Early Education

Some immigrant children are shut out of new preschool programs

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Preschoolers' backpacks at IPS School 102.

The thousands of poor Indiana children who will attend new publicly funded preschool programs this year through Gov. Mike Pence’s state preschool pilot and an Indianapolis program sponsored by Mayor Greg Ballard all have one thing in common.

They all must be legal U.S. residents.

Children who are in the country without permission aren’t welcome into either the state or Indianapolis preschool program.

How can public schools be barred from excluding those kids while publicly funded preschool programs are free to do so?

Indianapolis program leaders say they’re following the state’s lead. State officials say they’re following federal guidelines. And while federal law does, indeed, require schools to give all children fair and equal access to public education regardless of citizenship, the rule starts in kindergarten.

“I don’t think that anybody was consciously saying, ‘We want to exclude or not be welcoming,’ but there were some boundaries that we had to identify in terms of who could we serve with public dollars and federal dollars,” said Beth Stroh, who administers the city preschool program through the United Way of Central Indiana.

The state says it’s not allowing non-U.S. citizens into the program to stay in line with the rules of its other programs.

“This maintains consistency in policy among our early childhood education programs,” said Jim Gavin, a spokesman for the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration. “The Child Care and Development Fund and Early Education Matching Grant programs also require that the eligible child be a citizen.”

But immigrant advocates say the rule unfairly excludes kids, arguing it prevents children who are already at risk for difficulty in school from getting the same early help their future classmates in similar circumstances can receive.

“It’s a shame,” said Indianapolis immigration lawyer Fatima Johnson. “They’ll be behind everyone else. If only a portion of kids are kindergarten-ready, how much money and resources do you have to spend later to catch the kids up?”

Read more: Lost in Translation: Struggle and success as language barriers reshape Indianapolis schools

The number of children who could be excluded because of this requirement is likely small. Children born in the U.S. to parents who are in the country without permission, which are estimated to account for 88 percent of all children of immigrant parents, are U.S. citizens by birth and therefore welcome into the program. And so are refugees with legal status. Indiana is estimated to have 10,000 foreign-born children under age 16 who are not U.S. citizens, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Some school districts have found a way to accommodate preschool-age children who are in the country without permission.

Wayne Township, on Indianapolis’ West side, is a participant in the state’s On My Way preschool program. Superintendent Jeff Butts said the district accepts all students for its preschool program. But if they don’t qualify for the state preschool program they can still get tuition help through a federal poverty program. The district’s preschool offers 80 preschool spots funded by the federal grant. Citizenship is not a requirement for that program.

Stroh said the state and city programs tried to invite children from families that don’t speak English fluently to apply. The state translated its applications into English and Spanish. Stroh said the city added French, Burmese and Chin, another common language spoken by immigrants in Indianapolis.

But she said they didn’t follow through with that throughout the entire process. The information that was sent to the families who were accepted into the program was only in English, Stroh said.

“We did make an effort,” Stroh said. “That’s a way we can improve the notification process. (Some) couldn’t even read the cover.”

It’s unclear if undocumented children will be accepted into future rounds of the state or city program. FSSA Spokeswoman Marci Lemons said the department didn’t want to speculate.

Johnson said she hopeful that rules could chance so more children could be included.

“The number of people who are sensitive to this issue is growing,” Johnson said. “These people are here to stay. They’re not leaving. It would behoove Indiana to have educated people.”

overruled

Lawmakers take first step to ease testing burden for young English language learners

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/Denver Post
Justin Machado, 9, reads on his iPad during his 3rd grade class at Ashley Elementary in 2015.

State lawmakers from both political parties are seeking to undo a controversial State Board of Education decision that called for schools to test thousands of Colorado’s youngest students in English — a language they are still learning.

House Bill 1160 cleared its first legislative hurdle Monday with unanimous support from the House Education Committee.

The bill would allow school districts to decide whether to use tests in English or Spanish to gauge whether students in kindergarten through third grade enrolled in dual-language or bilingual programs have reading deficiencies.

The bill is sponsored in the House of Representatives by Reps. Millie Hamner, a Frisco Democrat, and Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican.

If the bill becomes law, it would overrule a decision by the State Board of Education last year that required testing such students at least once in English. That meant some schools would need to test students twice if they wanted to gauge reading skills in a student’s native language.

Colorado’s public schools under the 2012 READ Act are required to test students’ reading ability to identify students who aren’t likely to be reading at grade-level by third grade.

The bill is the latest political twist in a years-long effort to apply the READ Act in Colorado schools that serve a growing number of native Spanish-speakers.

School districts first raised concern about double-testing in 2014, one year after the law went into effect. The state Attorney General’s office issued an opinion affirming that the intent of the READ Act was to measure reading skills, not English proficiency. The state board then changed its policy to allow districts to choose which language to test students in and approved tests in both English and Spanish.

But a new configuration of the state board in 2016 reversed that decision when it made other changes in response to a 2015 testing reform law that included tweaks to early literacy testing.

The board’s decision at the time was met with fierce opposition from school districts with large Spanish speaking populations — led by Denver Public Schools.

Lawmakers considered legislation to undo the board’s decision last year, but a committee in the Republican-controlled Senate killed it.

