Early Education

Pre-K advocates pursue small strategies toward big goal

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

A coalition of pre-K advocates are moving forward with a collection of small strategies that they hope will result in every child being prepared to start kindergarten.  They are regrouping after losing a second referendum in November to fund universal pre-K with an increased sales tax.

“We have to be pursuing multiple strategies at the same time,” said Kathy Buckman Gibson, one of the leaders of the effort at the Chamber of Commerce. “Putting all our eggs in one basket is not going to move the basket sufficiently and as quickly as we feel we need to.”

Advocates contend that only 30 percent of students currently enter kindergarten are prepared for school and universal pre-K would fix that.  But the referendum to fund pre-K last November lost, in part due to criticisms that a sales tax disproportionately falls on the poor and that the revenues might be used to lower the property taxes of the rich.

Pre-K advocates at the non-profit People First and the Memphis Chamber of Commerce brought in stakeholders from across the city a little more than a month ago to discuss their next steps. The meeting included nearly 50 interested politicians, non-profits, philanthropists, professors, church and business leaders to brainstorm and discuss new ideas. Although they’ve stopped short of calling what came out of the meeting a full-on strategy, they are now pursuing several possible ways forward, including identifying new funding, raising standards for daycare centers, and even returning to voters to ask for more funding.
New sources of funding
One potential source of funding fell through two weeks ago. The Shelby County Commission voted down a proposal to spend $2.8 million to fund pre-K for 500 children that had been cut as a result of losing Race to the Top funding.
Commissioner Steven Mulroy believes some form of that proposal could still pass if it’s bundled with other initiatives favored by commissioners who are currenlty on the fence. Even if it doesn’t pass this budget cycle, Gibson said that pre-K advocates will be paying close attention to the makeup of the board after the coming election and could return again.
At the most recent Shelby County Commission meeting, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson argued once again that it’s no coincidence that only 30 percent of third graders are proficient in literacy and 30 percent of 7th graders are proficient in math: only 30 percent are prepared for kindergarten.
The importance of commission funding, isn’t just local, according to advocates; it could bolster an application for a new federal program that funds pre-K expansion.
“By demonstrating our commitment to pre-K funding at the local level, we’ll be able to leverage that funding at the federal level, so more than 500 children would be able to receive pre-K instruction,” Mulroy said.
But there are two major hurdles for accessing the millions of dollars in funds that have been made available through the US Department of Education through a program intended to seed the expansion of pre-K. The first problem is that the funds are supposed to pass through states not local districts. Gov. Bill Haslam has made it clear that he won’t support any expansions of pre-K funding in Tennessee until a new pre-K study from Vanderbilt is released.
So supporters are hoping that they can negotiate a political work-around, so that several of the large municipal districts in the state, such as Shelby County and Nashville, can apply for the funds directly, rather than applying through the state. But even if this worked, the funding is only temporary and they would have to look for more funds again in four years.
If supporters can cobble together some funding and put together a more detailed proposal for tax-payers, Cardell Orrin, the Memphis director of Stand for Children, thinks they could even go back to voters a third time to ask for a permanent source of funding
“Some people think that people just don’t support pre-K,” Orrin said. “I don’t think any of the data shows people don’t want pre-K. I think they would support it if you developed the details of how you’re going to distribute the money.” He also thinks voters want to know the plan for what will happen to the private pre-K providers.
“The issue is caught up in a vicious cycle of politically polluted waters,” said Keith Norman, president of the Memphis NAACP, who blamed political opponents for spreading misinformation about how the money would be spent during the November pre-K referendum. “I don’t think that [the referendum] was understood by the general population.”
Leveraging Day Care and Head Start
Supporters are also looking to take advantage of federally-subsidized private daycare for working parents. If the daycares functioned more like pre-K classrooms, they wouldn’t need to find as much funding.
They are planning to push for tougher certification standards for daycares at the state level: the current three star rating system is more focused on child safety, they say, than preparation for school. They also believe that if parents were better informed, they would put their children in higher quality daycares.
“We have to do some real awareness with parents about selecting places that will really help their child be prepared,” said Barbara Prescott of People First. “We have thousands of children in child care, but only 30 percent are reaching kindergarten with pre-literacy skills.”
“We want all those daycares that are in the community to be a part of the solution as well,” said Andre Dean, an advocate from the Chamber of Commerce. “We’re not trying to put anyone out of business or recreate the wheel. But we want to raise the levels and standards.”
There is also some hope that improvements in the local administration of Head Start — a federal program for children below the poverty line that includes preschool as well as nutritional and health services — will help. Shelby County’s contract to administer Head Start expires on June 30. Representatives for Shelby County Schools could not confirm that the school district will be the new administrators of the program on July 1. But pre-K advocates are hopeful that, if the school system does take control as many are expecting, they will do a better job at preparing students for kindergarten.
“If it is Shelby County Schools,” Prescott said. “They really would be looking toward having entities deliver services that would be…more focused on children reaching kindergarten with the pre-literacy and pre-numeracy skills that would set them up for success.”
More than 20 Head Start workers protested looming layoffs at Monday’s school board meeting.  Read our story here.

digging into discipline

Jeffco Public Schools suspended an average of four young students a day last year — and district officials are paying attention

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jefferson County work on their assigned iPads during a class project.

