goodbye paper and pencil

Improving care for the youngest by targeting the back office

Last fall, Roman Hollowell contemplated closing the small child care center he runs out of the first floor of his childhood home in Denver’s Whittier neighborhood. Enrollment at “Kids 4 Real, Inc.” was dwindling and he didn’t know if he could keep the lights on for much longer.

It was a tough decision for Hollowell. His mother Oneta had opened the center in 1993 and run it for nearly two decades until she died of a rare form of cancer in 2012. Although he’d never envisioned himself in the child care field, he was reluctant to abandon the business his mother began building when he was a sports-loving high school kid.

“It was important for me to continue her legacy,” said Hollowell on recent Monday morning at the center. “Something just kind of told me to hang in there and stay the course.”

What helped turn his intuition into action was a program called Early Learning Ventures Shared Services model, or ELV. The non-profit, launched in 2009 by the David and Laura Merage Foundation, aims to help Colorado child care providers save time and money by giving them the tools to operate more efficiently. In exchange for access to ELV’s web-based platform, providers pay a monthly fee ranging from $50 to $250.

Kids4Real Center

For many of the 556 licensed child care providers participating across that state, the program means discounts on supplies and services, online training for staff, computerized child-tracking systems, help with licensing documentation, and ready-made templates for things like parent handbooks. What helped Hollowell last fall however, was one of ELV’s marketing tools, which gave him access to the addresses of families with young children living near the center.

“That was amazing,” he said, perched on a blue-kid sized chair near shelves full of puzzles and games. “I was able to get my hands on 1,000 plus addresses.”

Hollowell subsequently sent out 400 letters advertising “Kids 4 Real” and enrollment picked up enough to keep the doors open.

A quality improvement strategy

Shared services is a relatively new approach in the early childhood arena, but one that is gaining momentum both in Colorado and nationally. Proponents believe the model will ultimately help providers—often small mom and pop shops—shed inefficient back-office practices so they can save time and money.

“The idea is not just to make director’s lives easier,” said Jonathan Godes, executive director of the Early Childhood Network in Glenwood Springs. “The idea is they take those time saving and money savings and reinvest them into the program.”

Shared services fits with the nationwide push to improve the quality of early childhood care and education, especially for low-income children. Currently, there are shared services efforts in about a third of states, though details—from the sponsoring organization to fee structures–vary widely.

“There are folks all across the country that are experimenting with shared services,” said Louise Stoney, co-founder of the Alliance for Early Childhood Finance and the Opportunities Exchange, a consulting group dedicated to advancing shared services alliances.

“Shared services is still a very new and unique movement in general,” she said.

cubbies at child care center

In Colorado, ELV leaders have big plans for the program, which cost around $7 million to build and administer. In addition to eventually enrolling 2,050 Colorado centers, they hope to become financially self-sustaining by the time they reach 1,950. They also hope to expand the ELV model to other states.

Currently under ELV’s model there are six regional alliances in Colorado. Each alliance is run by a local non-profit, which recruits providers to participate and helps them learn the platform. ELV’s Englewood headquarters provide financial and technical assistance to each alliance.

Providers interested in participating in ELV can sign up for one of three levels of service. So far, there are 485 providers in Tier 1, which offers basics such as purchasing discounts and online training. Tier 2, which adds a computerized child-management system and other services, has 57 providers and Tier 3, which adds billing and financial services, has 15.

Stoney said ELV’s Tier 3 offerings are one of the program’s distinctive elements.

“There’s really not anyone else in the country that’s doing the same thing,” she said. “It’ll be very interesting to see what kind of uptake they get.”

Their passion is children not accounting

While many other industries, including K-12 education, have robust administrative systems in place, early childhood is an exception. A look at the numbers tells part of the story.

In contrast to Colorado’s 178 school districts, there are more than 4,000 licensed child care providers that provide regular care for the 0-5 set. To be sure, some are large programs run by school districts, national chains or sophisticated non-profits that may have specialized finance and operations staff. There are also some that use “off-the-shelf” products that provide some of the same services as the ELV platform. Still, there are huge numbers of small, independent providers that rely on shoestring budgets and paper-and-pencil methods.

Children at Kids 4 Real clown around before rest time.
Children at Kids 4 Real clown around before rest time.

