discipline debate

Colorado could be at the forefront in cutting back on early childhood suspensions and expulsions. Here’s how.

PHOTO: Christopher Webb/Creative Commons

Legislation introduced this week would limit out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for Colorado children in state-funded preschool programs and early elementary school.

House Bill 1210 represents a major shift in Colorado’s approach to early childhood discipline and a key milestone in the years-long discussion in the state and nation about the disproportionate use of harsh discipline tactics on boys of color.

The bill, introduced Monday by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, would apply to students in kindergarten through second grade, as well as preschoolers in state-funded programs that serve at-risk students and students with disabilities.

While schools and preschools would still be allowed to use out-of-school suspensions and expulsions in some cases, suspensions would be limited to three days. The bill doesn’t address in-school suspensions. Expulsions would be prohibited except as allowed under federal law when kids bring guns to schools — which is extremely rare for kids so young.

The legislation is scheduled to get its first consideration March 13 before the House education committee.

A related bill also introduced this week would create a pilot program to help schools and districts take into account students’ culture and background in discipline decisions. House Bill 1211 comes with no state funding and the program would only launch if grants and donations are available.

House Bill 1210, the discipline bill, stems from months of work by a large coalition of advocacy groups. Supporters say it balances the needs of young students who exhibit challenging behavior with the needs of schools charged with keeping classrooms safe. If it passes — and supporters expect it will — Colorado would be at the forefront of early childhood discipline reform.

Pamela Bisceglia, who worked on the steering committee that helped draft the bill, called it “incredibly progressive” and praised its “focus on what’s appropriate for young kids.”

“Whenever a child is removed from school they’re missing instruction,” said Bisceglia, coordinator for child and family advocacy for AdvocacyDenver, which works on behalf of people with disabilities. “The concern is whether they’re able to make appropriate progress if they’re missing school.”

Aside from losing learning time, being removed from school in the early grades increases a student’s likelihood of being suspended and expelled later, dropping out of school and ending up in prison, advocates note.

In the last two years, both Connecticut and New Jersey have passed laws similar to Colorado’s proposed law. New York City, the nation’s largest school district, is set to take action soon on a revised discipline code that would dramatically reduce suspensions for kindergarten through second-grade students.

If passed, Colorado’s law would take effect August 9.

Last year, 7,800 preschool through second-grade students in Colorado received out-of-school suspensions and 14 were expelled, according to the Colorado Department of Education. Boys, black students and students with disabilities were over-represented in those discipline cases.

Currently, young children in Colorado can receive out-of-school suspensions for all manner of disruption, from spitting or throwing a chair to biting or hitting classmates.

“That was part of the problem,” said Gerie Grimes, president and CEO of the HOPE Center, which runs a preschool program in northeast Denver. “It was kind of a wide open book what would cause a suspension.”

Colorado’s bill would allow out-of-school suspensions if a child endangers others on school grounds, represents a serious safety threat or if school staff have exhausted all other options.

While educators still would have some discretion to determine whether a transgression is suspension-worthy, Grimes said the narrower criteria is a good first step.

“This is a start,” she said. “It doesn’t mean we might not come back and look at other things.”

The state doesn’t maintain detailed data on what type of incidents result in expulsions or out-of-school suspensions for young children, but most fall into three general categories.

About 40 percent of elementary school discipline is due to “detrimental behavior,” which can include bullying and other behavior that poses a risk to others.

Behavior classified as “disobedient/defiant or repeated interference” accounted for just over a quarter of disciplinary actions. “Other code of conduct violations,” which generally cover less serious issues such as dress code violations or inappropriate language, account for just under a quarter of elementary disciplinary actions.

Bill Jaeger, director of early childhood initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign and a participant in the bill-drafting process, said he doesn’t know of any opposition to the bill.

When conversations began last spring about potential legislation on early childhood discipline, some district officials expressed concern that limiting suspensions or expulsions would tie educators’ hands or take away necessary tools for dealing with misbehavior. But Jaeger said school districts were regularly consulted as the bill came to fruition.

“Every piece of feedback that school district partners gave us,” he said, “we moved on.”

(Very) early education

Helping expectant and new mothers can lead to health and education gains for children, new paper says

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
A toddler at Loveland's Teaching Tree Early Childhood Learning Center, draws on an outline of his foot.

A new paper released Monday identifies health and educational benefits for children whose mothers participated in a home visitation program that provides medical assistance and early childhood development.

The Nurse-Family Partnership program begins in prenatal stages and ends when the child turns 2. The program offers care to disadvantaged, first-time and single mothers. Registered nurses visit the women’s homes and assist both with medical needs and early education.

University of Chicago Professor James Heckman, in tandem with four other professors and researchers at major American universities, analyzed a Nurse-Family Partnership program in Memphis, Tennessee. The paper concludes, among other things, that Nurse-Family Partnership programs improve cognitive skills for babies of both genders by age 6, and specifically social and emotional skills for girls. At age 12, males whose mothers were involved in Nurse-Family Partnership program perform better academically.

It is very important to provide a strong start early in life,” said Maria Rosales-Rueda, a professor at the University of California, Irvine and one of the paper’s authors. “We have seen several research children arrive to school already with big gaps between low socioeconomic status and high socioeconomic status. Programs like Nurse-Family Partnership target low income very disadvantaged families, first-time mothers, sometimes teenagers, by helping them to invest in their children.”

Nurse-Family Partnership receives federal funding from the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program. The funding expires Sept. 30. If Congress does not reauthorize the program, Nurse-Family Partnership and other early childhood programs could lose crucial federal dollars, said Fran Benton, a spokesman for the program’s national office.

