New nonprofit

New statewide early childhood non-profit launches

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. 

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.

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.