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.

debating discipline

Threats, attacks and thrown chairs: DPS fields concerns about effort to reduce early childhood suspensions

PHOTO: John/Creative Commons

One 6-year-old Denver student told his pregnant teacher he was going to kick her to kill her unborn baby. A first-grader tried to stab her teacher in the eye with a sharpened pencil. Another young child threw a classmate against a brick wall and gave her a concussion.

Such jaw-dropping incidents — detailed in dozens of comments submitted to Denver Public Schools in recent months — illustrate the tightrope walk district officials face as they consider a policy change that would dramatically curb suspensions and expulsions of preschool through third-grade students.

Advocates hail the proposal as a key step toward early childhood discipline reform and a way to combat the disproportionate use of harsh discipline tactics on young boys of color. But many educators are wary — saying that the district already provides too little help in managing the most explosive young students and that the new policy will only exacerbate the problem.

The policy, scheduled for a school board vote Monday, would reserve suspensions of preschool through third-grade students for “only the most severe behaviors impacting staff or student safety” and they would be limited to one day. Expulsions would be allowed only if young students bring guns to school.

Debate about the district’s new policy comes as school districts nationwide grapple with efforts to reduce racial and gender disparities in early childhood discipline, and a few months after state legislation to reduce suspensions and expulsions in preschool through second grade died in a Senate committee.

At a Denver school board meeting last month, at least a dozen people spoke in favor of the district’s proposed changes, including two state representatives, as well as leaders from the Denver NAACP, the Urban League, Democrats for Education Reform, and the advocacy groups Padres & Jovenes Unidos and Advocacy Denver.

They argued that suspensions don’t work to change bad behavior, that they set children back academically and increase the risk of future suspensions.

But a number of educators — even those who support the move philosophically — are skeptical.

Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said she worries the proposal is an example of district officials adopting a stance that “looks wonderful but doesn’t put the appropriate supports in place.”

“I have some trepidation about DPS always wanting to be the first and a ground-breaker without thinking about how it affects the classroom,” she said.

In response to an open records request from Chalkbeat, DPS provided 66 comments — with names, school names and contact information redacted — received through a special email address for public feedback about the proposed policy.

Most respondents were district staff, a few were parents and one was a district official from Pittsburgh, which is considering a moratorium on suspensions for preschool to second grade students.

Only a handful of the 66 commenters favored the proposed policy change, which would take effect for the coming school year.

One parent wrote, “As a father of two current DPS Black male students, I am writing to support the proposed policy … The current practice/policy is out of sync with the mission of DPS.”

A school psychologist also wrote in support, saying, “In much the same way that we wouldn’t attempt to expel a student who lacked essential academic knowledge or skill, we should not attempt to expel young students who lack essential behavioral knowledge or skill.”

More often, educators expressed anger, frustration and disappointment over the proposal — painting a picture of teachers, students and sometimes whole schools at the mercy of a few violent young students.

One third grade teacher wrote, “Students have no fear of breaking rules. I have had students who attack others regularly, throw chairs at students’ heads, punch students and teachers in the face, choke others, stab at necks with fists full of pencils, curse violently, run out of the school, elaborate on their plans to harm others at the school or get them to commit suicide — and those are just my students.”

Eldridge Greer, the district’s associate chief for student equity and opportunity, said the proposed changes are targeted at eliminating suspensions for children whose behavior is “in some ways more irritating than threatening.” Children who show extremely violent or aggressive behavior could still be suspended, he said.

In the 2015-16 school year, the district suspended about 500 kids in preschool through third grade. None were expelled.

A number of DPS staff members who provided written comments said current practices — including regular lessons on social and emotional skills and efforts to use restorative justice — don’t work in the most extreme cases.

A second grade teacher wrote, “These ‘restorative’ conversations lead absolutely no where and have close to zero effect as the same students are continuing to repeat these same behaviors and they become more extreme and regular.”

But district officials say a new infusion of cash approved by voters last November will provide extra help to educators — in the form of extra staff or other services devoted to students’ mental health and social and emotional needs

Greer said $11 million from the district’s mill levy will be divvied among schools based on enrollment, number of low-income students and other factors. Principals will be able to pay school social workers, counselors or psychologists to work additional days, partner with local mental health organizations or propose other ideas, he said.

Three-quarters of district schools would receive $30,000 or more from the $11 million pot.

Shamburg said on a per-school basis it’s not much money.

Greer said, “I think it is a good chunk of support when you think an average elementary school may be able to increase by one, two or three days of mental health coverage.”

Some commenters on the proposed policy urged the district to create new specialized programs for the most challenging children or find such slots outside the district. A couple commenters who previously worked in other districts voiced their surprise at the lack of social and emotional help available in their DPS schools.

A former Aurora teacher gave a plug for universal mental health screenings. Others urged smaller class sizes and more recess time.

Some commenters — including a school social worker and school psychologist — reported instances of school staff not reporting or misreporting discipline cases to make their schools’ rates look better, and expressed concern that the practice will persist under the new policy.

District spokeswoman Nancy Mitchell said of the assertions, “We’re not doubting that people are telling us their experiences when they give us comments.” 

Greer said the district holds monthly trainings to help administrators implement the district’s discipline policy and document discipline incidents. The district also works with Padres and Advocacy Denver to address parent concerns about inappropriate discipline reporting.

A district special education teacher wrote of mixed feelings about the proposed early childhood discipline policy: “I am happy that DPS is nationally recognized but I hope this recognition does not come at the expense of scared children, injured children and hopeless staff and personnel.”