Rosales-Rueda said she hopes the paper will help raise awareness about the effectiveness of Nurse-Family Partnership.

Currently, its programs are widely available in Colorado, according to Michelle Neal, director of the program at the Denver-based organization Invest in Kids. While federal funding makes up a smaller portion of Nurse-Family Partnership’s revenue, Neal said if the federal funding is not reauthorized, Colorado’s program could be in jeopardy.

“In Colorado at least we have great support for the program in that we’re available in all 64 counties,” she said. “A (paper) like this can have an impact on our advocacy to have the federal funding be reauthorized because that’s up in the air. We need that funding to continue flowing after October 1.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated when federal funding for the Nurse-Family Partnership expires.

building blocks

Why a Colorado researcher believes preschool students should learn — and play — with math

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

What do preschoolers need math for? Doug Clements argues preschoolers use math everywhere from reading to play — and engaging early mathematics instruction can help better prepare young students for later learning.

Clements, the executive director of the University of Denver’s Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy, has spent nearly his entire career studying and advocating for introducing math concepts in early childhood education. He and his wife Julie Sarama, Marsico’s co-executive director, developed preschool lessons and tests for teaching mathematics to early learners. Their hallmark program, Building Blocks, has taken hold in cities such as Boston and Buffalo, N.Y., where both Clements and Sarama have conducted research.

Clements took the helm at Marsico in 2013, where he and Sarama have worked on a new iteration of their math-focused early childhood curriculum that incorporates literacy, social-emotional learning and science.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Clements shared memories from the classroom and the benefits — and fun — of teaching math concepts to preschoolers. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How did you become fascinated with early math education?

I served as a graduate assistant to a math (education) professor because I liked math as a student myself. We drove a big van around with 1960s curriculum from National Science Foundation and showed teachers this stuff.

When I started teaching kindergarten I was very sensitive to the fact that I wanted to do mathematics better, so I was always casting about for curriculum or ideas to teach mathematics. I was just skeptical these kids could do it, so I was hesitant many times to ask them to do these kinds of things. But lo and behold, they took to it. It surprised me. If you talk to (kids) about their strategies and what they’re thinking about the mathematics, it just reveals so much more competence than you’d normally think that really young kids had.

I just became more and more interested in pushing the  envelope of these kind of abilities kids had mathematically. Teachers often will say, “I got into preschool so I didn’t have to teach mathematics.” And instead we tell them, “We don’t want you to give kids the kind of experiences that led you to dislike mathematics.”

Do you have a specific examples or story of a time where you saw the benefits of early math instruction in action?

We were reading a book and the (students) noticed the hexagons in a beehive, and they came up with all these different reasons that bees would make hexagons. The kids had a delightful time thinking of different reasons. For example, one of the reasons was the bees saw the hexagons in the school and thought, “That’s a great shape. We should use that in our beehive.” And this boy happened to say, “I think they chose hexagons because they fit together real well.”

The kind of natural interest and competence they have in mathematics — if given the opportunities, the interactions with the teachers, the intentional teaching that the teacher does — leads to spontaneous use of mathematics throughout their lives.

We know from research kids who come from lower-resource communities don’t have a heck of a lot of those experiences so it’s really important that those schools we are working with, with kids with huge percentages of free and reduced lunch. All kids need better and more mathematics. It’s especially important for equity reasons, for those kids who have fewer resources in their homes and communities, to be able to go to a preschool where their kind of fire of interest in mathematics is provided by the teacher and the curriculum.

What are some of the key findings you have drawn from your research on the link between early math and early literacy?

Doing math with kids actually helps them build the ability to learn and use new vocabulary words even if those vocabulary words were not mathematical in content. They have to dig down deep to explain their own thinking and that really helped them build more complex grammatical structures, and that’s an outcome of the mathematics. And then they were more able to answer inferential questions.

Well-done mathematics doesn’t just teach mathematics, it’s cognitively fundamental and helps kids learn a variety of abilities.

How are these concepts integrated in the classroom?

What’s most effective is to combine methodologies. We don’t just do whole group, we don’t just do small group, we don’t just do learning centers, we don’t just do computer — we do all four of those. We keep it short, interesting. So, for example, kids will stomp around classroom marching and (counting alternately quietly and loudly).

What does it do? It builds, of course, the verbal counting strength. But look at what else — it builds the knowledge of one-to-one correspondence because they’re stamping per each count. Not only that, it builds intuition about pattern because we’re saying one quietly, two loudly. And then lastly they’re building intuition about even and odd numbers, because all the odd numbers are said quietly, all the even numbers are said loudly.

So you don’t have to do, sit down, look at the paper, write the number two, to be doing fundamentally interesting mathematics.

How many preschools are actually integrating early math concepts into their programs the way you think it should be done? Is there anything holding back programs from doing so?

Most people understand that the goal of literacy is to be able to read and write and think, but often people think the goal of math is to be able to compute accurately. That’s such a limited view of mathematical thinking writ large. So we have a lot of work to do to change people’s conception of mathematics as well as their skills in understanding the math, understanding the kid’s thinking and understanding how to teach to develop that kid’s thinking.

But it is coming along — there is more general knowledge and awareness at least, interest in it, and — this is important in early childhood the youngest years, the preschool years — less resistance to doing mathematics (because of the perception) that it’s developmentally inappropriate which it’s not. But still, in some circles (they say), “Kids should play, kids should be kids. Why would they do math? That should wait until later. Math is just school, boring stuff, and kids should be kids and play.”