Most get into the field because they love working with children, but the business side of the job can be a “real shock,” said Emily Bustos, executive director of Denver Early Childhood Council and board president of the Early Childhood Councils Leadership Alliance.

“That becomes the most challenging and time-intensive part of running a child care business,” she said.

In many cases, administrators rise to their positions through the teaching ranks and so while they may understand child development, they lack expertise in accounting, payroll, human resources and the regulatory environment.

“They just get thrown in and it’s kind of sink or swim,” said Godes, whose organization runs one of ELV’s six alliances.

There are plenty of anecdotes about rampant inefficiencies in the small preschools, child care centers and family child care homes that dot the early childhood landscape. Some providers go through the tedious process of hand tallying numbers for food program reimbursements or piecing together attendance records from paper sign-in sheets that some parents inevitably forget to fill out. Even drafting a parent letter when there’s a lice outbreak or a biting incident can turn into a time-consuming task.

Judy Williams, ELV’s program director, told of one rural child care center where the director and a staff member used to spend an entire day every month traveling to Denver to shop at Costco for supplies. It may have been cheaper than shopping local stores, but it cost far more than ordering supplies through ELV’s platform and getting next-day shipping.

Ultimately, many of these long-held practices either drain the budget or suck away the director’s time, keeping her busy with paperwork instead of working with teachers and kids in the classroom. That’s what happened to Kelly Esch when she became the director of the Little Red Schoolhouse in Snowmass Village last year.

She was working 50 hours a week, most of that shut away in her office. Since she began taking greater advantage of ELV’s tools, she’s cut her office work down to 30-35 hours, allowing her to spend more time assisting teachers, giving them breaks and helping them with lessons and activities.

“That way, they’re not so stressed out,” she said. “When you’re in the classroom 10 hours a day it’s hard to come up with fresh ideas,” she said.

Kathryn Hammerbeck, executive director of the Early Childhood Education Association of Colorado, believes ELV’s model may also help address her members’ most pressing problem: attracting and retaining high-quality employees.

“If you can control some of your overhead, some of your operational cost, then it frees it a little money to put into wages, which will help you attract and retain staff.”

At what price?

While many providers have gotten scholarships or partial scholarships to participate in ELV, especially for their first year, the prospect of eventually paying a monthly fee can be daunting.

“Early childhood education is a very, very price sensitive program,” said Stoney. “This is not a money-making field. It’s very, very difficult to charge fees for things.”

Currently, about 22 percent of participating providers receive full or partial scholarships to participate. In addition, the state plans to chip in about $500,000 for Tier 2 ELV scholarships over the next 14 months using federal Early Learning Challenge Grant money. The one-year scholarships will target 100 “high needs” providers that serve low-income children and English language learners, and generally do not have a quality rating from Qualistar.

Colin Tackett, business analyst at the Colorado Department of Human Services, said the hope is that the initial subsidies will allow providers to see the benefits of ELV and subsequently continue participating on their own dime.

According to a recent third-party return-on-investment study, there are concrete financial benefits to participating inELV, particularly for center-based programs. The results show that centers would save $84,000 to $114,000 over five years depending on which ELV tier they were in. The savings were smaller for home-based providers, with a five-year return of $270-$1,270.

Among current participants, there’s generally a feeling that the program generates significant financial savings. Hollowell, who has a partial scholarship for Tier 2 of ELV, said he pays $25 a month and realizes savings of about $100-150 a month, mostly due to discounts on office supplies and other equipment.

Esch, who pays $75 a month and has a scholarship to pay the other $100 for Tier 2, estimated similar savings. When other directors ask her if it’s worth it, her go-to example is the paper towel discount.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever bought industrial paper towels, but they’re extremely expensive and kids use them like crazy,” she said.

Sticking points

While Early Learning Ventures certainly has many enthusiastic advocates, it can be a tough sell in some quarters of the early childhood world. Some providers are wary of one of its central themes—using technology to streamline and modernize operations.

“This is a big leap for them,” said Williams, a former child care provider herself.

Aside from the inevitable anxiety or confusion about web-based tools, there’s also the challenge of getting time-crunched administrators grappling with major state-level changes—including the launch of a new mandatory quality rating system later this year—to explore a voluntary program that costs money up front.

