How many is too many?

Not all schools want the state telling them how to assess whether kids are ready for kindergarten. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Photo by Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat

Next week, Principal Lori Heller will drive to Denver from her tiny elementary school on the Eastern Plains for a hearing before the state Board of Education. She’ll bring along her kindergarten teacher, who this year has 10 students in her class.

They’ll be asking the board to grant their district, Peetz Plateau, an exception to a state rule that requires Colorado schools to assess kindergarteners using certain approved tools. If the vote goes in their favor — it didn’t on their first try in August — Peetz Plateau will be among eight school districts and 80 charter schools that have received such waivers over the last two years.

School and district leaders who’ve gotten the waivers see them as common-sense measures that give them more control over assessment decisions. But for some early childhood advocates the growing numbers of waivers are troubling — a sign that the lofty ambitions of a major 2008 school reform law are being watered down.

That law, called CAP4K, mandated that kindergarteners be assessed to see how well they were doing on a range of academic, developmental and behavioral skills as they entered school. And the results weren’t just for parents and teachers. They would be reported in aggregate to state lawmakers.

That is still set to happen, probably in about 18 months. Even so, there’s been a growing chorus of worry that those aggregate results won’t provide much clarity if they’ve been gleaned from many different types of assessments, some of which have been nationally vetted for validity and reliability, and many others that have been developed locally without rigorous scientific evaluation.

“At some point the state needs to step back and say, ‘Do we believe in the aggregate assessment of how our kids are doing at kindergarten entry or are we OK with not really knowing,’” said Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

Given the growing variability in assessment tools, he said, “It’s going to be very hard to know the value of investments we’re making in early childhood.”

State board members — both Democrats and Republicans — have also worried that the growing number of kindergarten assessment systems will make it impossible to meet their obligation to the legislature.

School districts with kindergarten readiness waivers

  • Academy 20
  • Cheyenne Mountain
  • Holyoke
  • Elbert County
  • Lewis-Palmer
  • Woodlin
  • Wray

During a hearing on a waiver request by the 6,300-student Lewis-Palmer district last April, board vice chair Angelika Schroeder said, “I just don’t believe that the legislature asked us to check on kindergarten readiness and then have it nicked away and nicked away until there isn’t anything were actually providing to them.”

At the same time, officials from districts and schools that have sought waivers say they are committed to kindergarten readiness assessments but prefer to use locally-grown systems developed with staff input over several years.

“Long before CAP4K…we had a pretty robust screening and diagnostic process in place that we used with all our kindergarteners,” said Walt Cooper, superintendent of the 5,100-student Cheyenne Mountain district in Colorado Springs, which won its waiver in March.

The process was developed by an interdisciplinary team, including teachers, speech pathologists, occupational therapists and school nurses.

“We did not want to abandon what we had been doing that had been so successful for us,” Cooper said.

In small rural districts, which represent five of the eight districts that have sought waivers, administrators say small class sizes and the close-knit nature of their communities ensure that teachers are intimately familiar with students’ strengths and weaknesses.

“They’re not going to get lost,” Heller said.

Rocky roll-out

One reason for the rocky transition to the kindergarten assessment system mandated under CAP4K and the growing stream of waiver requests has been frustration with the first assessment approved by the state.

Called Teaching Strategies GOLD, it’s now one of three approved assessments, but remains the most widely used one. (Unlike assessments for older kids, which might be paper-and-pencil or computer-based tests, kindergarten readiness assessments rely on teachers to observe students and document their skills.)

Over the past few years, many teachers and administrators have complained that GOLD is time-consuming, cumbersome and sometimes hobbled by technological snafus. In some districts, there were also concerns about privacy since the online tool allows teachers to document student progress using photos and videos of kids.

Since then, several changes have been made, including cutting the number of items on GOLD nearly in half and and requiring parental permission for student photos and videos. The streamlined version of GOLD was unveiled this fall.

