Staying in school

Teen mothers push for law change on child support

Students from Florence Crittenton High School listen to state Sen. Mike Johnston as Sen. Larry Crowder stands by.

Right now, if you’re a teen mom in Colorado, there’s a good chance you have to clear a big hurdle to get state financial help to pay for childcare: That is, going to court to seek child support from your son or daughter’s father.

More than a dozen high school students—teen mothers from Denver’s Florence Crittenton High School—visited the Capitol  building Tuesday to press for a law change that would eliminate that requirement for teen parents as well as domestic violence victims.

During a lunch break in a third-floor hallway, the students made their case to lawmakers passing by on the way to nearby meetings. Pausing in the middle of the hallway with briefcases or thick binders in hand, a couple legislators asked the girls to explain House Bill 1227.

In a quiet, halting voice, one student did just that.

The soft-spoken pitch to lawmakers wasn’t meant to benefit the girls lining the Capitol hallway. As Florence Crittenton students, they’re already exempt from the child support requirement because of an unusual one-time waiver granted to the school by the state a few years ago.

What the girls and their supporters wanted was to change the rules for their “sisters”—other teen parents who live in the 46 Colorado counties that have chosen to enforce the child support provision before handing out dollars from the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, or CCCAP.

Proponents say the measure, which is scheduled for its first committee hearing March 18, would remove an intimidating obstacle that’s limiting access to childcare and forcing teen moms to drop out of school.

This excerpt comes from a county information sheet for parents explaining the CCCAP program.
This excerpt comes from a county information sheet for parents explaining  CCCAP.

“You’re trying to get a 14-, 15-, 16-year-old to navigate a system that’s already difficult,” said Suzanne Banning, president and CEO of Florence Crittenton Services.

But some counties are pushing back against the bill in its current form, arguing that child support requirements can help families stay intact and set the stage for long-term financial support from non-custodial parents.

Pat Ratliffe, a lobbyist for the membership organization Colorado Counties Inc., said the counties she represents want to amend the bill to provide a shorter period of exemption from child support rules. The group hasn’t decided yet whether that narrower exemption should last a year, be tied to a grade-level milestone or something else.

“We’re trying to find our way through a foggy situation and do not only what’s best for the mom but do what’s best for the child and the family unit,” she said.

It’s not about the money

Opponents of HB 1227 say the purpose of enforcing the child support requirement for teen moms is not the money. Both sides agree that young fathers, especially if they’re still in school themselves, won’t have much to give.

“We don’t expect to collect money from these kids,” said Ratliff.

But she said going through the child support process is the “most obvious and most logical way to keep a father involved.”

Resources

She said when the mother names the father in court, it triggers various county services that promote the father’s involvement.

But supporters of the bill refute that, saying the policy’s not working. They say only about 2 percent of the 10,000 children of teen parents in Colorado have open child support cases, meaning the vast majority of young mothers aren’t seeking child support and whatever family reunification benefits come with it.

“The counties act as if they are so good at working with the dad and the mom…and that is just not true,” said Banning.

The teen’s experience

Between remarks by passing lawmakers on Tuesday, ninth-grader Gemini Leroy talked about the challenges she faced getting child care assistance even without a mandate to seek child support first.

Students from Florence Crittenton High School during a lunch break at the Capitol.
Students from Florence Crittenton High School during a lunch break at the Capitol.

“I just had a problem with CCCAP in general,” said the 15-year-old.

She said she’d re-submitted the paperwork twice, and finally obtained childcare assistance for her 14-month-old baby Starla after about seven months.

Leroy, who hopes to join the Army when she finishes high school, said with Starla’s father set to go to prison this spring, she’s not sure how she’d seek child support from him if it was required.

“It would be hard,” she said.

Even for teenage mothers who have a good relationship with their child’s father, the child support requirement can be feel like treading on thin ice.

