Special visitor

U.S. education chief gives Colorado kudos for early childhood efforts

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
U.S. Secretary of Education John King interacts with children at the Mile High Learning Center.

Colorado got a high-profile pat on the back Monday with a visit from U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, who lauded the state’s efforts to raise child care quality and improve early childhood systems.

He whirled through Denver before heading to Delaware, where he’ll conclude a two-day tour meant to spotlight states that have launched successful early childhood initiatives using federal Race to the Top dollars. The signature Obama administration program awarded more than $1 billion to 20 states.

In Colorado, the money helped create a new mandatory child care rating system called Colorado Shines. Launched in February 2015, the program gives parents a simple way to gauge child care quality and comparison shop. It also sets a high bar for providers seeking the top rating, a feat only 12 of the state’s 4,600 providers have accomplished so far.

King started the day with a stop at Mile High Early Learning, a Montessori-inspired preschool in Denver’s City Park West neighborhood, where he joined children in singing songs about sea creatures and eating pretend sushi. Next up was a roundtable discussion with more than two dozen of the state’s early childhood heavy hitters.

Leaders from state agencies, advocacy groups, child care centers and early childhood councils highlighted efforts to create the new rating system, improve data infrastructure and expand training opportunities for child care providers.

The discussion told the story of how federal money helped the state transition from a fragmented and sometimes ineffective set of early childhood systems to something more cohesive and efficient.

“Colorado is clearly using their $45 million well,” said King, during a Q-and-A session with reporters.

Reggie Bicha, executive director of the state’s human services department, said the state’s Race to the Top spending will eventually be reflected in better outcomes for Colorado kids — improvements in kindergarten readiness, third-grade reading proficiency and high school and college graduation rates.

While the event was mostly a feel-good summary of Colorado’s early childhood progress, there was also mention of where Colorado — and most states — still need to improve. One perennial problem is low pay for child care workers.

A recent federal report found that Colorado preschool teachers earn a median salary of about $24,000, while their kindergarten counterparts earn nearly twice that.

“That’s a very significant gap and what that does is it makes hard for people to stay,” King said. “One of the promising things Colorado is doing … is helping folks get the credit hours they need so (they) can see a path toward eventually having a bachelor’s degree and earning a little bit more.”

Bicha also noted that Colorado reimburses child care providers with high quality ratings at a higher rate through the state’s child care subsidy program.

Aside from the wage issue, there was a nod to the unique problems of small, rural providers who often have limited ability to climb the state’s ratings ladder, and sometimes no incentive because parents clamor to use their services regardless of their rating.

Teri Linke, a provider from Grand County who participated in the roundtable, urged the group to invite small, rural providers into the child care conversation.

Quality quest

How Colorado is trying to boost access to quality child care for poor kids

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

When Colorado changed the way it paid child care providers for educating little kids from low-income families — paying high quality providers more than lower-quality ones — there was both elation and frustration.

Deb Hartman, program director at a highly rated center in Las Animas County in southern Colorado, called the new approach “life-changing.” The extra money, she said, helped save infant and toddler classrooms that otherwise would have closed. She was able to give her teachers raises and even buy a coffee-maker for the teacher’s lounge.

But 300 miles north in Larimer County, officials who administer the state’s child care subsidy program for residents weren’t so happy. The new reimbursement rates meant a growing price tag for the program and today, nearly 600 kids on the wait list.

The dichotomy illustrates the growing pains that have come with state efforts to get low-income youngsters into high-quality child care — a key factor in making sure kids are ready for kindergarten and reading well in third grade.

While Colorado policy-makers have made an array of changes to the complicated $86 million subsidy program in recent years — several focused on promoting child care quality— there’s a long way to go to ensure poor kids get the same level of care available to upper-income kids.

Not only are there too few high-quality providers across the state, but many don’t accept subsidies, which is often the only way low-income families can gain access to top-notch child care.

Thousands of providers — about 84 percent — are still on the lowest rungs of the state’s two-year-old quality rating system, Colorado Shines. The lowest rating is Level 1, which means a provider is licensed and has met basic health and safety requirements. Level 2 is a step up and means a provider has started to climb the quality ladder, but has not yet achieved what is considered the mark of high quality — a Level 3, 4 or 5 rating.

Of about 680 high-quality providers across Colorado, about 37 percent accept subsidies. Sometimes it’s because they can easily fill their rosters with children whose parents pay full freight. In other cases directors balk at accepting subsidies because the program, officially called the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, has a reputation for red tape and out-of-date technology.