But even with the improvements, administrators like Lori Heller say the tool duplicates what her school is already doing. Since Peetz Plateau hasn’t yet received a waiver, the kindergarten teacher used both the usual district assessments as well as GOLD this fall.

“At this point, we’re not getting any additional information from TS GOLD about students that we don’t already have,” Heller said. “It’s not really helping to drive our instruction.”

The situation was similar last year at Roots Elementary, a Denver charter school that opened in the fall of 2015 but didn’t have a waiver until this year.

Principal Jon Hanover said while he usually lands on the side of more assessment and accountability, he doesn’t feel that way about GOLD. The school used it along with a raft of other carefully chosen assessments last year.

It’s well-intentioned, he said, but puts an unnecessary burden on kids and teachers and didn’t add anything to the data they already collected.

Numbers stable for now

Despite worries about a mishmash of kindergarten assessment systems now in use across Colorado, it’s unclear whether the number will grow further.

Currently, Peetz Plateau is the only district scheduled for a waiver hearing at an upcoming state board meeting. Officials at the education department said they weren’t aware of any other pending requests.

With the requirement for statewide kindergarten readiness assessment now in its second year, it’s possible educators are getting used to the new system. Even before the tool was scaled down this year, it garnered praise from some teachers who said it provides a comprehensive picture of how children are doing and is easy for parents to understand.

Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance, said she’s heard positive feedback from districts since the simplified version of GOLD was released.

“They like it better,” she said. “It’s much more user-friendly.”

Even with the changes, some rural district leaders believe GOLD is more than they need in their small communities, Murphy said.

Low bar for some applicants?

Some district officials have been surprised by what they see as inconsistencies in how the state decides who gets kindergarten readiness assessment waivers and who doesn’t.

Some waivers, especially those from charter schools, seem to sail through the approval process. Others have faltered even when modeled on successful waiver applications submitted by other charter schools or districts. In addition, some district waivers expire after three years while others continue into perpetuity.

These disparities are partly due to the three different waiver pathways that exist in state law — one for charter schools, one for school districts and one for schools or districts seeking innovation status.

But timing also seems to be a factor, with more scrutiny for some districts that have sought waivers later in the process when the number of waivers was beginning to alarm the state board.

Cooper said his staff developed their waiver application in close collaboration with a local charter school that had easily obtained a waiver the year before. He said he was surprised at the “double standard of scrutiny” applied to Cheyenne Mountain’s proposal — hours of conference calls with state education department officials and multiple revisions to parts of the plan.

Melissa Colsman, executive director of teaching and learning at the education department, said, “We recognize that a charter that comes forward with a waiver request has already had a level of oversight and scrutiny by their district or local authorizer.”

The education department plays that vetting role for school districts requesting waivers, she said.

But Cooper argued that local school boards vet waivers from both charters and their own school districts, so the different standard by the state doesn’t make sense.

Murphy also lamented the high bar that districts such as Peetz Plateau must hurdle to get waivers.

“I’d just like to see small rural (districts) have an easier time in the review process,” she said.

paycheck parity

How a rural preschool overcame an industrywide challenge and paid teachers more

PHOTO: Marcia Walter
Marcia Walter, a teacher and the director at Dragon's Wagon Preschool, reads to her students.

Marcia Walter has worked at Dragon’s Wagon Preschool in the small town of Holyoke in northeastern Colorado for more than 25 years — starting as a teacher’s aide and working her way up to director.

In August, she got some news that made her cry: She was getting a raise.

It wasn’t a modest cost-of-living raise. It was a whopping 44 percent increase that bumped her annual salary from $32,000 to $46,000. At the same time, the preschool’s board approved increases for other staff members, and for the first time, put in place a salary schedule.

The changes came out of a years-long process by the 10-member board to better match staff salaries with those of local school district employees. The effort represents a unique victory in a field where low wages are the norm and some child care employees earn so little they qualify for public assistance. It also provides a glimpse into the complicated funding puzzle that many preschools and child care centers face when it’s time to build their budgets.