Linda Becerra, a 10th-grader at Florence Crittenton, said she’d worry about how her daughter’s father would react, especially because he’s an undocumented immigrant.

“I think that he would take that as me being aggressive toward him,” she said. “The last thing I need is for us to have a bad relationship…I want to have good co-parenting.”

Right now, the father contributes financially to six-month-old Ebony, visits her on weekdays and cares for her on the weekend, said Becerra, who hopes to pursue a career in art or architecture.

A challenge to local control

Staff at Florence Crittenton, which enrolls students from multiple counties, began noticing several years ago that students were losing CCCAP money after failing to seek child support. School leaders subsequently negotiated a waiver from the rule with an official at the Colorado Department of Human Services.

That waiver, however, became a sore spot for some county leaders, who believed the state had interfered with local control.

“I think Florence Crittenton had a very good argument about why it makes sense,” said Erin Mewhinney, who last summer became director of the Division of Early Care and Learning in the state’s human services department.

A Florence Crittenton student listens to a legislator in a hearing room.
Florence Crittenton students listen to a legislator in a hearing room.

Still, she said, “I don’t think it’s good policy to waive a policy for one provider…It should have been looked at as a larger policy issue.”

For that reason, Mewhinney said she declined New Legacy Charter School’s request for the same kind of waiver. The Aurora school, which opened last fall, serves pregnant and parenting teens.

There is another kind of waiver—a “good cause” waiver—that counties can grant on a case-by-case basis so women don’t have to go through the child support process. But supporters of HB 16-1227 say it’s inconsistently applied and out of reach for many domestic violence victims who don’t have the right records to prove the abuse.

Even if the proposed legislation passes, Mewhinney said a state task force will continue to look at the barriers that prevent teen mothers from accessing child care assistance. The problem may not be the child support requirement.

“We’re still not absolutely sure that’s why teen parents opt out,” she said.

Cultivating supporters

For a slow day at the Capitol—many lawmakers had already left to attend caucuses in their home districts later that day—the Florence Crittenton students found a receptive audience Tuesday.

When one of the bill’s prime sponsors, Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, stopped by to introduce himself, he praised the measure.

“Personally, I think it’s overdue. I think it should have been done years ago.”

Rep. Jessie Danielson, D-Wheat Ridge, told the girls she planned to add her name to the sponsor list, which currently numbers 38.

When Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, learned of the bill as he walked by, he said he’d be happy to support it. Then, the former principal gave a brief pep talk about the impact of a mother’s education on her child’s future.

“Your investment in your degree is the single best thing you can give them,” he said.

 

3-K for All

New York City’s 3-K For All preschool program starts this fall. Here are five things we know so far

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

When classes begin this fall, some schools will welcome their youngest students ever.

New York City is starting to make good on a pledge to provide free, full-day pre-K to children who are 3 years old, an effort announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio this spring. Dubbed 3-K for All, the initiative is an expansion of the city’s popular Pre-K for All program, which now serves 70,000 4-year-olds across the city. While the effort for younger students is starting in just two school districts, the city plans to offer it citywide by 2021.

The initial application period for 3-K wrapped up last week. There are still many questions about the city’s plan — including whether state and federal officials will help pay the more than $1 billion price tag required to make 3-K universal. But here are five things we already know about the city’s pilot program.

It’s starting small.

Compared with the breakneck roll-out of Pre-K for All, the education department is moving more slowly this time around. The initiative is starting with an expansion in two high-need school districts: District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23, which covers East New York, Brownsville and Ocean Hill. There are about 650 new seats available across 28 different sites in those districts, and more could be added by the time the school year starts.

Those will build on 11,000 slots that already exist for 3-year-olds across the city. The previously existing seats are offered through the Administration for Children’s Services, which administers child care programs for low-income families.

The education department has begun offering training and services to those programs — and will take official responsibility for ACS programs starting next summer — in an attempt to streamline early education systems and ensure quality across the board.

