proof positive

Searching for new ways to boost third grade reading, but only if they show results

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Children at Riverview walk home from school.

While two-year-old Shane Simpson played in a busy room filled with other toddlers and their parents, his father John broke away to talk with Patty Hernandez, facilitator of the twice-weekly “Play and Learn” group at the Clayton Early Learning campus in far northeast Denver.

In a small meeting room, the two pored over colorful bar graphs that gave John a snapshot of how and when he communicates with Shane throughout the day. The charts — produced after Shane wore a device that amounts to a “word pedometer” one day in April — showed a distinct lull in adult-child interaction during a two-hour period in the morning. Simpson knew there was room for improvement.

“I think he was probably off playing and I was just cleaning the house because sometimes that’s what happens when his brother goes to school,” he said.

One of the charts John Simpson received during his feedback session with Patty Hernandez.
One of the charts John Simpson received during his feedback session with Patty Hernandez.

“I guess we don’t really conversate that much during that time.”

The meeting between Simpson and Hernandez, with its unusual combination of data-filled charts and workaday parenting talk, is part of a research project that will determine if the word pedometer — technically called a LENA Digital Language Processor — can impact language development in young children. The project is one of nine that are part of Mile High United Way’s “Early Literacy Social Innovation Fund” initiative, or SIF for short.

The idea behind the five-year initiative is to test various early literacy strategies — ranging from the LENA device to one-on-one tutoring in elementary schools — and scale up the ones that work.

The ultimate goal is to move the needle on third-grade reading achievement. For the last decade, the percentage of Colorado third-graders who can read proficiently has stagnated at just over 70 percent.

What makes the SIF initiative different from the average grant program is its emphasis on rigorous program evaluation. That’s part of the reason it’s been called a “solutions laboratory” by some officials.While traditionally, non-profit organizations might measure success by the number of people served or hours of service provided, those involved in SIF must contract with third-party evaluators to study their effectiveness.

“Evaluation is not easy.” said Lindsay Morgan Tracy, senior director of investment resources for Mile High United Way. “It’s expensive to prove your program.”

SIF’s funding mechanism is also unique, involving three layers of financing that combine public and private dollars. The first layer is a federal SIF grant totaling $9 million over five years. The second layer is United Way’s matching grant, required of all 19 SIF “intermediaries” receiving federal funds. Finally, the non-profits running the nine projects are required to match the funding they receive from United Way.

Literacy times nine

While all nine projects under the SIF umbrella target Colorado children from birth to age eight, the details vary widely. Clayton Early Learning and Mile High Montessori operate the one in which John and Shane Simpson are participating. In addition to measuring the impact of the LENA device and analysis, the “Ready to Read” project will examine the effects of the “Cradling Literacy” curriculum being used at certain child care centers in Denver.

SIF sub-grantees
The following organizations are part of the Early Literacy SIF managed by Mile High United Way

  • Clayton Early Learning and Mile High Montessori
  • Colorado Parent and Child Foundation
  • Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition
  • Colorado Humanities
  • Denver Public Schools Foundation
  • Reading Partners
  • Jefferson Foundation
  • Summit 54
  • The Bridge Project

Another of the nine projects is the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition’s “PASO” program, which provides training to Spanish-speaking, home-based child care providers in Boulder County. A third one, run by the Jefferson Foundation, coordinates a summer school reading program for Jeffco students in kindergarten to third grade. Other projects offer experiential after-school literacy programs and home visiting programs.

Originally, when Mile High United Way selected projects in 2012, there were two additional organizations on the SIF roster: Save the Children and Centennial BOCES. Both dropped out because the evaluations demands were too much or didn’t fit with the organization.

Those demands were clear at the recent play group in far northeast Denver when two researchers from the Butler Institute for Families at the University of Denver stopped by to videotape parents reading to their children, and distribute parent surveys and child development questionnaires. The researchers, who visit Ready to Read sites about once a week, are also collecting data using the LENA devices as well as early childhood assessments such as Teaching Strategies GOLD.

While children like Shane Simpson won’t take state readings tests till well after the SIF initiative is over, project administrators believe their interventions will position the children for success when they do learn to read.

“We’re actually looking for increases in oral language and vocabulary,” said Shelly Anderson, project manager for Ready to Read.

A parent reads to children in a "Play and Learn" group in northeast Denver. The children all wear the LENA device every few months so their parents or caregivers can get feedback about their verbal interactions.
A parent reads to children in a “Play and Learn” group in northeast Denver. The children all wear the LENA device every few months so their parents or caregivers can get feedback about their verbal interactions.

