Early Education

Ballard's education plan praised for boldness

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Preschoolers at Shepherd Community Center last year.

Mayor Greg Ballard won praise today for his $50 million plan to combat crime with programs that aim to get kids in school sooner and keep them there longer.

Under his proposal, city and private dollars would aim to send 1,300 more poor children to preschool, while also studying ways to reduce class time older students lose to suspension, expulsion or by dropping out of school.

But even with strong support — his office sent out statements written by 10 community leaders of groups ranging from free market-focused Friedman Foundation to the Urban League, which advocates on issues of race and poverty  — the changes he proposed are complex and leave unanswered questions.

Among them:

  • Can school districts afford his plan? Tax changes to fund Ballard’s plan could cost Marion County schools more than $3 million in revenue. He argues it will offer support for their preschoolers and future students.
  • Should the state play a bigger role? If enacted, Indianapolis’ preschool program would dwarf a small statewide pilot that Gov. Mike Pence just celebrated as his signature 2014 legislative accomplishment.
  • Can the city’s preschool system even support the plan? More preschools will have to earn high ratings to accommodate 1,300 new preschoolers Ballard hopes to serve.
  • Will it put concerns about discipline of black boys on the agenda? A series of recent studies suggest black children, especially boys, are disciplined more often and more severely than their peers, but efforts to address the problem stalled earlier this year.
  • Will a $50 million investment in children make a difference? Ballard is banking that, in the long run, better educated children will become more productive citizens, and that will pay off in lower crime rates.

Even with those challenges, preschool advocates praised Ballard for thinking boldly.

“The plan is really big, and it moves us beyond that pilot stage into a full implementation,” said Ted Maple, executive director of Day Nursery Association. “We’ll reach a critical mass of children.”

Costs raise concern

First Ballard needs to get the plan approved by the City-County Council, and council President Maggie Lewis is among those who want more information about its costs and how they will be paid.

“It’s important the mayor sit down with council leadership and talk this through,” she said. “I’ve been a strong advocate for quality preschool. But I am concerned that this plan will take dollars away from our existing education structure.”

Indeed, Ballard’s plan to raise funds for preschool by eliminating the homestead tax credit would trigger a cascade of effects to the county’s tax structure that could result in an estimated loss of more than $3 million to its school districts.

But Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth argued that Ballard’s plan is actually the best case scenario for schools when compared to several other proposals in recent years to cut the homestead credit and use the money for other city priorities.

“At some point the homestead tax credit is going to be eliminated and it won’t benefit school districts when it does,” Kloth said.

Most of the school districts in the city serve children from low-income families, who will come to them better prepared if they have attended high quality preschool, he said. Also, Kloth said, school districts, such as Indianapolis Public Schools, that offer preschool can directly benefit from the program. When new students from low-income families are enrolled, a share of the $50 million can be used as matching funds to support them.

Districts with preschool can also apply for grants to help raise the quality ratings of their preschool programs.

“Most school districts are going to more than make up for it in revenue through the program,” Kloth said.

IPS has been rapidly expanding its own preschool offerings, and Superintendent Lewis Ferebee praised Ballard’s proposal.

“I am pleased to hear that Mayor Ballard is proposing a variety of plans to curb the culture of violence, including pre-kindergarten scholarships for families challenged by poverty,” he said. “Indianapolis Public Schools is aware of the positive impact early childhood education can have as it sets students up for a more successful future; that’s why we’re proud to expand our pre-k program again this year.”

State’s pilot program starts up

Marion County is one of five Indiana counties named recently to receive funds from the state’s first-ever pilot program to do just what Ballard proposes to do: offer direct aid to poor families to enroll their children in preschool. If everything goes as planned, the state pilot and the city’s support for preschool would both launch in the 2015-16 school year.

The difference is the statewide program is just $15 million in public and private money, less than a third the size of Ballard’s proposal. Indianapolis’ share of financial support for poor preschoolers from the state pilot program isn’t likely to exceed $3 million.

But with the state’s biennial budget session coming in January, there is optimism that the pilot could soon get more money and serve more kids.

“I do believe in the next budget we will have more money in it for preschool,” said Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, the chairman of the House Education Committee.

In fact, Ballard’s approach of encouraging public and private partnership to expand preschool mirrors the state pilot — which will match $10 million in state funds with $5 million in privately-raised funds.

“This is what we would like to see communities across the state do” Behning said, “leverage public and private resources to make a difference for kids.”

Investing in quality

A requirement of both the city and state programs is to ensure that children using the tuition aid they offer spend those dollars at high-rated preschool. The state has a voluntary four-step rating system called Paths to Quality. To receive public dollars, both programs require a 3 or 4 rating.

That’s because all preschool programs aren’t equal. High-quality programs meet stringent health and safety standards as well as provide engaging, age-appropriate curriculum for children that prepares them for kindergarten.

But only 15 percent of the city’s nearly 800 providers currently are considered high-quality.

“If we’re not investing in high-quality programs, this isn’t going to have the impact we want,” Maple said.

The scholarships will make an immediate impact on already high-quality providers that have spots available. What’s stopping them now from serving more children is that their programs are cost-prohibitive, Maple said.

About $10 million, a fifth of the mayor’s program, will go toward grants creating more space in schools that already have strong ratings, helping existing preschools improve and creating more high-quality options.

“You’ll see a lot of providers step up to higher levels of quality,” Maple said.

Keeping kids in school

Another education-related phenomenon that Ballard suggested leads to crime is at the other end of the spectrum — older kids who are out of school, either due to discipline or because they dropped out.