“It really is a comprehensive effort,” said Josh Wallack, the deputy chancellor in charge of early education at the city’s education department. “They’re going to be part of the same unified system.

City officials expect to have enough room for all children in the pilot districts by fall 2018. To make the program truly universal across all school districts, New York City wants to raise funding to serve 62,000 children by 2021.

Charter schools aren’t participating — because they can’t.

Charter schools aren’t permitted by state law to provide pre-K to 3-year-olds, according to the New York City Charter School Center. For now, the city is relying on community organizations, district schools and district-run pre-K centers to serve students.

Charter schools have been slow to join the city’s pre-K program for four-year-olds, though at least 14 charter schools now participate.

When Pre-K For All launched, the city’s largest charter chain, Success Academy, refused to sign the city’s required contract, arguing the city could not legally regulate charters.

Success Academy took the issue to the state, and after earlier defeats, an appeals court in June sided with the charter operator. Now it’s up to the state education commissioner to decide how to move forward on the matter.

What about quality?

The city’s pre-K efforts are often praised for focusing on access without compromising quality. Teacher training is an integral part of the program and the city also evaluates centers based on factors such as teachers’ interactions with students and the physical classroom.

About a third of the 28 new sites participating in 3-K do not yet have ratings. Of those sites that do have ratings, about 67 percent earned a score of “good.” Only one — the city-run Learning Through Play Center on Union Avenue in the Bronx — scored “excellent.” Likewise, only one center — Sunshine Day Care in the Bronx — earned a rating of “poor.”

Those reviews are based on existing programs for 4-year-olds. Lydie Raschka, who reviews pre-K centers for the website InsideSchools, said the best way to judge a program is by seeing it for yourself.

“Most of all, trust your instincts. There is nothing better than a visit,” she wrote in a recent post.

Immigration status doesn’t matter.

Some child care programs run through ACS have restrictions based on a child’s immigration status because of federal funding rules. That will not be the case for the new 3-K for All seats — nor is it with Pre-K For All — and the city is providing information in more than 200 languages.

The only requirements for 3-K are that families live in New York City and children were born in 2014.

Options are limited for families looking for accessible buildings or English language support.

Most of the new sites do not appear to be accessible to students who have physical disabilities and who may, for example, require a wheelchair to get around. Of those programs with accessibility information readily available, about a quarter of the centers — about 150 seats out of the 650 in total — are located in buildings that are at least partially accessible.

Even fewer seats are available in programs that provide language support. Only two of the new sites provide “dual language” or “enhanced language” programs, and both are in Spanish. Those sites represent fewer than 10 percent of the new 3-K slots available, though many of the previously existing programs offer language support.

About 17 percent of all students in District 7 are English learners, but only 5 percent in District 23 are, according to city data. It’s estimated that 30 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds in New York State are dual language learners, according to a 2016 report by the National Institute for Early Education Research.

“We’re going to be talking to families as we go to make sure they have the services they need to make this a successful year,” Wallack said.

Correction: This story has been updated with the correct title for Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack. 

building blocks

Why a Colorado researcher believes preschool students should learn — and play — with math

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

What do preschoolers need math for? Doug Clements argues preschoolers use math everywhere from reading to play — and engaging early mathematics instruction can help better prepare young students for later learning.

Clements, the executive director of the University of Denver’s Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy, has spent nearly his entire career studying and advocating for introducing math concepts in early childhood education. He and his wife Julie Sarama, Marsico’s co-executive director, developed preschool lessons and tests for teaching mathematics to early learners. Their hallmark program, Building Blocks, has taken hold in cities such as Boston and Buffalo, N.Y., where both Clements and Sarama have conducted research.

Clements took the helm at Marsico in 2013, where he and Sarama have worked on a new iteration of their math-focused early childhood curriculum that incorporates literacy, social-emotional learning and science.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Clements shared memories from the classroom and the benefits — and fun — of teaching math concepts to preschoolers. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How did you become fascinated with early math education?