For Anderson and others intimately involved in SIF projects, there’s a sense of excitement about being part of something that could guide internal improvement and produce sustainable, big picture results.

Jessica Simmons, executive director of the SIF sub-grantee Reading Partners, said her program’s twice-a-week tutoring program helps struggling readers grow far faster than they would otherwise.

“We have real results,” she said. “I believe that the results are compelling enough that hopefully we can bring more people to the table.”

Reading Partners, which came to Colorado because it was selected as a SIF sub-grantee, has already expanded its reach in the state. This year, it serves 560 students in the Denver, Aurora and Sheridan districts, up from 360 the year before.

Results child by child

Back in the meeting room with Hernandez, John Simpson jotted down some ideas for upping his verbal interactions with Shane. He planned to include Shane in more of his daily chores—perhaps having his son throw the laundry in the washing machine or help sweep the floor. He also decided to carve out more father-son activity time.

Patty Hernandez talks with parent John Simpson during a LENA feedback session.
Patty Hernandez talks with parent John Simpson during a LENA feedback session.

“So what do I need to do to support you with your goal?” asked Hernandez.

Simpson joked, “You take over the chores.” They both laughed.

A moment later, he became serious, asking if Hernandez could give him more ideas for toddler-friendly activities like the homemade Play-Do recipe she’d passed along previously. She readily agreed.

The conversation may have ended with talk of children’s crafts, but the implications for Shane Simpson and the other children in the play group are much bigger.

“We believe strongly…that third grade is sort of the end not the beginning, so let’s start at the beginning” said Pamela Harris, president and CEO of Mile High Montessori. “By third grade it’s too late for many of the children.”

That’s why the “Ready to Read” project as well as three other SIF projects include babies and toddlers just learning to talk. It’s also why Hernandez talks passionately about the importance of parent-child exchanges, called “conversational turns” in LENA-speak, and hands out articles about the groundbreaking 30-million word gap study.

While John Simpson admitted to having some trepidation about whether the LENA device would allow researchers to eavesdrop on private conversations (It doesn’t), he said the data has been interesting.

”I think I have increased my own talking because that’s how you get them to talk.”

The future of SIF

As with any complicated project, SIF entails inevitable conversations about logistical details, mid-stream adjustments and long-term plans. Among the open questions project leaders must address in the coming months is how to handle the switch to a new state reading test next year. That change, coinciding with the implementation of Common Core State Standards, will likely mean a dip in scores as teachers and students acclimate to the new material.

United Way officials say they will work with sub-grantees affected by the new tests on a case by case basis. They are also in the process of revising one of their original SIF initiative goals–to improve third-grade reading proficiency among children served by 25 percent. The new tests and the fact that a segment of the children served by the nine programs won’t be in third grade by the time the project ends in 2017 necessitate that adjustment.

What’s also unclear right now is how the projects deemed effective will be scaled up after the SIF funding period ends. United Way officials say such decisions will be left up to each individual non-profit.

“We hope and intend that these are models for replication and expansion,” said Cindy Eby, senior director of evaluation for Mile High United Way.

Regardless of how each sub-grantee decides to proceed, Eby said United Way plans to incorporate SIF-like partnerships and evaluation into the organization’s future work.

“We’ve seen the benefits here,” she said. “We intend to carry that approach forward with or without SIF.”



New direction

Three years in, an ambitious experiment to improve the odds for kids at one elementary school is scaling back

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Tennyson Knolls students return to school after a ribbon-cutting ceremony on school grounds in September.

Blocks of Hope was once envisioned as a pint-sized version of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

The project would provide an array of educational and social services to young children and families living within the boundaries of one high-poverty Adams County school — in the process, changing not only the lives of individual children but also the community around them.

But after three years, the Westminster-based nonprofit that spearheaded Blocks of Hope is scaling back its ambitions.

While the project won’t disappear entirely, the nonprofit’s leaders say they’re no longer focusing services and staff so tightly on the school’s boundary zone and may eventually stop using the Blocks of Hope name.

“We’re starting to question whether it’s the right strategic direction for the organization,” said Karen Fox Elwell, the new president and CEO of Growing Home, which launched the project in 2014.

The shifting shape of Blocks of Hope — originally framed as a 20-year effort intended to change the trajectories of children 0 to 9 within the Tennyson Knolls Elementary School enrollment zone — is a disappointment for some advocates who’d hoped this “placed-based” approach would not only be successful, but also possibly serve as a model for other Colorado communities.