The comments below are a selection of those submitted to the district.

early intervention

Meet Colorado’s resident expert on early childhood mental health

Jordana Ash, Colorado's director of early childhood mental health

Jordana Ash holds a job that doesn’t exist in most states.

She’s Colorado’s director of early childhood mental health — a position created three years ago within the state’s Office of Early Childhood. A local foundation paid Ash’s salary for 18 months and then the state took over.

The addition of a high-level state job dedicated to the mental health of young children was a win for advocates, coming at a time of growing awareness about the long-term impact of childhood trauma. Ash said her role helps infuse both the Office of Early Childhood, where her unit is housed, and other state agencies with programs and policies focusing on child mental health.

Before coming to the Office of Early Childhood, which is part of the Department of Human Services, Ash ran a mental health consultation program in Boulder for 13 years.

We sat down with Ash this week to discuss her background, the state’s work on early childhood mental health and her thoughts on the recent defeat of state legislation that would have limited early childhood suspensions and expulsions.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What sparked your interest in early childhood mental health?
My first job out of graduate school was in Alameda County, California and I was a child welfare worker. I didn’t have a lot of life experience at that time. I didn’t have children of my own. I didn’t know a lot about child development. But what I could really do is listen to families. We met families at the hardest times.These were families whose children were removed for suspicion of abuse or neglect.

Everybody has a story and if you spend time listening, you will hear about their hopes for their child, things that bring them joy in parenting. To me, it’s about the stories and what parents do every day to try to do better for their kids.

Can you put into context Colorado’s work on early childhood mental health compared to work in other states?
Colorado is really in a unique position compared to other states. My position was created three years ago with philanthropic dollars (from the Denver-based Rose Community Foundation, which is also is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat) looking to get a position in state government completely focused on early childhood mental health.

There are very few states that have a position of leadership in state government with (early childhood mental health) being their primary focus. Minnesota has a similar position, Connecticut has a coordinator position. A couple of states are coming along. Other states have recognized that it’s a wise investment to have a position where you can really institutionalize some of those important changes and policies for statewide reach.

Can you talk about the major efforts your unit is working on now?
Our two main initiatives are the mental health (consultant) program and Colorado Project LAUNCH. (See this story for more about Project LAUNCH.)

We are (also) studying the effects of parent adversity on child well-being. We were (also) selected to receive three years of technical assistance on infant and early childhood mental health consultation. We’re hoping that helps us finalize our system of consultation in Colorado so we are a premier program that other states look to.

Last year, the state doubled the number of early childhood mental health consultants available to help child care providers and preschool teachers manage challenging behavior. How is it going?
Our state-funded program of 34 full-time positions is one of the largest (in the nation). We’re working really hard on developing Colorado’s system of mental health consultation so it’s consistent — for state-funded positions, for positions funded by philanthropy for programs that have their own hired consultants — so everyone is working toward the same standard of practice.

Can you share an anecdote about how mental health consultation works?

I can think of a situation where a consultant provided support for a cook at a child care center. Her child was enrolled in the program. This was a 3-year-old with a lot of challenging behaviors. At first, (the mother) was really nervous to talk to the consultant. She confused the role of the mental health consultant with something like social services and wondered if she was going to be judged or somehow scrutinized about her parenting. She had never had contact with any kind of mental health service before.

In getting to know the consultant not only did she find some new ways to interact with her child so that he could be more successful in the classroom and at home, but she also had her first experience with a mental health professional. It reduced the sense of stigma (around) getting mental health help.

She found that she could get a better position at the child care center because her child was successful in his classroom. She wasn’t having to take him home because of his problems.

What advice do you have for child care providers or early childhood teachers who are at their wits’ end over a child’s challenging behavior and haven’t accessed a consultant? Take a deep breath. We want to understand that that child is telling us something. We might not understand what that behavior means but it’s our responsibility as adults to help figure that out.

We really encourage providers to access a mental health consultant or other support right away when they’re starting to be puzzled or concerned about a child’s behavior. It’s much easier to intervene if you have new ideas sooner in the process.

The role of child care providers and teachers is critically important. So we are not in a position to judge or to evaluate what you’ve done. We’re in a position to partner with you and help you provide the best care you can.

To locate an early childhood mental health consultant, providers can call 303-866-4393.

What advice do you have for parents who know their child is acting up at preschool or child care and worry they could get counseled out or kicked out?
Reach out and connect directly with your child care program about the problem before you start feeling like your child may be at risk of being suspended or expelled. That partnership between parents and providers is the most powerful part of a solution.

I would also say you can talk to your child’s primary care physician as a start. Maybe there’s a developmental concern your physician can help figure out and that’s gonna be a really important piece of the puzzle.

Connecting with a mental health consultant in your area is a really good solution to start looking at the causes of those challenging behaviors and to start putting in place some interventions while other tests or other assessments are being done.

For help locating a mental health consultant, parents can visit: http://www.coloradoofficeofearlychildhood.com/ecmentalhealth

What are your thoughts on the bill killed during Colorado’s 2017 legislative session that would have limited suspensions and expulsions in preschool and kindergarten through second grade?

The fact that the bill made it as far as it did meant lots of people were invested, were having great conversations about this problem in a way we never (had) before. Stakeholders were for the first time …. considering issues of disproportionality and implicit bias in a way that was a first. We had never had that kind of visibility to the early childhood time period and this very complex issue that affects children’s trajectories way into their school years.

Would you like to see a similar bill pass next year?
As an office, we’d be super interested in whatever’s put forward.