While Bustos believes there is a market and demand for ELV, she said the benefits must be clearly spelled out for providers.

“There’s way more hand-holding than you realize…to get someone to that next level of sufficiency.”

That point is not lost on Hammerbeck, who in January signed a contract with ELV to offer Tier 1 services as a benefit to members. Although it’s free for the 400 preschools and child care centers that belong to the association, she said only about 10 providers representing 25 sites have signed up.

“It’s a question of educating them…they don’t have the time to sit and read the information we sent them about it.”

Still, she said, ““It would help them so much in running their program.”

Doing mom proud

Just inside the front entrance of Kids 4 Real is a large framed photograph of a smiling Oneta Hollowell. Underneath it is a bulletin board featuring one of Roman Hollowell’s proudest accomplishments. It is a plastic-encased certificate showing the center’s four-star quality rating by Qualistar.

DSCN0890

That rating, the highest currently awarded, replaced the center’s previous three-star rating a couple months ago. Hollowell said meticulous preparation, including a walk-through by an ELV program manager, helped him get the points he needed.

“I was able to be hands on,” he said. “Our preparation in 2014 was perfect.”

It’s impossible to know whether Hollowell’s use of ELV’s purchasing discounts, its computerized sign-in/sign-out system, its address lists or anything else was critical to the four-star rating. Perhaps it all factored in to the equation.

What’s clear is that  Kids 4 Real realized exactly the type of improvement ELV leaders hope to see on a broader scale in the years to come.

Future of Schools

CPS $1 billion capital budget hearings: Questions, demands, and mixed feelings

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Community members gave passionate testimonies at a public hearing at Malcolm X College for the proposed capital budget.

Chicago Public Schools surprised many when it dropped its biggest facility spending plan a few weeks ago with a big “B”—that stands for billion—in the headline.

Considering that the district had planned to spend less than $200 million on capital needs for the 2018-2019 school year, this plan represents a five-fold increase. It relies largely on bonds to pay for building improvements and introduces new schools amid steadily shrinking enrollment, mostly in areas around gentrifying neighborhoods.

Divergent opinions surrounding the capital budget emerged at three concurrent community meetings CPS held Thursday night at City Colleges sites around Chicago: Malcolm X, Harry S. Truman, and Kennedy-King. The Chicago Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the district’s $7.58 billion budget, including the capital plan, on July 25.

At the Malcolm X meeting, CPS Senior Policy Advisor Cameron Mock presented a map showing capital budget projects distributed evenly throughout the city, but, as CPS Chief Financial Officer Jennie Bennett acknowledged, “not all projects are equal.”

Bennett explained that “the allocation of these projects were really in large part due to feedback about need.”

Chalkbeat mapped out the costliest capital projects, and found that the West side, particularly the Southwest side, received the smallest concentration of large investments.

The map shows investments in facility needs over $5 million, all programmatic investments, all investments in overcrowding relief, investments in site improvements over $500,000, as well as sites of the two new classical schools. The map does not show the two new schools in Belmont Cragin and the Near West Side, because the district has not yet specified exact locations. The district also has not yet identified schools for many of its capital projects, such as technology and facility upgrades. See the full plan here.

At Thursday’s hearings, parents from schools that did receive significant funding, such as Christopher Elementary School in Gage Park and Hancock High School in West Elsdon, expressed thanks. But others asked for for more investment.

Residents questioned the plan to build a new $70 million high school on the Near West Side. Lori Edwards, a Local School Council member at Crane Medical Prep on the Near West Side, said that Crane desperately needed air conditioning and heating, doors with windows, and security cameras.

“I’m surprised that we can’t just get basic things instead of building a new high school,” she said.

Questions also surrounded the $44 million assigned for a new elementary school in Belmont Cragin on the Northwest Side to address overcrowding. A sophomore at Prosser High School in Belmont Cragin asked for investment in her school instead. At Prosser, she said, “there needs to be reconstruction in the classrooms, the paint on the walls is falling off.”

Leticia Neri, a mother of two students at Camras Elementary School in Belmont Cragin, was wary of adding a school to the neighborhood. Her children used to attend Burbank Elementary, which is also in Belmont Cragin. When Acero Roberto Clemente, a charter school, opened just two blocks down in 2013, she said that Burbank lost pupils.

