Making ends meet

State childcare program loses providers and children as deadline looms

PHOTO: Getty Images

Despite a looming deadline that could deprive thousands of young children of day care, Illinois has made scant progress on ensuring providers attend safety training required to keep their state subsidies.

This is according to new numbers obtained by Chalkbeat through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The providers could lose their paychecks, and children of low-income working families who rely on the program could be displaced, if caregivers don’t record their trainings within 90 days or if the state doesn’t revise its requirements.

According to data, only 1 in 3 providers who make up the majority of the state-subsidized child care program have met the new safety requirements, despite a Sept. 30 deadline that came and went. This group — known as friend, family, and neighbor care — accounts for 70 percent of all subsidized caregivers in Cook County. They are paid $16 a day by the state.

The trainings list includes CPR, first aid, a protocol for reporting suspected abuse, and a series on health and safety skills. The lessons originally were proposed to span 56 hours. The program has since been winnowed down to eight, with only four hours required by Sept. 30.

Despite those changes, early childhood advocates and the union that represents the providers have called the requirements and the state’s haphazard communication about them overly burdensome, especially for older caregivers who have never used a computer and for rural providers who live dozens of miles from the nearest CPR training site.

Critics said the state’s shifting deadlines and complicated reporting system have cause confusion among caregivers and that participation is declining.

“These are very bad and very punitive requirements,” said Brynn Seibert, the director of the child care and early learning division of SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana, the union that represents some of the providers.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services, which administers the program, said that her agency is not trying to be punitive, but rather is attempting to raise standards for all publicly funded providers as required by a 2014 federal law.

“We’ve tried to make training available as many places as possible, and at as many times as possible,” said Meghan Powers. “These are people paid through state dollars, and we think they should have the same type of training requirements as someone who is paid privately.”

Dan Harris, the executive director of the Illinois Network of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, which maintains the state’s credentialing system and designs the trainings, said his organization is partnering with local agencies and the state human services department to “arrive at a resolution that maintains the integrity of the system” and doesn’t threaten the care of children across the state.

Lori Longueville, who runs a referral agency that serves the state’s southernmost counties, said it’s time to step back and evaluate “if the path we are on is really right.”

“We need to be open to making changes.”

A program under stress

Not even established daycare center directors have fully embraced the training. According to the data obtained by Chalkbeat through a Freedom of Information Act request, only about 40 percent of licensed centers that receive the subsidy have completed the entire training regimen, and about 20 percent of staff at license-exempt centers — those typically operating in churches, for example — so far have met the requirements.

The training snafu puts stress on a program that already has been losing providers and children. After Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration changed eligibility requirements in 2015, the number of children served dropped by 31 percent. As of August, the state was serving about 122,600 children monthly.

The Rauner administration ultimately reversed its changes. But advocates are concerned that the program is still contracting. Cook County-based Illinois Action for Children, the state’s largest referral agency, said that 2,362 children, or 15 percent, of children have dropped out of its subsidized family and neighbor care program in the past 12 months.

The number of participating caregivers in that program has dropped 12 percent, too, over a similar timeframe.

“This drop represents an ongoing trend that began 2½ years ago,” said Maria Whelan, the group’s executive director.

This doesn’t even account for the impact of the new training requirements or their enforcement, Whelan added.  

More than half of Illinois children are in the care of family, friends, or neighbors — a trend that’s observed across the country, according to a new report from Child Care Aware of America. The report, which was released this week, said that only 1 in 6 children nationwide who are eligible for a subsidy actually receives one, which raises serious questions about hurdles families face trying to find affordable, quality care. Illinois is one of the least affordable states for child care in the report. 

Dionne Dobbins, a lead researcher on the report, said that anemic reimbursement rates, compliance issues, mandatory trainings, and overregulation threaten programs in several states, not just Illinois.

“Throughout the country, we see providers not being able to keep their businesses open, and they are going under,” said Dobbins.

