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.

Here We Go

House education committee greenlights increasing funding for kindergarten, banning corporal punishment

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Kim Ursetta works with a student in her classroom at Denver's Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy.

The Colorado House Education Committee on Monday gave bipartisan blessing to two bills that would increase funding for kindergarten in the state’s public schools and ban corporal punishment in schools and child care centers.

The bill to fund the state’s kindergarten programs in public schools, sponsored by state Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican, is expected to be short-lived given the state’s fiscal constraints. If Wilson’s bill were to become law, it would cost the state more than $42 million. The state currently is funding schools at a $830 million deficit.

The state currently gives schools about $5,000 for every kindergarten student. However, schools receive more than $8,000 for every student in grades one through 12. Wilson’s bill would work toward closing that gap.

“We say we can’t afford it. Well, guess what? Our districts can’t afford it either,” Wilson said.

Most of the state’s school districts offer full-day kindergarten. However, some rely on charging tuition while others divert federal funds to make up the difference.

The bill passed 12-4 with Rep. Lang Sias, an Arvada Republican, joining all the Democrats on the Democratic-controlled committee. But committee members were well aware of the bill’s likely fate.

A similar bill sponsored by Lakewood Democrats Sen. Andy Kerr and Rep. Brittany Pettersen  has already been sent to the Senate’s state affairs committee, where it’s expected to die. The difference between the two bills: Kerr’s and Pettersen’s bill would ask voters to approve a tax increase to pay for kindergarten.

The bill to prohibit corporal punishment, sponsored by Denver Democrat Rep. Susan Lontine, would outlaw using physical punishment for children in public schools and private child care centers. That would extend to small licensed day cares run out of private homes.    

Colorado is one of 19 states that does not currently ban physical violence used as punishment in schools or day cares. Lontine’s bill, which passed on an 11-2 vote, would end such practices, which are rare.

“If you did this at home, it’d be child abuse,” Lontine said. “But if you did it in school, it’d be corporal punishment and it’d be allowed.”

According to a 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, nearly 500 incidents of corporal punishment were reported in Colorado. However, that data was called into question when Michael Clough, superintendent of the Sheridan School District, said the 400 cases were mistakenly reported by the data.

“We have not and we do not have corporal punishment,” he said. “It does seem like we need work with data collection.”

Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, attempted to amend the bill that would recognize local school district policies. However, that amendment was defeated on a party-line vote.

Pettersen, the committee’s chairwoman, and other Democrats expressed interest in taking a second look at the amendment when the bill is debated by the entire House of Representatives. They want to ensure that every school district was meeting a state standard.

Monday’s meeting of the House Education Committee marked the first time this session education related bills were discussed. The session is expected to be largely defined by the budget debate and how educators respond to the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.  

Pre-K outcomes

New York City’s latest pre-K quality data includes success stories — and room for improvement

PHOTO: Rob Bennett/Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio
Mayor Bill de Blasio visits Sunnyside Community Services Pre-K in Queens on March 14, 2014.

At P.S. 276 Louis Marshall, there’s a “hand-to-hand” policy for pre-K students: Parents come straight to the classroom to drop off and pick up their children, who pass directly from the hands of their caregivers into those of their teachers.

Along the way, parents are encouraged to read a book with their child — classroom libraries are stocked with titles in parents’ native languages, like Arabic and Haitian Creole — or chat with a teacher about their child’s progress.

Principal Yasmine Fidelia says that has been the secret to becoming one of the most-improved pre-K programs in the city. According to data released this week by the city Department of Education, P.S. 276 in Canarsie, Brooklyn jumped from 2.6 to 4.6 on a 7-point scale. That is well above the 3.4 threshold to be considered an effective program.

“The parents and the teachers were able to work more closely because we have a hand-to-hand policy,” Fidelia said. “It just made it easier to form a relationship.”

As New York City raced to make free pre-K available for all 4-year-olds, fulfilling Mayor Bill de Blasio’s vision, observers have worried about whether quality could keep up with access. On Tuesday, the city released a second round of pre-K data that shows there is plenty of room for improvement — but also that some centers seem to have benefitted from the Department of Education’s emphasis on teacher training and curriculum.

Citywide, 84 percent of the sites evaluated between 2013 and 2016 earned a 3.4 or higher — up from 77 percent of the sites evaluated between 2012 and 2015. The tool — the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale – Revised — relies on a three-and-a-half hour observation and assesses things like teachers’ interactions with their students and whether kids get enough time to play.

P.S. 335 Granville T. Woods, on the border of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, Brooklyn, also showed an impressive leap in scores.

The program’s initial review found that teachers needed to work on building their students’ language skills. With the help of an instructional coach who visits twice a month and an on-staff coach that the school dips into its own budget to fund, teachers learned how to encourage deeper conversations with and among their students.

Principal Karena Thompson said she can see the difference. Now, teachers will listen to their students speak and follow up with questions like, “How do you know that?” or “What makes you think that?”

“We’re trying to make sure that the conversation and the language we use strengthens their thinking,” Thompson said. “They’re naturally so curious, so you want to tap into that.”

While city officials have touted the overall improvement across Pre-K for All sites, an analysis by Families for Excellent Schools — a pro-charter group and fierce critic of the city’s Department of Education — found much to criticize.

In order to meet demand quickly, the city relied on both private organizations and existing public schools to provide pre-K seats, with a split that is now roughly 60/40 private vs. public. FES found that privately-run centers are far more likely to be rated “excellent” or “good,” according to the most recent year of ECERS-R data.

Their analysis found that 93 percent of privately-run sites were rated “good” or “excellent,” while only 84 percent of sites run by the Department of Education received those top ratings. The group also reported that city-run programs were far more likely to be rated “poor.”

The performance gap between private and public pre-K centers actually grew six times larger since 2015, according to the advocacy group.

Devora Kaye, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, called the FES report “grossly misleading.” FES only looked at the most recent scores, which Kaye said does not reflect a representative sample of all sites. The report also ignored another evaluation tool used by the department, under which DOE-run pre-K sites perform slightly better, she added.

“The latest data shows that we’ve built quality along with access,” Kaye wrote in an email. “NYC programs’ improvement is on par with nationally recognized pre-K programs.”