“I’m proud of where we’ve come from and where we are now,” said Tracy Stegg, a Dragon’s Wagon board member. “They deserve it.”

On average, early childhood workers nationwide earn $10.60 an hour, according to a 2016 report put out by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Those with at least a bachelor’s degree earn $14.70, about half of what other kinds of workers with bachelor’s degrees earn.

At Dragon’s Wagon — where the classroom walls are painted with rolling green hills, kite-flying bunnies and shoe-nibbling puppies — the board began talking about raises a couple years ago. Aside from Walter, the preschool’s other employees had all turned over in the space of four years, said board member Deb Williamson, who is vice president of the local bank.

“It opens your eyes,” she said. “Maybe we need to look at why we’re losing people.”

The board began to think harder about the importance of consistency for the 67 children who spend four half-days a week at Dragon’s Wagon and the ease with which Walter, a lead teacher, could find better-paying work if she wanted to.

She was nurturing and dedicated. She’d gone back to school to get her bachelor’s degree at the board’s urging. And like all of the preschool’s employees, Walter didn’t get employer-provided health insurance.

To help settle on a new compensation system, the board looked at the salaries offered by the local school district as well as a handful of other child care providers in the region. In addition to Walter’s $14,000 raise, they decided to raise the salary of the assistant director, who’d been at the preschool for two years, from $26,000 to $32,000. Teacher’s aides also got a boost, moving from $8.50 an hour to $10.

So, how did they come up with more than $20,000 to increase staff pay?

There was no magic bullet. Board members said they’d accumulated a small “nest egg” by squirreling away money in years there was a budget surplus. In addition, they relied on grants, tuition money, fundraising dollars from the school’s annual spaghetti supper and auction, and state money they received for serving at-risk students and those with special needs.

Asked how other preschools or child care centers might achieve such salary improvements, Stegg said a proactive board and careful planning helps.

Walter, who started working at Dragon’s Wagon in 1989, said community buy-in is critical. Residents — many of whom work at nearby hog farms, the local grain elevator or the hospital — have relied on and supported the preschool for years.

Kathy Miller, a regional support specialist for the state’s Colorado Preschool Program, said she considers the salary increases a “beautiful example” but expressed concern that the changes can’t be easily replicated elsewhere.

“I think it’s a model,” said Miller, who works with child care sites, including Dragon’s Wagon, within an eight-school district region. “I just don’t know if it’s possible in all communities.”

There are tight state and school district budgets to contend with, the public misconception that early childhood teachers are glorified babysitters and the fact that busy preschool directors may not be forging close connections with local business leaders, she said.

For Dragon’s Wagon, the challenge ahead will be sustaining the raises.

“I hope they can keep that up,” Miller said.

Tuition, which has remained at $80 a month for the last eight years, may eventually increase, Williamson said. Preschool leaders are also highlighting the new pay structure in grant applications, after learning that some foundations are eager to know about such improvements.

For her part, Walter is confident that the board has done its due diligence. She’d been privy to conversations about staff salaries for years. In fact, back in August, she knew she’d be getting a raise herself— she just didn’t know how big it would be.

“It made me realize that they do appreciate everything we do and that we’re worth it,” she said.

Q&A

Denver’s citywide effort to help poor children read better — explained

PHOTO: Lisa Roy
Lisa Roy, Denver Public Schools' new executive director of early childhood, started in October

Lisa Roy became Denver Public Schools’ executive director of early education — a newly created position — in October.

She’ll play a key role in launching the “Birth to Eight Roadmap,” a community effort aimed at improving literacy outcomes among young children living in areas of concentrated poverty in Denver.

Before coming to DPS, Roy was executive director of the Denver-based Timothy and Bernadette Marquez Foundation and did consulting for Grantmakers for Education, a national network of education grant-makers. She’s also worked for two other Denver-based foundations: the Piton Foundation and the Daniels Fund.

