistant teachers to have a Child Development Associate credential.

Cathrine Floyd, program director for the Colorado Preschool Program and Results Matter Program at the Colorado Department of Education, said the degrees are highly encouraged by the state but not required. That’s because some state-funded preschool slots are offered at community-based preschools that would not be able to afford to pay teachers if they all had higher-level degrees, she said.

Among the five benchmarks Colorado meets on the revised list are two related to class size and staff-student ratio, one related to teacher training, one related to state early learning standards and one related to preschool curriculum.

Floyd and her colleagues described the annual report from the well-regarded National Institute for Early Education Research as a good starting point for conversation, but said the state’s annual Colorado Preschool Program report provides more detail and context about Colorado’s progress.

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.