child's play

In pre-K, Common Core fingerprints found on snack and a story

Chancellor Dennis Walcott prepares to read to a group of 4-year-olds at the Bank Street Head Start center.

Using skills developed at his first job, Chancellor Dennis Walcott dropped to the floor at Manhattan’s Bank Street Head Start center today and read a version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears to a circle of 4-year-olds.

Just as he said he had as a pre-kindergarten teacher in the 1970s, Walcott changed his voice for the different characters and acted out parts of the story, keeping the children laughing and acting along. (Watch video of the reading.)

The read-aloud came during a break in painting, mashing play dough, building with blocks, and assembling magnetic tiles — activities that look like fun and games but actually reflect the city’s academic goals for pre-K students.

Those goals are set out in the city’s new curriculum standards, called the Common Core, which start in pre-K. Like all city students, children in the Department of Education’s pre-K classes are expected to complete Common Core-aligned “tasks” this year like the ones the DOE has suggested for units about trucks, plants, and the five senses.

Among the Common Core standards for pre-K: Students should engage in group reading activities such as the one Walcott led and practice addition and subtraction using everyday objects.

In a second-floor classroom today, a 4-year-old boy sat with a staff member, counting the grapes on his plate. After deciding he had nine grapes already, he swooped in with a spoon to take “just one more” from the serving bowl. But he picked up two, prompting his teacher to say, “Is that one grape?”

“No! It’s two!” he answered.

In June, 18 pre-K directors were among the hundreds of school leaders who attended a presentation by David Coleman, the standards’ architect, that Walcott said elicited “off-the-chart” excitement. Pre-K staff have already started in on four trainings on the Common Core, and instructional coaches assigned to each center by the DOE are helping teachers figure out how to incorporate the new standards, according to Sophia Pappas, executive director of the DOE’s Office of Early Childhood Education, who joined Walcott for the visit.

Pre-K’s play-based instruction is an ideal showcase for the critical-thinking and problem-solving skills that the Common Core emphasizes, Pappas said. A recent study concluded that city kindergarteners spend an average of just 30 minutes a day on creative play.

Pappas said the Common Core could offer a roadmap for incorporating collaborative play beyond pre-K because early childhood and kindergarten teachers will for the first time be using the same language to talk about curriculum.

Chancellor Walcott and a Bank Street Head Start student and teacher practice counting using small plastic bears.

Three-year-olds at Bank Street, one of two centers associated with the Bankstreet College of Education, attend federally funded Head Start classes. Four-year-olds have full-day pre-kindergarten classes funded by Head Start and the state’s perennially underused universal pre-K budget line. That means the center must reapply for funding to the U.S. Department of Education, which announced last week that it would require all Head Start programs to prove they prepare children for kindergarten. The city is in the midst of a similar reauthorization process for early childhood centers that the Administration for Children’s Services runs to reapply for funding as part of an initiative called Early Learn.

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.