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.”

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.

Starting early

Why boosting mental health for the youngest children is attracting federal — and private — investment

John Hicks, co-facilitator of a parenting class called "The Incredible Years" listens as participants discuss setting rules for their kids.

At dinnertime on a Tuesday night, nine parents sat in a Commerce City preschool classroom discussing the difficulty of setting rules for their small children.

Some said they bark orders too often and are trying to cut back. One mom said she wished one blanket rule — “just love each other” — would cover it. But inevitably she finds a dozen more specific things to list off: Don’t bite, don’t hit and so on.

Over the next hour, the parents and two facilitators talked through more effective approaches, including giving kids fewer direct orders, defining “non-negotiables” and letting little things go.

The parenting class was part of a federally-funded initiative called Project LAUNCH that aims to help parents, preschool teachers, pediatricians and other adults in Adams County boost mental health in young children. It reflects growing national awareness that children stand a greater chance of succeeding in school and life if they get mental health support in their earliest years.

“We have so many kids with social and emotional needs,” said Lisa Jansen Thompson, executive director of the Early Childhood Partnership of Adams County. “It is just increasing.”

The Project LAUNCH work in Adams County is a five-year, $2.6 million effort funded by a federal grant program that pays for similar efforts in states and tribal areas across the country.

Getting kids reading well by the third grade used to be the “north star” for many early childhood advocates, Jansen Thompson said. But now, abundant data show the need to start earlier — well before kids enter school. That’s when key lifelong skills develop, such as the ability to form close relationships and manage strong emotions.

And if that development hits a roadblock, a new set of problems can crop up, like kids getting suspended in preschool or having pitched battles at home.

Competition was stiff for Colorado’s Project LAUNCH funding. Eleven communities submitted letters of interest within a 48-hour period. The Adams County proposal, which focuses on Spanish-speaking families in the southern portion of the county, ultimately won out.

But the story didn’t end there. The outsized interest in early childhood mental health — along with the success of an earlier Project LAUNCH site in Weld County — inspired a first-of-its-kind effort by eight private funders to replicate the program in four other Colorado communities.

That initiative — called LAUNCH Together — last fall awarded a total of $8 million to grantees in Denver, Pueblo, Jefferson County and, working as one team, Chaffee and Fremont counties. The private funders include seven foundations and one health care provider.

“We were not trying to prove that a privately funded model could do this better,” said Colleen Church, director of programs for the Caring for Colorado Foundation, one of the funders. “We were really building off what had worked.”

She said interest in early childhood mental health had been growing among funders for several years, elevating it to the level of traditional child health priorities such as ensuring kids have access to medical care and are fully immunized.

The funders hired a Denver-based organization called Early Milestones Colorado to lead the privately funded effort.

While the details differ in the five communities participating in Project LAUNCH and LAUNCH Together, the primary strategies are the same. They involve special training for preschool teachers, parents and the staff of home visiting programs, which send professionals to work with parents of babies or young children. The idea is to help the adults with whom children interact learn how to foster social and emotional skills in kids, and spot red flags that might require outside help.

There are also efforts to get new mothers screened for depression and to make sure children are routinely screened for developmental milestones at doctor check-ups — and if problems arise, give families quick access to mental health services.

Janine Pryor, coordinator of the Chaffee County Early Childhood Council, said because of the LAUNCH Together funding, “We’re sending people to trainings that no one here could ever afford.”

Leaders of the various LAUNCH efforts say their goal is not just to alter the experience that kids and families have now at preschools, doctor’s offices and in their homes, but to make systems-level shifts that ensure changes continue after the grant money runs out.

At the same time, they want to raise public awareness about the importance of early childhood mental health and reduce the stigma that so often accompanies it.

“We’re going to try in our region to really get the word out and develop messages that will resonate with everyone,” Pryor said.