However, Mock said the proposed new school was a response to demand in Belmont Cragin. And in fact, several miles north in Uptown, where CPS’s Chief Operating Officer Arnie Rivera and other officials led a meeting Thursday, a handful of Belmont Cragin residents argued in favor of the school.

Parent Mariela Estrada said Belmont Cragin Elementary, which her 9-year-old attends,  is overcrowded. While the district’s formula doesn’t label any Belmont Cragin school overcrowded, the numbers paint a different picture. Belmont Cragin Elementary’s 414 students share a building with Northwest Middle School’s 545 pupils.

“I am really, really grateful right now for what we are getting,” she said.

The North Side, as the map above shows, will receive the most capital funding. Several attendees expressed gratitude for investments in area schools, especially a new ADA compliant gym at McCutcheon Elementary in Uptown, and an expanded test-in Decatur Classical School program in West Ridge, that will add seventh and eighth grades. Students have to test into the city’s five highly competitive classical schools, and hundreds are turned away every year.

Even so, not all North Side residents felt their schools would receive what they need, and many questioned CPS’ process for planning improvements.

A mother of a student at Schurz High School, in Old Irving Park, thanked CPS for a plans to install a new athletic field, but mentioned the school’s leaky roof, faulty heating system, green and black mold under carpets, and peeling paint in the auditorium. “It’s gross,” she said.

Parent Dawne Moon, said Kilmer Elementary School in Rogers Park is “not currently a safe environment.” Moon, a Local School Council member,  complained of rusted lockers, “bathrooms that smell like urine, even after they are cleaned,” temporary covers over holes in the roof that keeps water from pouring into classrooms, and of bricks falling from the ceiling in the school’s gym.  

“We can hope that the next brick doesn’t fall on a kid,” she said.

Betsy Vandercook, co-chair of the education committee at Network 49, a progressive neighborhood group based in Rogers Park, said schools in her neighborhood would get less than what adjacent communities like Edgewater and West Rogers Park would receive.

“Rogers Park is not, for whatever reason getting the same resources that many other North Side communities are getting,” she said about the capital budget proposal. “Take this back, look at it again, look at what is and isn’t needed.”

budget season

New budget gives CPS CEO Janice Jackson opportunity to play offense

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson announced the district's $1 billion capital plan at Lázaro Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village.

Running Chicago’s schools might be the toughest tour of duty in town for a public sector CEO. There have been eight chiefs in a decade – to be fair, two were interims – who have wrangled with mounting debt, aging buildings, and high percentages of students who live in poverty.

Then there’ve been recurring scandals, corruption, and ethics violations. Since she was officially named to the top job in January, CEO Janice Jackson has had to clean up a series of her predecessors’ lapses, from a special education crisis that revealed families were counseled out of services to a sexual abuse investigation that spotlighted a decade of system failures at every level to protect students.

But with budget season underway, the former principal finally gets the chance to go on the offensive. The first operations budget of her tenure is a $5.98 billion plan that contains some good news for a change: 5 percent more money, courtesy of the state revamp of the school funding formula and a bump from local tax revenues. CPS plans to funnel $60 million more to schools than it did last school year, for a total of $3.1 billion. Put another way, it plans to spend $4,397 per student as a base rate — a 2 percent increase from the year prior.

CPS’ total budget comes out to $7.58 billion once you factor in long-term debt and an ambitious $1 billion capital plan that is the focus of a trio of public hearings Thursday night. When it comes to debt, the district owes $8.2 billion as of June 30, or nearly $3,000 per every Chicago resident.

“The district, without a doubt, is on firmer footing than it was 18 months ago, but they’re not out of woods yet,” said Bobby Otter, budget director for the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “When you look at the overall picture (the $7.58 budget), they’re still running a deficit. This is now the seventh year in a row they are running a deficit, and the amount of debt the district has, combined with the lack of reserves, leaves them with little flexibility.”

Earlier this week, standing in front of an audience of executives at a City Club of Chicago luncheon, Jackson acknowledged that it had been an “eventful” seven months and said she was ready to focus on strategies for moving the district forward. “I won’t be waiting for next shoe to drop or wasting time and resources waiting for next problem. I want to design a system to educate and protect children.”