“It’s not very 21st century at all,” said Terri Albohn, who helps administer the subsidy program for Boulder County.

State officials say they’re in the process of streamlining and modernizing the program, which helps low-income parents afford child care if they’re working, in school or looking for jobs.

State officials aim to increase the number of providers that have ratings above Level 1 and to improve the distribution of high-quality programs that accept subsidies so communities outside the Front Range have better access.

“The idea is to try to break out of that I-25 corridor in particular,” said Erin Mewhinney, director of early care and learning for the state Department of Human Services.

When kids lack access to high-quality care, it can mean less-than-ideal child care arrangements — sitting in front of the TV or staying home with grandparents or older siblings.

One state initiative in the works will award grants to providers rated Level 2-5 that accept or plan to accept child care subsidies. Mewhinney said the state’s goal is to ensure that 33 percent of Colorado communities have at least one high-quality provider that takes subsidies. Right now, that number stands at 26 percent.

One person on the front lines of efforts to get more providers to accept subsidies is Jennifer Sanchez McDonald, coordinator of the Huerfano and Las Animas Counties Early Childhood Advisory Council.

She likes to tell providers that the program is “going to empower your site, not decrease your opportunities.”

In one recent example, she visited a licensed provider who cares for children in her home, discussing the subsidy program over a conversation at the kitchen table. The woman was worried about shrinking enrollment because some of her families were struggling to pay. Shortly after that conversation, the provider began taking the subsidies.

Sanchez McDonald hopes to get up to eight more of the 16 licensed providers in the two-county area to accept state subsidies. Currently, four take the subsidies — only two that have high ratings.

Besides getting centers to take subsidies, there’s also the challenge of getting parents to apply for them. Although area poverty rates are high and children often lag academically, many parents keep their kids at home until kindergarten, Sanchez McDonald said.

In Boulder County, officials launched a campaign called “Just One More” urging high-quality child care providers to set aside one new slot for a subsidized child. In some cases, the centers are accepting subsidies for the first time.

The campaign, begun 18 months ago, hinges on personal outreach to providers by county workers who describe the impact quality care can have on a low-income child and check in frequently during the early weeks of enrollment.

Elizabeth Groneberg, outreach coordinator for Boulder County’s subsidy program, said she tells providers, “You let me know when you get your first (subsidized) family. We’ll be in touch every day.”

At one high-quality private preschool, she said, the director agreed to begin accepting the subsidies so the child of one the center’s teachers could attend. Today, the center has two children in subsidized slots.

In Larimer County, where demand for subsidies far outstrips supply, officials say they’re not recruiting more providers to take subsidies because they couldn’t place children in those slots.

While about a dozen Colorado counties have wait lists for subsidies, Larimer has the largest, according to state officials.

“We want to pay for good quality care, but you have to have additional finances … to do it,” said Heather O’Hayre, deputy director of human services for Larimer County.

The real problem is that the state’s formula for distributing funds to counties isn’t working the way it should, O’Hayre said. She and her colleagues also lament that the committee that determines the formula is heavy on metro Denver representation and that members have no term limits. There are no voting members from Larimer County.

While state officials say they understand Larimer’s concerns about the long wait list, the fact that the problem is acute in just one county rather than several doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem with the allocation formula.

“I know they’re frustrated for sure,” Mewhinney said.

Legislating discipline

Not just a Front Range problem: Young boys of color are more likely to be suspended in rural Colorado, too

PHOTO: Photo by Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat

When a Colorado bill that would limit suspensions and expulsions among young students met vocal opposition from rural school district leaders in March, a common refrain was that harsh discipline tactics were a Front Range problem, not a rural one.

But a Chalkbeat examination of state data on out-of-school suspensions of students in kindergarten to second grade shows that a key concern of bill advocates — that such methods disproportionately impact boys, especially boys of color — bears out in the state’s rural districts, too.

Last year, the state’s 148 rural districts handed out nearly 500 out-of-school suspensions to early elementary kids, 84 percent of them to boys. Boys in almost every racial and ethnic category were overrepresented in the suspension pool when compared to their overall populations in rural districts.

The disparities were particularly pronounced for black and multiracial boys, who make up just under 2 percent of rural students, followed by white boys, who comprise one-third of rural students.

