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.

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.