Other pressure points

Illinois providers will soon encounter another hurdle. The state notified providers in an August letter that it will be sending out independent monitors to conduct safety visits. The letter did not spell out inspection criteria or a deadline.

Whelan, of Illinois Action for Children, said that safety visits are a good idea in theory, but they are a huge undertaking that should be approached thoughtfully. Some family providers — such as a grandmother caring for her grandchildren — could be reluctant to let someone into their homes.

“Improving quality for children in all settings matters a great deal and so does creating approaches for holding providers accountable,” Whelan said. But, she added, “what we do not want to see happen is punitive monitoring protocols.”

A monitoring program built on strong relationships between agencies and providers could help link more families with formal preschool programs or other critical services, such as food pantries or doctors. However, if mishandled and providers are sanctioned or scared off, agencies risk losing an important connection to some of the state’s most vulnerable families.

Depending on the outcome of the Nov. 6 gubernatorial race, the whole scenario could change. The winner will oversee how the state enforces the training requirements, and perhaps whether it will cut off caregivers.That’s because federal law establishes that training and monitoring must happen, but states decide many of the particulars — including who is required to complete it.  

upheaval

Frustrations over principal turnover flare up at IPS School 43

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 43

It began with a tame slideshow presentation about hiring a new principal at School 43. But the Wednesday night meeting soon spiraled into a venting session — as parents and teachers pleaded with Indianapolis Public Schools to send in more staff.

Bakari Posey, the principal of School 43, departed for another job last week in the latest upheaval at the school, which is also known as James Whitcomb Riley. The assistant principal, Endia Ellison, has taken over in an interim capacity, as the district searches for a new leader for the school, which has faced significant turnover in recent years.

“This school needs help,” said Natasha Milam, who has three children at School 43, which serves about 450 students in prekindergarten to eighth-grade. “We need you all to listen. And we need you all to hear us.”

Milam, who volunteers at the school, said that because the building does not have enough staff to handle behavior problems, students are suspended far too often — meaning students are at home doing chores or getting into trouble, instead of in class learning.

Many in the neighborhood had hoped Posey, who is from the community, would be able to turn the school around after the previous two school leaders left their posts just months into the job. But under Posey’s leadership, the school continued to struggle on state tests, with just 7 percent of students passing both the math and English exams last year.

And after two-and-a-half years on the job, Posey left and began working this week as assistant principal at Fall Creek Valley Middle School in Lawrence Township. In an email Thursday, Posey said that he left because he thought the position in Lawrence would help him grow professionally and it was closer to his home.

Posey also disputed the picture of School 43 as a campus in crisis. He said this school year, there hasn’t been “turmoil in the school in regards to student behavior,” suspensions were down, and the campus has been “very calm.” (Suspension numbers could not immediately be verified.) He also said that Indianapolis Public Schools provided “great support” to school staff.

Nonetheless, parents and teachers’ at the meeting Wednesday said the school has serious problems.

Ryesha Jackson, a 4th-grade teacher who has been at the school a little over a year, said there are not enough staff to help with student discipline problems. That makes it hard for educators to teach, she said.

“We have fights almost every day,” Jackson said. “I guess my question is, ‘What are we doing right now to support teachers?’”

School 43 is a neighborhood school, on the north side of the district. More than 75 percent of students there are black, and almost 70 percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals — about the district average.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said district and school leaders would work together to develop a plan to address the urgent problems at School 43.

“But what I can’t give you right now is the plan for that help,” she said. “That takes time and coordination with the school staff.”

The district is gathering input about what school community members are looking for in a principal before posting a listing, officials said. Finalists will be interviewed by committees of parents, community members, and school and district staff. The goal is to name a new principal by April.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting was a small contingent from the IPS Community Coalition, a group that is often critical of the Indianapolis Public Schools administration, particularly the district’s partnerships with charter schools.