A raft of issues have prompted the changes, including greater-than-expected mobility among the school population, fundraising challenges, and the tension that came from devoting resources to the 2.25-square-mile project zone while also trying to serve the broader Adams County community.

“It was hard to find that balance to do both well,” said Fox Elwell, who joined Growing Home in January.

Organizers knew when they started that the community was changing, but gentrification pushed out families faster than they expected. About a quarter of Tennyson Knoll’s students left the school in 2015-16.

Leaders said that was one reason it was tricky to track child outcomes that would demonstrate the project’s impact — a hallmark of successful place-based work.

Fox Elwell said there’s more stability among residents in the Harlem Children’s Zone because of rent-controlled housing.

“So families are really staying in that community for years upon years,” she said. “With Blocks of Hope, it’s just not the case.”

Fox Elwell said the board and staff will determine the future of Blocks of Hope during the group’s upcoming strategic planning process starting in late spring.

Teva Sienicki, the former president and CEO of Growing Home and the project’s original champion, said significant evidence supports the place-based strategy that underpinned Blocks of Hope, but didn’t want to second-guess the decisions of Growing Home’s current leaders.

“I really do wish them the best,” said Sienicki, who left Growing Home last summer.

Even at the outset of the project,  Sienicki acknowledged that changing demographics and funding challenges could alter the long-term course of the project. Still, she was optimistic, projecting a gradual expansion that would bring two to three other elementary schools in the Westminster district under the Blocks of Hope umbrella, and increase the number of employees dedicated to the project from two to 70.

In addition to improving family functioning, the project’s goal was to boost school attendance, kindergarten readiness, and third-grade reading scores, and reduce the number of children referred for special education services. This year, 85 percent of Tennyson Knolls students are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, a proxy for poverty.

One of the essential ideas behind place-based efforts like Blocks of Hope and the Harlem Children’s Zone is to flood a carefully defined geographic area with services in the hopes of touching a critical mass of residents, usually around 60 percent. By reaching such a large proportion of a population, proponents say such efforts create a kind of tipping point that pushes the whole community to adopt the norms and aspirations of those who receive services.

But Blocks of Hope never got close to that tipping point.

While certain components of the project, such as backpack and school supply giveaways, reached a large number of families, others, such as parent programs, never got above 15 percent, said Fox Elwell.

Aside from high mobility, the fact that many students ride the bus to Tennyson Knolls — instead of getting dropped off by their parents — made it harder to connect with parents than organizers anticipated.

The nonprofit’s limited budget was also a factor. Spending on the project was originally set at $250,000 annually, with eventual plans to reach $3 million if it expanded to other schools.

The nonprofit’s actual spending on Blocks of Hope has been around $100,000 a year, said Fox Elwell. In addition, a grant that Growing Home leaders hoped would pay for an evaluation of the project never came through.

“There were some incredible hopes to grow the budget and deeply invest in the community,” she said. “And maybe it was more challenging to fundraise than we anticipated.”

There are still several Blocks of Hope programs at Tennyson Knolls this year, including backpack giveaways, holiday gift and meal help, and two parenting classes. The school also houses a boutique with used children’s clothing and gear.

An after-school tutoring program was discontinued after last school year because it wasn’t effective, leaders said. Another program aimed at grandparents raising grandchildren was slated to launch this spring, but will not because school leaders felt they had too much going on.

A community organizer originally hired to work with Blocks of Hope families to advocate for affordable housing has expanded her territory to include other neighborhoods.

“There’s a lot of need just a little bit south and a little bit east of those (school) boundaries,” said Leslie Gonzalez, a Growing Home board member.

Residents in some of those areas began to assume they were no longer eligible for any of the nonprofit’s services as Blocks of Hope ramped up. That wasn’t true, but the project sent some “unintended negative messages,” she said.

Despite looming questions about the future of Blocks of Hope, leaders at Growing Home and Tennyson Knolls say the project has helped families, sparked welcome changes to the nonprofit’s case management strategy, and built community at the school.

Tennyson Knolls Principal Heather McGuire, who is the school’s third principal since Blocks of Hope began, said the project helped get parents involved at school, whether attending PTA meetings, taking Blocks of Hope classes, or attending “coffee with the principal” meetings.

She credits the project with giving rise to the school’s tagline, “We are TKE,” a reference to the school’s initials.