Jeffco Public Schools handed out more suspensions to young students than any other Colorado district last school year, and did so at rates that are among the highest in the state among large districts, a review of data by Chalkbeat has found.

The 86,000-student district, Colorado’s second largest, gave nearly 700 out-of-school suspensions to kindergarten through second-grade students in 2015-16 — an average of four every school day.

Neighboring Denver Public Schools — the state’s largest district at 91,000 students — handed out 500 suspensions in those grade levels during the same period, and affluent Douglas County — the state’s third largest district — gave out just 77.

At a time of growing national concern about the long-term impact of harsh discipline tactics on young children, along with efforts in Colorado and around the nation to curb the use of suspensions and expulsions, the numbers in Jeffco are startling.

Dave Kollar, director of the district’s student engagement office, said he’s “certainly not happy” about the early elementary suspension numbers but believes they’ll drop as various efforts, including training on restorative justice and cultural awareness, take hold in district schools.

“Any time kids are out of class, that’s not where we want them to be,” he said.

Jeffco is not the only large district in Colorado that hands out early elementary suspensions at high rates. In fact, among the state’s 10 largest districts, the 28,000-student Colorado Springs District 11 hands them out most often relative to its kindergarten through second grade enrollment — averaging one suspension for every 14 children last year.

Jeffco, and Adams 12 in the north Denver suburbs, are just behind it — both handing out an average of one suspension for every 27 K-2 students.

The large districts that hand out suspensions least often relative to their K-2 enrollment are Douglas County, Poudre and Boulder Valley. Douglas County, in particular, serves few poor students, followed by Boulder Valley. Nearly one-third of Poudre’s students come from low-income families, about the same as in Jeffco.

While Jeffco administrators are hopeful about turning the tide, the trend line isn’t headed in the right direction. For the last few years, the district’s total number of elementary-level suspensions has been rising, peaking at 1,800 last year after being in the 1,300s from 2012 to 2014.

Some observers say the district’s recent struggle to pass local tax measures limits funding for efforts that could push down suspensions. Jeffco voters rejected two ballot initiatives last fall, and while most of the funds were earmarked for building renovations and teacher raises, some would have paid for part-time elementary school counselors.

More than 80 schools serve kindergarten through second-grade students in Jeffco, and suspension rates range widely among them. A handful of schools didn’t suspend a single child last year, while five schools gave out dozens of suspensions.

As is the case in districts across the state and nation, Jeffco’s early elementary suspensions are disproportionately given out to boys and Hispanic and black students.

The numbers, provided to Chalkbeat by the Colorado Department of Education, refer to the number of suspensions given, not the number of children suspended. At some schools, students are suspended multiple times during the year. Experts say sending little kids home for acting out doesn’t help change bad behavior and sets the stage for the school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately affects boys and men of color.

The Jeffco school with the highest number of suspensions in the last two years for which state data are available is Lumberg Elementary, a high-poverty school in the Edgewater neighborhood near Jeffco’s border with Denver. It had 49 suspensions last year and 48 the year before. (Data from prior years is unavailable because the education department has only broken out suspensions by grade since 2014-15.)

Lumberg Principal Rhonda Hatch-Rivera said, “We recognize that suspensions are not the optimal approach,” but added that safety considerations play a key role when she and her two assistant principals choose to suspend a young student.

Lumberg parent Joel Newton, who is also executive director of the community nonprofit Edgewater Collective, said he was surprised by the school’s high number of early elementary suspensions and wouldn’t have guessed it from the school’s culture.

“Now, I do know students come in with a lot of stress from family poverty,” he said. But so many suspensions is “definitely an indicator that something’s not right.”

Hatch-Rivera, who is in her third year as principal, said the school’s already made a dent in early elementary suspensions this year. To date, 27 suspensions have been given out to 10 kindergarten through second-grade students, according to preliminary numbers. (Last year, the 49 suspensions were divvied among 18 students.)

Hatch-Rivera said several recent or planned changes will help reduce suspensions. Those include last year’s shift from a part-time to full-time social worker and the addition of a part-time therapist from the Jefferson Center for Mental Health.

Last year, the school also launched a structured recess program through the nonprofit Playworks, which has helped reduce recess-related incidents, Hatch-Rivera said. Next year, Lumberg will begin using a restorative justice approach to discipline.

Like Lumberg, most Jeffco schools with high K-2 suspension numbers serve many poor students. Still, there are some schools with similar populations that buck the trend. They include Edgewater, Allendale, Fitzmorris, Lasley and Pleasant View elementaries. All of them get extra federal money because of their large low-income populations but gave out five or fewer suspensions last year.

Edgewater Elementary School is only a mile away from Lumberg, is about the same size and serves similar proportions of poor and Hispanic students.

“They’re doing something right over there,” said Newton, whose organization focuses on schools in the 80214 zip code, including Edgewater and Lumberg.

