New nonprofit

New statewide early childhood non-profit launches

Preschool students at McGlone Elementary in Denver work on a project together.

A new non-profit backed by several influential foundations launched this spring with the goal of improving the state’s early childhood systems.

The Denver-based organization, called Early Milestones Colorado, is meant to accelerate innovation by serving as an intermediary to the various state agencies, community organizations, and private sector groups that do early childhood work in the state.

Six funders contributed a total of $300,000 to launch Early Milestones. They include the Temple Hoyne Buell Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Denver Foundation, Rose Community Foundation, Chambers Family Fund, and the Cydney and Tom Marsico Family Foundation.

Jennifer Stedron, the group’s executive director, compared Early Milestones’ mission in the early childhood world to the Colorado Education Initiative’s mission in the K-12 world. The latter group collaborates closely with the Colorado Department of Education and local school districts to incubate innovative programs.

final logo colors
PHOTO: Micaela Watts

Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said one of the challenges of early childhood work is that it touches on many different domains, including early learning, physical health, mental health, and family support.

“That makes it incredibly difficult to work across the siloes we’ve built,” he said.

“Milestones has the opportunity to serve as this hub of information and a sort of conduit across these siloes.”

National context

Intermediary organizations like Early Milestones are relatively new. One of the country’s first in the early childhood arena was the North Carolina’s Partnership for Children, founded in 1994.

Leaders from other states soon become so interested in the partnership’s work that the group secured foundation dollars to provide technical assistance grants to states that wanted to improve their own early childhood systems. Colorado was one of the grantees.

One of the recommendations that emerged from that technical assistance process here in the early 2000s was the creation of an early childhood intermediary organization.

“I really see this type of organization as a partner with government, but it also plays a unique role in questioning the system and requiring accountability for children,” said Karen Ponder, former president of the North Carolina Partnership.

Ponder estimated that 20 states have some kind of early-childhood intermediary organization, though they differ significantly in size, scope and structure.

Elsa Holguín, president of the Early Milestones board and a senior program officer at Rose Community Foundation, said, “This whole concept of creating intermediaries is going to make more and more sense as time goes by.”

Bruce Atchison, executive director of policy and operations at the Education Commission of the States, said while some other states have or are launching similar efforts, it’s not widespread.

“I think what Colorado is doing is kind of in the forefront, in that it’s a separate (non-profit). I think that’s kind of exciting,” he said. “I think it will be a nice model for other states if they’re successful.”

Third leg of the stool

Early Milestones leaders describe the group as the critical third leg on the three-legged stool of early childhood infrastructure. In other words, without that leg the stool tips over.

While there are different versions of the stool analogy, the other two legs are often state agencies and the local early childhood councils across the state.

In Colorado, one of the key state agencies overseeing programs for young children is the Office of Early Childhood, which was created in 2012 within the Department of Human Services. Meanwhile, the top of the stool is the Early Childhood Leadership Commission, a state advisory panel established in 2010.

Holguín said the creation of those two entities, along with an influx of early childhood funding in 2012 from the federal Race to the Top grant, were promising developments, but not enough.

There needed to be a non-profit group that could work as a convener and collaborator. Not only would it bring together government, philanthropy, the business community and other early childhood stakeholders, it would serve as a place to test ideas and programs.

Since state government can’t typically experiment with promising but unproven practices, Early Milestones can help fill that gap.

Starting last fall, Holguin and other foundation leaders presented the concept to groups around the state. While some groups wanted more concrete details, she said there was near universal interest.

“Every time we met with somebody…at the end of every meeting, they would say, “Oh, and I have a project that I need you to do.”’

Three projects underway

While Early Milestones won’t have its official unveiling until later this year, Stedron and her team already have three projects underway.

First is an update of the Early Childhood Colorado Framework, which was first published in 2008. Since then, state and national developments like the Affordable Care Act and a new rating system for child care providers have come along, rendering the original version out of date.

The framework, which outlines the state’s vision and strategy for achieving a strong early childhood environment, is meant to guide the work of local, regional and state leaders.

Sheryl Shusan, manager of the Early Childhood Leadership Commission, said Early Milestones played a vital role in facilitating the revision process.

Early Milestones has also developed an expansion plan for Project LAUNCH, a federally-funded program to improve early childhood mental health. That effort came out of a push by several health and early-childhood foundations to use local philanthropy dollars to expand the program’s reach in Colorado.

Stedron said the organization’s work to help plan Project LAUNCH’s expansion is “a great example of the intermediary’s role as a thought partner…someone to help accelerate what is a really good idea.”

Third, Early Milestones is conducting a national scan of state models for educating parents about the importance of and their role in their children’s earliest years.

“It’s been thrilling to embark on some of these projects as we’re in development,” said Stedron.

Chalkbeat Colorado is a grantee of the Walton Family Foundation, the Denver Foundation and the Rose Community Foundation. 

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.