Supporters of efforts to curb early childhood suspension and expulsion say removing kids from school at a young age can have devastating lifelong consequences — increasing the likelihood of future suspensions and the risk that kids will eventually drop out and end up incarcerated.

House Bill 1210 would curb out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for students in kindergarten through second grade, as well as preschoolers in state-funded programs. It would permit out-of-school suspensions only if a child endangers others on school grounds, represents a serious safety threat or if school staff have exhausted all other options.

In general, suspensions would be limited to three days. Expulsions would be prohibited under the bill except as allowed under federal law when kids bring guns to schools.

The legislation was crafted after months of work by advocates who sought input from an array of sources, including the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance.

At first, the alliance didn’t take an official stand on the bill, but in late March — the same day the House approved the bill — its board voted unanimously to oppose the bill. After that, Republicans in the Senate assigned the bill to a committee that has a track record of killing legislation that leadership opposes. It’s scheduled for a hearing in that committee on Monday.

While not all rural school district leaders oppose the bill, some say the problem the proposed legislation is trying to solve doesn’t apply to them.

Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance said, “It’s not a rural issue … We are not over-expelling or over-suspending our kids.”

National experts, however, say the problem touches districts of all sizes and types.

“Usually whether it’s rural, suburban or urban, we see a wide range of suspension rates, evidence of excess and unjustified disparities,” said Dan Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles. “We see it everywhere.”


Murphy said there’s been no outcry in Colorado’s rural districts from parents or community groups about discipline in the early grades.

Losen said there can be a variety of reasons for that. Parents may not be aware of data that illuminates discipline disparities. They may also be ashamed that their children behaved poorly at school or feel intimidated by school officials.

If parents are undocumented immigrants, Losen said, “the last thing they’re going to do is challenge school officials about anything.”

Taken together, Colorado’s rural districts do have lower suspension rates in the early childhood years than non-rural districts. Colorado’s rural districts educate about 16 percent of the state’s students and hand out 9 percent of the early elementary suspensions, according to 2015-16 data from the Colorado Department of Education.

The numbers, however, vary widely by district.

Dozens of rural districts suspended no kindergarten through second-grade children last year. Dozens of others suspended at least a few, with several handing out more than 20 suspensions. (Expulsions of young children are rare in all types of school districts, with only six statewide last year.)

There are dramatic differences in out-of-school suspension rates even in similarly sized rural districts. For example, the 1,360-student East Otero district in southeastern Colorado handed out 32 suspensions to children in kindergarten through second grade last year, while the 1,320-student Fremont RE-2 district suspended one.

East Otero Superintendent Rick Lovato said part of the reason for the high number of suspensions last year at La Junta Primary School was a new principal and assistant principal who put in place stricter behavior guidelines after a year in which students were being sent to the office constantly for bad behavior.

The vast majority of suspensions — some children received two or three that year — were for violent behavior such as punching, fighting, kicking and biting, Lovato said. This year, so far, kindergarten to second grade suspensions are down to 12.

“Kids and parents have adjusted to the culture and understand what those boundaries are,” said Lovato.

He said the district is working to reduce out-of-school suspensions in all grade levels at all three of its schools.

Lovato said he’s on the fence about House Bill 1210. While he’s adamantly against early elementary expulsions and believes nearly all early childhood suspensions given in East Otero would be allowed under the legislation, he feels districts should get to have the final say in such decisions.

High poverty rates can sometimes drive high suspension rates, but it’s far from universal in Colorado’s rural districts. For example, the 3,600-student Canon City district, where about half of students come from low-income families, gave out 43 early elementary suspensions last year while the nearly 5,000-student Garfield RE-2 district, where the same proportion of students come from low-income families, gave out nine.

Losen said how heavily a building relies on suspension has a lot “to do with the school principal and the culture and history of a school.”

“You tend to see it where resources are really scarce and folks don’t feel they can teach all kids,” he said.

Given the state’s perennial school funding crunch, many rural superintendents argue that limited resources play a part. They say shoestring budgets make it hard to afford counselors, social workers or other staff who could help children with challenging behavior.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that East Otero had suspended 32 children last year. In fact, the district gave out 32 suspensions last year, with some children receiving multiple suspensions. Also, a previous version of the story quoted the Fremont Unified School District director of student support services. That school district is in California. The administrator gamely answered our questions about Colorado legislation, and we quoted him. We meant to contact the Fremont R-2 school district in Florence, in southern Colorado, to ask about the district’s low suspension rates. We regret getting our Fremonts mixed up.