Principal Katherine Chumacero said a variety of efforts help limit suspensions of kindergarten through second-graders, including the hiring of a dean who is helping the school adopt restorative justice practices and district trainings on creating an environment that recognizes students’ culture and background.

She said it gets as specific as talking to teachers about what tone of voice to use with children, what words they use to describe students — “our kids” not “those kids” — and how they control their reactions when students misbehave.

Chumacero said she was called to a classroom last year when a young boy had a major meltdown, sweeping everything off the desks so the carpet was covered with crayons and other supplies. Although she described his actions as violent, it was the first time he’d ever behaved that way and he was not suspended.

“The first step is try to find out what is going on with this child,” she said.

For such offenses, she said, administrators often call parents and have students fill out a form reflecting on their transgression, talk with the school social worker or therapist, or do schoolwork during an in-school suspension.

“Punishment is not the way to go right away,” Chumacero said. “It’s about learning.”

Out-of-school suspensions are usually reserved for cases where kids repeatedly have shown significant aggressive behavior, she said.

Newton said while it’s worth digging deeper into the practices that keep suspensions down at Edgewater, it shouldn’t lead to finger-pointing at Lumberg.

The problem “needs to be fixed as a whole community,” he said.

A group of advocates and lawmakers tried for a statewide solution earlier spring, proposing legislation that would have limited the reasons preschoolers and early elementary kids could be suspended. After rural districts rose up against the bill, it died in a Senate committee.

Kollar said there was some trepidation among district staff about how the law would have worked in practice, but philosophically they agreed with it.

Denver, where discipline reform efforts have been in the works for a decade and voters easily pass school tax measures, is one district that has recently taken a strong stand against suspending young children. In March, the district announced a new policy that would eliminate suspensions and expulsions of preschool through third-grade students except for the most serious incidents. The policy, which still must be finalized, is set to take effect July 1.

(Very) early education

With a major but little-noticed move, New York City signals that learning starts at birth

PHOTO: Rob Bennett
Mayor Bill de Blasio visits pre-K class at P.S. 239 with Chancellor Carmen Fariña in 2014.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans last month to extend pre-K to 3-year-olds, a massive expansion of his popular Pre-K for All program. But a little-noticed element of the proposal could be just as significant: He called for the Department of Education to take over programs that reach children as young as six weeks old.

As planned, the department would create a cradle-to-college approach that shepherds students and families from infancy through 12th grade. The shift signals a recognition that learning starts at birth — and so do the inequities that drag down academic achievement later in life.

Shael Polakow-Suransky, president of the Bank Street College of Education, called the decision “a big deal” and said it would put New York City in line with other nations that already prioritize infant and toddler learning.

“If you aren’t creating a really nurturing environment where there’s opportunity for learning and exploration for infants and toddlers,” he said, “you’re actually cementing a set of challenges in terms of how their brains develop and what their opportunities are going to be once they get to the point of pre-K or kindergarten.”

Under the proposal, the education department would assume responsibility for EarlyLearn programs, which currently fall under the purview of the city’s child welfare agency, the Administration for Children’s Services. EarlyLearn was launched under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg to streamline services for low-income families enrolled in Head Start pre-K or home-based daycare, for example.

Now, the city plans to take that consolidation even further, with Pre-K for All serving as a model. The city has been lauded for quickly rolling out universal pre-K for 4-year-olds while also ensuring quality through teacher training and regular site reviews.

“We really want to extend that structure to the younger ages and help all these programs get better,” Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack said in an interview.

At a city budget hearing Tuesday, Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the mayor’s executive budget proposal includes more than $20 million to improve EarlyLearn programs. She also stressed that bringing early childhood services under the Department of Education will help students make a seamless transition to elementary school and enlist parents as early partners in their children’s education.

“Our commitment is just to start with kids — especially with literacy skills — as early as possible,” Fariña told Council members.

Consolidating programs could also simplify a process that now forces low-income parents to navigate four different city agencies for child care and creates a compliance maze for providers.

“It’s just easier when you’re dealing with one coherent system,” Wallack said.

Success is far from guaranteed. With more than a million students, the education department already oversees the country’s largest school system. EarlyLearn programs serve about 20,000 children ages 3 and younger.

Experts said the DOE will have to resist the perhaps natural inclination to focus too narrowly on preparing children for academics, when much of early childhood education should center around social and emotional learning.

“There are right and wrong ways to do education for those children, but children at that age are learning,” said Elliot Regenstein, senior vice president of advocacy at the Ounce of Prevention Fund. “Ideally, though, you’re going to create a segment of the education system where the joy of learning is actively cultivated.”

It remains to be seen just how sweeping the shift in responsibility will be. At least initially, the streamlining will only go so far: Voucher programs that help families afford child care are expected to remain under ACS.

Gregory Brender, co-director of policy and advocacy at the United Neighborhood Houses, which pushes for affordable childcare, said there are still unanswered questions. Discrepancies in pay between educators in city-run and privately-run centers, he said, will be chief among the concerns that will now fall to the DOE to resolve.

“What does [this move] look like for parents? We don’t really know yet,” he said. “And we don’t even know what that looks like for providers.”