Aurora expands full-day kindergarten to all

Full-day kindergarten students at Laredo Elementary in Aurora react during a recent lesson on counting that involves colorful blocks.

AURORA – Five-year-old Skyla Davis proudly carries her homework folder in her pink backpack. Her big brown eyes sparkle like her brand-new white school shoes.

She and her kindergarten classmates at Laredo Elementary School in Aurora are natural learners, excited as they count to 81 with their teacher and dig their hands through Play-doh and math manipulatives.

“That’s the most exciting thing about kindergarten,’’ said Skyla’s principal, Quinn O’Keefe, as he watched the buzz build on a recent Monday afternoon. “You can see them learn in a moment.”

Kindergarten offers educators an extraordinary opportunity to hook children on learning and launch them on a path that could change their lives.

That’s why Aurora Public Schools leaders say they’re investing $2.6 million each year from the district’s 2008 tax increase to fund free full-day kindergarten for all children.

Kindergarten in Colorado
  • A 2005 law required school districts to offer kindergarten. To pay for it, the state provides half its annual per-pupil funding for grades 1-12.
  • State law does not require children attend kindergarten – they can start with first grade. The compulsory age of school attendance in Colorado is 6.
  • A 2008 law boosted funding by 8 percent so districts now receive 58 percent of per-pupil funding for kindergarten – the intent was to phase in full-day funding for all.
  • The recession has thwarted plans to add $10 million each year to full-day funding through 2013-14. Cuts now make that unlikely in the foreseeable future.

The full-day program started this fall and doubles the school day for hundreds of children. In the past, lotteries determined which children would win coveted spots in full-day kindergarten classes among the district’s 34 elementary and K-8 schools.

Full-day kindergarten is not mandatory or funded in Colorado and many school districts offer only half-day programs. Some offer full-day programs but charge tuition while others cobble together other funds to support a full-day option.

Prior to tapping the tax funds, Aurora used some federal Title I grant money to ramp up its full-day kindergarten program. Last year, 2,285 children were in full-day programs while 689 participated in half-day classes. This year, more than 3,300 children have registered so far for full-day.

At Laredo, all kindergarten students used to attend half-day programs before 2005. Five years ago, Laredo started using Title I funds to support  full-day kindergarten. In the 2005-06 school year, the school funded one full-day program and four half-day classes. Then the school started having two half-day classes and two full-day kindergartens.

Children who attended half-day classes used to be at school for just under three hours. Now, the school day is extended to 6 ½ hours for all students.

‘Parents want it, state doesn’t pay’

O’Keefe, the school’s principal, used to hear constantly from parents who wanted more school time for their young children.

Debbie Montano, a teacher at Laredo Elementary in Aurora, uses connecting blocks to teach math to her full-day kindergarten class.

“Most parents were knocking on our door saying, ‘I want full day,’ ’’ O’Keefe said. “They didn’t understand that the state doesn’t pay.”

O’Keefe said full-day programs are critical to the low-income families he serves.

“Parents want full-day for the academic advantages, but it will also save them $400 a month in day care,” he said. “Many of our parents are working two and three jobs.”

At Laredo, 85 percent of children qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, an indicator of poverty. Districtwide, the figure is 71 percent.

Full-day in large districts
Percent of kindergarten students in full-day in 2009-10:
  • Jefferson Co. – 72%
  • Denver – 93%
  • Douglas Co. – 8%
  • Cherry Creek – 19%
  • Adams 12 – 42%

Trailer parks and low-income housing cluster along Colfax a block north of the school. Fifty-five percent of Laredo’s students are English Language Learners.

For these children, school is not just a place to polish skills. Students who do well could earn a ticket out of poverty. A sign over the school’s front door reads: “Gateway to College.”  And teachers here like to remind students that for them, college begins in kindergarten.

Yet it can be hard to project to college when many children come to school woefully unprepared for rigorous academics.

“We have kids come to us who don’t know what the letter “A” is or what the color blue is,’’ O’Keefe said. “The challenge for our teachers is to take kids who come in behind, elevate them to proficient and keep them there.’’

So far, full-day kindergarten appears to be helping.

Full-day kindergartners outperform half-day

Aurora educators last year compared children who were in full-day kindergarten with those in half-day programs. On a commonly used reading assessment for younger students, children were considered to be on-target if they hit a benchmark of level 3 by the end of kindergarten.

Growth in kindergarten
  • In fall 2009, 64,190 children were enrolled in kindergarten across Colorado. That’s up 27 percent since 1999 and 42 percent since 1989.
  • Full-day kindergarten is expanding rapidly. In 2009-10, 60 percent of 64,190 kindergarteners were enrolled all day. In 2005-06, 28 percent of 59,398 kindergartners were full-day.
  • In a 2008 survey of school districts, 104 reported offering full-day to all students and 42 were offering full-day to some students.
  • Colorado children are attending school earlier. Preschool enrollment in fall 2009 was 29,701 – up 782 percent over fall 1989.

Throughout the district, 64 percent of the children in full-day kindergarten hit the target, while 51 percent of the half-day children were reading at level 3.

At Laredo, the results were even more striking. Since the full-day program started in 2005, an average of 71 percent of students were either proficient or advanced in end-of-the-year benchmark tests. Just 51 percent of children who attended half-day programs showed proficiency.

“Right away, the full-day kindergarten outperformed the half-day,’’ O’Keefe said.

William Stuart, Aurora’s chief academic officer, is keenly aware of achievement gaps between low-income students and English language learners and their peers from higher-income families, who typically come to school fluent in English and ready to learn.

“Achievement gaps start at the earliest ages,’’ Stuart said. “Time is the variable that really impacts student learning. Having kindergarten children in school full days helps eliminate gaps before they start.”

Stuart said the district does not yet have longitudinal data to show whether children who attended full-day kindergarten retain the boost and continue to outperform their peers in later years. But he and other district officials are convinced the investment will pay off.

“Over time, it’s going to pay dividends in narrowing elementary achievement gaps and having far more kids at grade level,’’ Stuart said.

Big dreams begin with kindergarten

At Laredo, O’Keefe said longitudinal trends are positive. Children who attended the school in full-day kindergarten programs out-performed their classmates who came later by an average of five percentage points on state reading exams.

A kindergarten student at Laredo Elementary in Aurora puzzles out a math problem with her Lego-like blocks.

“Five additional percentage points on a CSAP year to year is significant for us,” the principal said.

For 5-year-old Skyla Davis and her family, Laredo is a refuge from life’s chaos. Skyla’s dad, Larry Davis, concedes he’s been checked out for much of Skyla and her little sister’s life.

“I was addicted to crack,’’ Larry Davis said. “Rather than have it affect them,  I sent them to live with my wife’s mom so I could grow up myself.’’

Davis was homeless at times, but said he’s been clean for a few months now and relishes picking up Skyla from school. The family is living with his parents while Davis tries to find work and get his life together.

Both father and daughter love kindergarten.

“Personally, I think full-day is great. There’s more discipline, a better education,” he said. “You get them interacting with other children from an early age. And she learns to respect her elders.”

Davis brushes Skyla’s head as he talks, passing along his hopes to her.

“I settled for a GED and joined the Army,” he said. “I would like her to go to college. I’d like her to fill the shoes and dreams I never did.’’

Sources for statistics, funding: Vody Herrmann, assistant commissioner, Colorado Department of Education; CDE enrollment data; Colorado Revised Statutes; 2008 district survey.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.