I served as a graduate assistant to a math (education) professor because I liked math as a student myself. We drove a big van around with 1960s curriculum from National Science Foundation and showed teachers this stuff.

When I started teaching kindergarten I was very sensitive to the fact that I wanted to do mathematics better, so I was always casting about for curriculum or ideas to teach mathematics. I was just skeptical these kids could do it, so I was hesitant many times to ask them to do these kinds of things. But lo and behold, they took to it. It surprised me. If you talk to (kids) about their strategies and what they’re thinking about the mathematics, it just reveals so much more competence than you’d normally think that really young kids had.

I just became more and more interested in pushing the  envelope of these kind of abilities kids had mathematically. Teachers often will say, “I got into preschool so I didn’t have to teach mathematics.” And instead we tell them, “We don’t want you to give kids the kind of experiences that led you to dislike mathematics.”

Do you have a specific examples or story of a time where you saw the benefits of early math instruction in action?

We were reading a book and the (students) noticed the hexagons in a beehive, and they came up with all these different reasons that bees would make hexagons. The kids had a delightful time thinking of different reasons. For example, one of the reasons was the bees saw the hexagons in the school and thought, “That’s a great shape. We should use that in our beehive.” And this boy happened to say, “I think they chose hexagons because they fit together real well.”

The kind of natural interest and competence they have in mathematics — if given the opportunities, the interactions with the teachers, the intentional teaching that the teacher does — leads to spontaneous use of mathematics throughout their lives.

We know from research kids who come from lower-resource communities don’t have a heck of a lot of those experiences so it’s really important that those schools we are working with, with kids with huge percentages of free and reduced lunch. All kids need better and more mathematics. It’s especially important for equity reasons, for those kids who have fewer resources in their homes and communities, to be able to go to a preschool where their kind of fire of interest in mathematics is provided by the teacher and the curriculum.

What are some of the key findings you have drawn from your research on the link between early math and early literacy?

Doing math with kids actually helps them build the ability to learn and use new vocabulary words even if those vocabulary words were not mathematical in content. They have to dig down deep to explain their own thinking and that really helped them build more complex grammatical structures, and that’s an outcome of the mathematics. And then they were more able to answer inferential questions.

Well-done mathematics doesn’t just teach mathematics, it’s cognitively fundamental and helps kids learn a variety of abilities.

How are these concepts integrated in the classroom?

What’s most effective is to combine methodologies. We don’t just do whole group, we don’t just do small group, we don’t just do learning centers, we don’t just do computer — we do all four of those. We keep it short, interesting. So, for example, kids will stomp around classroom marching and (counting alternately quietly and loudly).

What does it do? It builds, of course, the verbal counting strength. But look at what else — it builds the knowledge of one-to-one correspondence because they’re stamping per each count. Not only that, it builds intuition about pattern because we’re saying one quietly, two loudly. And then lastly they’re building intuition about even and odd numbers, because all the odd numbers are said quietly, all the even numbers are said loudly.

So you don’t have to do, sit down, look at the paper, write the number two, to be doing fundamentally interesting mathematics.

How many preschools are actually integrating early math concepts into their programs the way you think it should be done? Is there anything holding back programs from doing so?

Most people understand that the goal of literacy is to be able to read and write and think, but often people think the goal of math is to be able to compute accurately. That’s such a limited view of mathematical thinking writ large. So we have a lot of work to do to change people’s conception of mathematics as well as their skills in understanding the math, understanding the kid’s thinking and understanding how to teach to develop that kid’s thinking.

But it is coming along — there is more general knowledge and awareness at least, interest in it, and — this is important in early childhood the youngest years, the preschool years — less resistance to doing mathematics (because of the perception) that it’s developmentally inappropriate which it’s not. But still, in some circles (they say), “Kids should play, kids should be kids. Why would they do math? That should wait until later. Math is just school, boring stuff, and kids should be kids and play.”