Gonzalez said, “We don’t view Blocks of Hope as a failure necessarily … Even though there were a lot of challenges, a lot of good came out of it, too, and we were able to meet even more families in that community we serve.”

safe haven

Colorado could get its first 24/7 child care facility for families in crisis

PHOTO: Jamie Grill | Getty Images
Mother rubbing forehead while holding baby son.

Last fall, Lisa Rickerd Mills, a medical social worker in Grand Junction, worked with a single mother who needed inpatient mental health treatment.

The problem was child care. The woman had no one to watch her two small children during her stay and bowed out of treatment.

It’s exactly the kind of scenario a group of advocates hope to prevent with a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week child care facility for families facing emergencies or periods of high stress.

The center, to be called the Grand Valley Crisis Nursery and set to open in late 2018, would provide free care for children 0 to 5 years old for periods ranging from a few days to 30 days. The idea is to give parents a safe place to leave their youngest children when they’re facing a crisis — a period of homelessness, an emergency medical procedure, domestic violence, or the threat of job loss. It’s meant to prevent child abuse and neglect and keep kids out of the foster care system.

While there are around 70 crisis nurseries nationwide, the one planned for Grand Junction would be the first of its kind in Colorado. It could pave the way for a new type of state child care license and perhaps crisis nurseries elsewhere in the state. The project is unfolding amidst a broader push in the western Colorado community to improve child and family outcomes by dramatically expanding child care options over the next three years.

Kaleigh Stover, a former pharmaceutical sales representative who moved to Grand Junction from Sacramento last summer, is leading the charge on the crisis nursery. Prior to her move, the 26-year-old volunteered at the Sacramento Crisis Nursery, which runs two of five crisis nurseries in California and, like many such facilities, relies heavily on volunteers to care for the children.

“I’m like that girl in the grocery store who will offer to hold your baby,” she said. “I have a soft spot for babies and moms and helping those people who are experiencing hard times.”

When she first arrived in Grand Junction, Stover called around to several nonprofit organizations and was surprised to learn there wasn’t a crisis nursery in town.

She said local advocates told her, “We don’t have anything like this … but we need it.”

Child abuse cases — and hotline calls about suspected child abuse — have steadily risen over the last few years in Mesa County. The western Colorado county also faces numerous other challenges: higher than average rates of child poverty, foster care placement, and teen pregnancy.

The community’s transience also means that parents of young children often arrive without a circle of family and friends to help out in a pinch, said Rickerd Mills, a member of the crisis nursery’s board.

That can mean parents leave their kids in the care of people they don’t know well or enlist older siblings to watch them.

In addition to providing licensed overnight care for young children, crisis nurseries have case managers who work to connect parents with community resources and get them back on their feet.

While there are a host of typical housing, job, and medical problems that prompt parents to use crisis nurseries, parents with a child care problem outside the usual list won’t be turned away at the Grand Valley center, Stover said.

“We let families define the crisis,” she said, adding that parents using the center would be required to check in with case managers regularly.

Over the past six months, Stover has steadily made progress on the nursery — holding a community town hall, recruiting board members, and finding a local nonprofit to serve as the nursery’s fiscal sponsor. She’s currently in the process of finding a location for the nine- to 12-bed center and will soon begin fundraising.

Stover expects the first-year costs to be around $455,000 if the group purchases a building, with operations costing $150,000 in subsequent years. About 80 percent of the nursery’s funding will come from individual and corporate donations and 20 percent from grants, she said.

In what might be the nursery project’s biggest victory so far, Stover got a preliminary nod in February from the state’s child care licensing advisory committee, which agreed to consider giving the crisis nursery a waiver from state licensing rules.

If the waiver is granted, it could set the stage for a new kind of child care license in Colorado — a cross between a typical child care center license, which doesn’t allow 24-hour care, and a residential child care facility license, which allows 24-hour care but doesn’t permit care for children under 3 years old.

“Having a new license type is kind of nightmare, but it changes the whole state if we can make it happen,” Stover said.

Ebony White Douglas, program manager at the 22-year-old Sacramento Crisis Nursery, praised Stover’s persistence in pursuing the project. She said she routinely consults with people in other states interested in launching crisis nurseries and has seen many such projects sidelined because of complex licensing logistics or daunting fund-raising requirements.

Rickerd Mills said she was heartened to hear about the positive reception from the state’s licensing advisory committee.

“I think it just goes to show the need in this community and the state,” she said.