“We are talking about hundreds of mostly teens who are cast into the streets,” Ballard said. “And we wonder why we have crime in our neighborhoods.”

To try to combat that problem, he proposed a study to examine the root cause of the most serious kinds of school discipline, which disproportionately affect black students. Ballard said 1,800 students in Indianapolis were expelled or dropped out of school last year, many of whom are black and from low-income families.

Mark Russell, education director for the Indianapolis Urban League, said the proposal is a step in the right direction.

“The discipline disparities, frankly, are obnoxious,” he said.

Ballard said he wants the study to be presented to a legislative study committee, which will likely meet in September. Proposed changes to state law aimed at addressing school discipline earlier this year were shelved to allow more time for lawmakers to research the issue.

Behning, the House education chairman, said Ballard is right to tackle the issue.

“The truth is, when you are looking at the population Ballard is talking about and dealing with crime, sometimes exactly what they want is to suspend or expel them or to put them out into the street,” Behning said.

Karega Rausch, a research associate at The Equity Project at Indiana University, agrees this study is a good first step. Keeping kids engaged and in school is important to the community, as is altering discipline systems in a way to ensure schools are both safe and productive.

But Russell and Rausch said they hoped the study would also address a problem with how discipline data is categorized: rather than choose one of 17 state categories for schools to explain severe discipline, the reasons many students are suspended or expelled is often listed as simply “other.”

Discovering the real reasons why kids face serious discipline should prompt schools to reconsider their policies, said Jamal Smith, executive director of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission.

“We think that it is an issue and has been an issue for quite some time,” Smith said. “Statistically, all the data has built up over the years, and as they say on ESPN, the numbers don’t lie.”

The civil rights commission, Smith said, is already investigating racial disparities in discipline, which he said could eventually result in lawsuits on behalf of young people.

Schools might blame rapid demographic shifts, Smith said, but the problem is not a new one in many places, and schools must be held accountable.

“Unfortunately it not only speaks to the roles of education, specifically for young black boys, but it speaks to, indirectly, how it affects the community as a whole in a negative way,” Smith said.

Discipline disparity  is a problem that’s been overlooked for too long, said Rausch, who previously served as the city’s charter school director under Ballard.

“There’s something about race we have to figure out as a community together,” he said.

Will it make a difference?

When Pence jumped on board and helped push through the state pilot program earlier this year, it was a long delayed victory for advocates of public support for preschool.

The United Way was the agency most at the center of that push in recent years.

“The attention was really all on K-12,” Executive Director Ann Murtlow said. “No one was focused on birth to five-year-olds. In those early years, if the neural connections are not made, it’s not as simple as kids coming into kindergarten without knowledge. It impacts their physiological ability to be lifelong learners.”

Support for preschool has grown, especially in the business community.

“The attention on early childhood education really creates a good long term focus on improving our community,” Murtlow said. “When you’re working with young children, it’s going to be a long time before they are adults, but we’re providing the foundation for success.”

The more robust preschool system that Ballard envisions will have a trickle-up effect in the city’s schools, Maple said.

“It’s going to mean a lot for the city to have an education system that’s built on a stronger foundation,” he said.

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.

Early education

Colorado gets good marks on preschool access for 3-year-olds, not so much on funding

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Preschoolers play dress-up on a recent morning at Fairview Elementary in the Westminster school district.

While Colorado ranks near the back of the pack for state preschool funding, it gets relatively high marks for providing preschool access to the state’s 3-year-olds, according to a report released Wednesday by the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Colorado ranked 11th for 3-year-old access among 33 states offering preschool to 3-year-olds. The state-funded Colorado Preschool Program, which is for children with certain risk factors, served about 5,400 3-year-olds and about 15,700 4-year-olds last year.

PHOTO: NIEER
This chart shows the percentage of Colorado children served by state-funded preschool over time.
PHOTO: NIEER
This chart shows how Colorado’s per-pupil preschool funding has changed over time.

Colorado ranked 24th of 44 states for 4-year-old preschool access in the state-by-state report, slightly worse than last year. Seven states, including Colorado’s neighbors, Wyoming and Utah, don’t fund preschool at all.

Besides gauging preschool funding and access, the new report revealed that Colorado meets five of 10 benchmarks designed to judge preschool quality. Last year, the state met six of the benchmarks, but several benchmarks changed this year in what the research institute described as an effort to raise the bar.

State officials said that observers should take Colorado’s middling benchmark score with a grain of salt because while the state didn’t get credit for having certain standards enshrined in state policy, the standards are widely practiced by school districts that participate in the Colorado Preschool Program. One example is the benchmark that calls for vision, hearing and health screenings of preschoolers — Colorado didn’t check that box, but most districts conduct the screenings.

Two other benchmarks that Colorado doesn’t meet include a requirement for lead teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and assistant teachers to have a Child Development Associate credential.

Cathrine Floyd, program director for the Colorado Preschool Program and Results Matter Program at the Colorado Department of Education, said the degrees are highly encouraged by the state but not required. That’s because some state-funded preschool slots are offered at community-based preschools that would not be able to afford to pay teachers if they all had higher-level degrees, she said.

Among the five benchmarks Colorado meets on the revised list are two related to class size and staff-student ratio, one related to teacher training, one related to state early learning standards and one related to preschool curriculum.

Floyd and her colleagues described the annual report from the well-regarded National Institute for Early Education Research as a good starting point for conversation, but said the state’s annual Colorado Preschool Program report provides more detail and context about Colorado’s progress.