We sat down with Roy this week to discuss her background, her new position and the road map’s recommendations.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What was your own early childhood experience like?
My great-grandfather was the superintendent of schools for Frederick County, Maryland, and he built one of the first high schools for African-American kids. So he was what was called the Superintendent of Colored Schools at the turn of the last century.

My grandmother and all of her siblings were teachers, and so my early childhood experience was actually my grandmother. She was a stay-at-home grandmom and took care of me and my cousins and siblings and we got a great experience. Of course, there was the ruler when I mispronounced words — a little slap on the hand — and I had to do my little rhyming before I could eat lunch or breakfast.

What was it like when your school was integrated when you were in kindergarten?
I didn’t really think about it. I had seen white kids on television and in the supermarket. I don’t think that part was as shocking. As I got older, it was a little different because I realized I was invisible. Obviously, I tested well and was put in an advanced track. It was myself and one other schoolmate that went through this advanced track together until we graduated from elementary school.

For me growing up, there was also this dissonance around if you were doing well in school somehow that meant you were trying to assimilate as opposed to this was my family background. I didn’t know how else to be.

What is the Birth to Eight Roadmap?
It’s a partnership between the City and County of Denver, Denver Public Schools and a myriad of nonprofit partners to provide supports and services around language and literacy from birth to third grade.

We have 11 different recommendations — from having an early opportunity system which ensures that kids have the developmental screenings they need and are provided the services to keep them at grade level, to hubs, which could be community-based or school-based opportunities to provide supports and services to families.

Has Denver Public Schools done anything like this before?
No, not like this. DPS and the city did work hand-in-hand with then-Mayor (John) Hickenlooper on the first Denver Preschool Program ballot initiative (which provides preschool tuition assistance for Denver 4-year-olds through a city sales tax ), but it was a very discrete ballot initiative. It wasn’t meant to solve every issue around birth to age 8. It was 4-year-olds only.

This has never been done before because it’s crossing the boundaries of what DPS is responsible for and what the community and parents are responsible for. It’s this opportunity to collaborate with parents, collaborate with nonprofit programs and child care centers, collaborate even within the district, across departments.

What is the goal of the Birth to Eight Roadmap?
The ultimate goal is that kids are reading proficiently and above by third grade.

We understand that when kids get to kindergarten it’s too late. About 38% of our children have no formal pre-K experience. We want to ensure our teachers are able to individualize according to where kids are, and their backgrounds and experiences … but also to try to the raise the percentage of kids who have some type of exposure (to early learning).

Not all parents are going to pick formal pre-K. But some of them might be willing to do a play-and-learn group or join the family literacy program or do Parents as Teachers or Home Instruction for Parents and Preschool Youngsters. We want to provide more opportunities like that with the collaboration.

What will the resource hubs will entail?
One example that we have in Denver Public Schools already is College View Academy, which has everything from play-and-learn groups to English as a Second Language and GED (classes) for parents. They even have opportunities for parents who are interested in going into the teaching profession to start off as a paraprofessional.

Again, this underlying theme around language and literacy is there throughout the building— with other supports that families need to succeed. Keep in mind that every neighborhood looks different.

How many hubs will there be and where?
We’re hoping to launch five, but keep in mind these are not hubs from scratch. These are hubs that have a lot of comprehensive services (now).

Right now, we have College View Academy, Place Bridge Academy, a school for immigrants and refugees; Florence Crittenton High School, a school for pregnant and parenting teens; and Focus Points Family Resource Center, near Swansea Elementary.

What do you see as the biggest challenge in implementing the Roadmap recommendations?
Well, it could be like herding cats. When you’re dealing with a lot of different people that have to raise their own funding, that are in various communities … it makes an interesting avenue to launch this kind of work.

What’s the timeline for the Roadmap?
Some of these things will be going to go on into perpetuity I would hope. But for the next three to four years we’re going to intensively look at three different phases. By the end of four years, it will really take shape, in a way you can say, “Yes, that’s the result of the Birth to Eight Roadmap.”