“I’m not in crisis mode,” she added.

Here’s what that looks like in her first year when you just consider the numbers. The biggest line items of any operating budget are salaries, benefits and pensions: Taken all together, they consume 66 percent of CPS’ planned spending for the 2018-2019 school year. Rounding out much of the rest are contracts with vendors ($542.6 million, or 9 percent), such as the controversial janitorial deals with Aramark and SodexoMAGIC; charter expenditures ($749 million, or 13 percent); and spending on transportation, textbooks, equipment, and the like (12 percent).

A closer look at how some of those items are allocated offers a window into Jackson’s vision. The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the plan July 25.

Investing in choice

Earlier this month, the district announced a nearly $1 billion capital plan, funded by bonds, that would support new schools, technology upgrades, and annexes at some of the district’s most popular campuses. The operating budget, meanwhile, accounts for the people and programs driving those projects. It proposes nearly doubling the staff, from 10 to 17, in the office that manages charters, contract programs, and the creation of new schools. It reestablishes a chief portfolio officer who reports directly to the CEO. And it adds expands access to International Baccalaureate programs and Early College STEM offerings. In a letter at the beginning of the 2019 Budget Book, Jackson said such expansions “move the district closer to our goal of having 50 percent of students earn at least one college or career credential before graduating high school.” 

Advocating for students

The budget seeds at least two new departments: a four-person Office of Equity charged with diversifying the teacher pipeline, among other roles, and a 20-person Title IX office that would investigate student abuse cases, including claims of student-on-student harassment.

Leaning into high schools

Fitting for a budget designed by a former high school principal – Jackson was running a high school before age 30 – the plan leans in to high schools, establishing $2 million to fund four new networks to oversee them. (That brings the total number of networks to 17; networks are mini-administrative departments that track school progress, assist with budgeting, and ensure policy and procedures are followed.) And it earmarks $75 million across three years for new science labs at neighborhood high schools. What’s more, it supports 10 additional career counselors to help campuses wrestle with a graduation mandate – set forth by Mayor Rahm Emanuel – that seniors have a post-secondary plan to graduate starting with the Class of 2020.

Throwing a lifeline to small schools

The budget also sets forth a $10 million “Small Schools Fund” to help schools with low enrollment retain teachers and offer after-school programs. It also earmarks an additional $5 million to help schools facing precipitous changes in enrollment, which can in turn lead to dramatic budget drops.   

Supporting modest staff increases

After a round of layoffs were announced in June, the budget plan adds at least 200 teachers. But the district would not provide a clear accounting of whom to Chalkbeat by publication time. Earlier this week, it announced plans to fund additional school social workers (160) and special education case managers (94).

The district plans to add positions for the upcoming 2018-2019 year.

As Chicago Teachers Union organizer and Cook County Commissioner candidate Brandon Johnson pointed out in an impromptu press conference earlier this week in front of district HQ, the budget is still “woefully short” on school psychologists, nurses, and counselors. And it doesn’t address the calls from parents to restore librarians and instructors in such subjects as art, music, physical education — positions that have experienced dramatic cuts since 2011. “What is proposed today still leaves us short of when (Mayor Emanuel) took office,” Johnson said. “The needs of our students must be met.”

Principal Elias Estrada, who oversees two North Side schools, Alcott Elementary and Alcott High School, said he was still figuring out how the additional staffing would work. He’s getting another social worker – but he oversees two campuses that sit three miles apart, so he figures he’ll have to divide the person’s time between campuses. Estrada asked the board at Monday’s budget hearing to help him understand the criteria it uses to determine which schools get extra staff or additional programs, like IB. “I need a counselor, a clerk, and an assistant principal,” he said; currently those positions also are shared between the elementary and the high school.

After the meeting, he said that schools might have gotten slightly bigger budgets this year, but the increase was consumed by rising salaries and he wasn’t able to add any positions. What’s more, his building needs repairs, but it didn’t get picked for any of the facilities upgrades in the $1 billion capital plan that accompanied the budget.

“What is the process?” he asked. “The need is everywhere.”

At two public hearings on Monday, fewer than a dozen speakers signed up to ask questions of the board, central office administrators, or Jackson.

To see if your school is getting one of the newly announced positions or any funding from the capital plan, type it in the search box below.