Capitol observers believe the bill is more likely to reach the governor’s desk this year after a change in leadership in the Senate.

Some members of the state board, at a meeting last week, reaffirmed their support for testing students in English.

Board member Val Flores, a Denver Democrat who opposed the rule change last year, said she opposes the bill. In explaining her reversal, Flores said she believes the bill would create a disincentive for schools, especially in Denver, to help Spanish-speakers learn English.

“If the district does not give the test in English, reading in English will not be taught,” she said.

Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, said he still believes the intent of the READ Act was to measure how well students were reading in English.

“I think this is a serious departure from what the legislature intended initially,” he said last week. “The READ Act had everything to do with reading in English.”

Hamner, one of the sponsors of House Bill 1160, also sponsored the READ Act in 2012. She disagrees with Durham and told the House committee Monday that the intent was always for local school districts to decide which language was appropriate.

“We’re giving the local educators and districts the decision-making authority on what’s best for the students,” she said.

Multiple speakers on Monday said the requirement to test native Spanish speakers in English was a waste of time and money, and provided bad information to teachers.

“A teacher who teaches in Spanish will not be able to use data from an English assessment to drive their instruction, much like a hearing test would not give a doctor information about a patient’s broken arm,” said Emily Volkert, dean of instruction at Centennial Elementary School in Denver.

The bill only applies to students who are native Spanish speakers because the state has only approved tests that are in English and Spanish. Students whose native language is neither English nor Spanish would be tested in English until the state approves assessments in other languages.

“The question is can you read and how well,” said bill co-sponsor Wilson. “We’re trying to simplify that.”

Regrouping

Tennessee pre-K took it on the chin in a 2015 Vanderbilt study. Here’s what the state is doing about it.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students at Casa Azafran, a Nashville pre-K center that collaborates with Vanderbilt University researchers to serve as a model for best practices in early childhood education

Catalyzed by a landmark study showing its public prekindergarten program is ineffective, the Tennessee Department of Education is tying funding to quality and evaluating teachers as part of a sweeping overhaul.

The changes are in response to a Vanderbilt University study that showed the benefits of Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program faded by the second grade — and that students who attended eventually performed worse than their peers. The state department has since been exploring how to improve the quality of pre-K classrooms while staying true to 2005 initiative’s original goal: helping students from low-income families start kindergarten on an equal footing with their more affluent peers.

“We know the findings from the 2015 Vanderbilt study are real, and we’ve got to take those study findings seriously,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said last week. “We have made changes to the VPK application to focus on quality and ensure we are funding programs that are high quality and serving students who most need this strong start.”

The state won’t change its $86 million in funding for Voluntary Pre-K, and the goal of the overhaul isn’t to cut programs. Department officials hope that revamping how districts can access the money will push them to improve their pre-K practices. Before, distribution was based on how many students were served by districts; from now on, it will be based on a rigorous application process.

The state also has hired an assistant commissioner to oversee early education and literacy, part of Tennessee’s priority to improve the reading skills of its youngest readers.

The study’s surprising results shook the nation’s pre-K community and prompted concerns from Tennessee pre-K advocates that state lawmakers might even scrap state funding for pre-K. Instead, state officials heeded the urgings of Vanderbilt’s researchers to look into quality. While the program wasn’t working as a whole, some districts were getting pre-K right, according to Vanderbilt’s Dale Farran and Mark Lipsey.

For instance, more successful programs limit whole-class instruction and focus on hands-on learning so that students stay engaged throughout the day. Meanwhile, less effective ones have their students spending a lot of time switching locations or waiting in line for the bathroom. That takes away from learning time.

The new application for state funding asks districts for details about curriculum and how they’ll structure their days to maximize student engagement and learning. It also asks that localized plans be developed for getting parents and families involved in their child’s pre-K experience. Research shows that parental involvement, like reading to students at home and attending parent-teacher conference, helps students be more successful at school.

“The Vanderbilt report has opened our eyes to (what programs need),” said Candace Cook, who directs Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program. “We’re focusing on what we can do to better serve our children.”

The new application, which seeks funding for the 2017-18 school year, is due in April. District officials have been attending trainings this month to understand what the state is looking for, and why.

“We are currently … meeting with VPK directors to go through these changes in detail and provide them with tools and resources,” said Elizabeth Alves, the state’s newly hired assistant commissioner of early education and literacy.

Districts also are being asked to take a harder look at which students enroll in their pre-K classrooms. Vanderbilt researchers found that nearly 20 percent of students statewide did not meet the state’s high-needs criteria.

“We have been really trying to advocate for using this (state) money in the way it was intended, which is to serve low-income pre-K students,” Cook said.

The pre-K evaluation system is Tennessee’s first. It goes into effect next school year for pre-K and kindergarten teachers as part of the 2016 Pre-K Quality Act, and will use videos and portfolios of student work in reading, language, counting and shapes to determine teachers’ effectiveness. The state already has developed a similar model for evaluating first-grade teachers, as well as teachers of fine arts and foreign language.

Ultimately, McQueen says the tool should help district administrators and the Department of Education figure out how to better support pre-K teachers.

“We’ve not had the ability to really dig into the effectiveness of our (pre-K) teachers,” she said. “The intent of portfolios … have really been about making sure that we are training and educating our teachers.”