Michele Lorbieski, a resident from the north side who ran unsuccessfully for the Indianapolis Public Board with the support of the coalition last year, said the district cannot just rely on the next principal to fix the school.

“What I’d hoped to hear tonight was what the school district was doing to put things in place to stop this revolving door of principals,” she said.

District officials did not directly address why turnover has been so high among principals at School 43. But Brynn Kardash, a district official who recently began working with the school, said that the central office is doing more to support it this year.

School 43 was added this year to the transformation zone — an effort to help troubled schools that includes dedicated support and regular visits from a team at the central office, said Kardash, the district’s executive director of schools for the zone. Educators in the zone get additional training, extra planning time, and help analyzing student data, she said.

“The goal is to really support Ms. Ellison in work that she’s doing,” Kardash said, “which then leads to, hopefully, teachers feeling that support in the classroom.”

early childhood discipline

New Colorado bill aims to keep young students in school — even after they misbehave

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat

Last school year, Colorado’s public schools handed out nearly 6,000 out-of-school suspensions to young children. 

This week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed legislation that could reduce those numbers — the latest push in a four-year effort to get early childhood discipline reform across the finish line.

The bill introduced Wednesday would limit suspensions and expulsions of students in preschool through second grade to certain circumstances, including if they bring weapons or drugs to school, or are deemed a safety threat. It would also require schools to exhaust other alternative discipline options before removing students from school. Finally, the bill would limit suspensions to three school days.

If passed, the law would take effect July 1, 2020.

While the bill would apply to all public K-12 schools, it would apply to only some preschools — those housed in school districts or charter schools, as well as community-based programs serving children eligible for certain kinds of public funding, such as state preschool dollars.

The behavior that gets little kids suspended varies, but can include biting, kicking, fighting or causing frequent classroom disruptions.

Across the nation, boys, children of color, and children with disabilities receive a disproportionate share of suspensions.

In Colorado, the disparities are pronounced. Last year, for example, young boys received 86 percent of K-2 suspensions though they made up only half of the K-2 population.

Black students, who made up just 5 percent of K-2 enrollment statewide, received nearly 12 percent of K-2 suspensions last year. Students with disabilities, who made up 10 percent of K-2 enrollment statewide, received 37 percent of K-2 suspensions.

The Colorado Department of Education tracks suspension data for public schools, but not for preschools that operate outside of public schools.

Opponents of suspensions and expulsions say sending kids home from school for acting out doesn’t help them learn appropriate behavior, increases the likelihood they’ll be suspended again, and feeds the school-to-prison pipeline.

But school district leaders who’ve pushed back against discipline legislation have argued that limiting suspensions takes away one of their few tools for addressing disruptive and violent behavior. They’ve also expressed frustration about the lack of staff and resources, especially in small rural schools, to handle students’ mental health needs.

This year’s early childhood bill is similar to one that was defeated in 2017, but allows schools a little more leeway in doling out suspensions and expulsions. For example, the earlier bill would have allowed expulsions only when young students brought guns to school. Now, there would be several reasons a young student could be expelled.

Likewise, the previous bill would have allowed suspensions only if a student endangered others, but didn’t specify that bringing drugs, controlled substances, or weapons to school could also be grounds for suspension.

The earlier bill faced sharp opposition from rural school district leaders, among other groups. It ultimately died in a Republican-controlled committee.

Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said the coalition of groups that worked on the latest bill tried hard to incorporate feedback from critics while staying true to their goals.

“We’ve done our best all along the way to be responsive,” he said.  

Besides broadening the grounds for out-of-school discipline, the latest version of the bill delays implementation by a year.

Jaeger said that delay will allow state-level mental health and funding initiatives in the works now to trickle down to school districts and give districts more time to adapt local discipline practices.

K-2 Suspensions by District

This chart shows the number of suspensions given, not the number of students suspended. In some districts, individual students receive multiple suspensions during a school year.