Little learners

Most states, including Colorado, invest less in kindergarten than other grades, report says

Roots Elementary students hold iPads as they stand in line to go into one of the school's mini-classrooms.

Even with a major push in Colorado and the nation to capitalize on the early childhood years so that kids are reading well by third grade, kindergarten still gets short shrift.

Most states, including Colorado, don’t require school districts to offer full-day kindergarten and don’t fully fund the program even when it’s offered. In addition, about half of states, including Colorado, allow full-day kindergarten to be fewer hours per day than other elementary grades.

These are a few of the findings in a new report from the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, which tracks research and advises state education policymakers.

Still, there are signs of change, albeit very gradual. The report found that 14 states now mandate that districts offer full-day kindergarten, up from 11 in 2013.

Although there is no such requirement in Colorado, demand for full-day kindergarten is relatively high, with about three-quarters of the state’s kindergartners attending full-day programs last year, according to the state education department.

Bruce Atchison, director of early learning for Education Commission of the States, said he expects the number of states mandating full-day kindergarten to continue to tick up, mirroring the trend that ratcheted up state-funded preschool programs over the last several years.

“As the economy recovers and legislators and governors are prioritizing their agendas, we’ll see more and more full-day kindergarten programs being offered,” he said.

Atchison believes efforts to improve third-grade reading proficiency will be a key driver. To date, such efforts have been reactive, with state laws, including Colorado’s READ Act, focusing on mitigating the problem after it’s been identified. Full-day kindergarten represents part of a more proactive approach, he said.

Some states, such as West Virginia, require districts to exclusively offer full-day kindergarten, while others, such as Oklahoma, require districts to offer it but also allow families to choose half-day kindergarten, according to the report.

The hurdle that many states face in offering expansive full-day kindergarten programs is funding. Historically, the half-day class required half the spending of other grades. But as full-day options were phased in, funding didn’t always catch up.

In Colorado, for example, state funding for full-day kindergarteners is only 58 percent of what it is for other grades. School districts that offer full-day kindergarten typically cover the gap by using other funding sources or by charging parents tuition.

There have been multiple legislative efforts to ramp up state funding for full-day kindergarten in recent years, including two bills that died during the 2016 legislative session.

Early education

Tennessee lawmakers vote to leave pre-K alone this year

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

Ever since Tennessee started its public pre-kindergarten program in 2005, Rep. Bill Dunn has questioned whether it’s money well spent.

His skepticism seemed vindicated in 2015, when a landmark five-year study by Vanderbilt University found that children who participated in Tennessee’s program didn’t make sustainable academic gains. In fact, they fell behind their peers by third grade. 

The legislature responded to the study’s surprising results last year with a new law designed to strengthen Tennessee’s pre-K program.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Rep. Bill Dunn

This year, Dunn proposed allowing districts to spend their pre-K money elsewhere. But his bill was killed on Wednesday in the House by colleagues who said they want to give new changes to public pre-K more time to work.

“I’m shocked,” said Dunn, a Republican from Knoxville, of the decision by the Instruction and Programs subcommittee. “This is coming across as anti pre-K, but it’s really anti-bad results.”

Dunn’s bill would have piloted a program to allow five districts to come up with other ways to spend their pre-K money — for instance,  making kindergarten classes the smaller. The Tennessee Department of Education would have to approve any change and monitor the impact on student achievement.

But lawmakers said they aren’t ready to meddle with early education while it’s in transition.

“I personally would like to see what comes from those changes … before we do anything else,” said Rep. John Forgety, a Republican from Athens.

The State Department of Education recently overhauled its application for local districts to receive pre-K money according to best practices identified by Vanderbilt researchers. Those changes are an effort to tie funding to quality.

The new applications, which seek state funding for next school year, are due to the state in April, and district officials have been attending trainings as part of the transition.

Discipline reform

Denver Public Schools takes strong stand against suspension and expulsion in early grades

Community members gathered in the library of Godsman Elementary School for a Denver Public Schools announcement that suspension and expulsion will be eliminated for preschool through third-grade.

Denver Public Schools announced plans Wednesday to eliminate out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for preschool through third grade students except in the most serious incidents.

District officials say the move puts DPS on the cutting edge of discipline reform nationally and builds on its work over the last 10 years to reduce suspensions and expulsions for all students, and replace traditional discipline methods with restorative justice techniques.

Wednesday’s announcement during a press conference at Godsman Elementary School came as state lawmakers are considering legislation that would curb suspensions and expulsions in preschool through second grade. The district’s new policy and the proposed legislation represent milestones in the years-long discussion in the state and nation about the disproportionate use of harsh discipline tactics on boys, students of color and students with disabilities.

The district’s new early childhood discipline policy will be unveiled at Thursday’s school board meeting and will be followed by a 60-day public comment period before it is finalized. It will take effect July 1.

District officials and representatives from local advocacy groups emphasized that the new policy will be accompanied by efforts to provide teachers and other staff with support in using alternative methods to suspension or expulsion.

“We really want to address the issue of student behavior. We really want to address also the issue of adult behavior and give adults a better set of tools and take out the hammer that you don’t need in your tool box…Some tools should not be in the toolbox when we are looking at babies,” said Ricardo Martinez, co-executive director of the Denver-based group Padres & Jovenes Unidos.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said about 500 students in preschool to third grade were suspended last year — most of those in second and third grade. None were expelled.

Under the new policy, suspensions would still be allowed in rare cases if a student poses a serious threat to himself or others. In those cases, suspensions would be limited to one day.

While several school districts and states have banned or significantly curtailed suspensions and expulsions for young students, most focus on students through second grade.

Eldridge Greer, the district’s associate chief of student equity and opportunity, said part of the reason DPS chose to extend its policy through third grade is to ensure kids are proficient in reading and math by the end of third grade.

“There’s no way we can reach that goal if a student is not in class,” he said.