Ready or not

New waivers from school readiness law raise concerns

More than 60 Colorado charter schools  — and one of the state’s largest school districts — have been granted exemptions from some requirements of the state’s school readiness law just as it is being rolled out statewide.

Those schools and four districts have been granted waivers by the State Board of Education, which allows them to use their own programs to determine if kindergarteners are ready for first grade.

While the waivers are permitted by state law, some observers are concerned that such flexibility could lead to inconsistency among schools and districts and make it harder to track whether kindergarten students statewide really are prepared for first grade.

While no one seems to be questioning the quality of individual waiver plans, some people are concerned that it will be hard to review the quality of individual school and district readiness tools.

“I’m apprehensive about the trend,” said Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

Jen Walmer, Colorado state director of Democrats for Education Reform, said she also has questions about “the push-to-a-waiver mentality.”

Angelika Schroeder, vice chair of the State Board of Education, also raised questions during the Oct. 7 board meeting at which the issue was discussed.

“Having everybody get a waiver, that would be a problem. … I really don’t want to go against what districts want to do, but I don’t want the legislature to believe we will go against their legislative intent,” she said.

School readiness evaluations of kindergarteners are required by a sweeping 2008 education reform law called the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids. Evaluations were supposed to start statewide in the 2013-14 school year, but full rollout was delayed until this year.

Children are not formally tested but rather observed in a structured way by their teachers, who use the information to decide if students have the skills necessary for first grade. Evaluations cannot be used to prevent children from entering first grade.

What’s behind waiver applications

What CAP4K requires
  • All kindergarteners must be evaluated for school readiness using CDE-approved assessments
  • Children are to be evaluated on physical well-being and motor development, social and emotional development, language and comprehension development, math and cognition and general knowledge
  • Individual student readiness plans
  • Reporting of aggregate readiness data to CDE

Those familiar with the issue say the surge of waiver applications, which started last April, was prompted by two things. One is advice given last year by the state attorney general’s office to the Colorado Department of Education concluding that schools could seek waivers from the readiness law.

Second, some schools wanted to get waivers before the program’s requirements rolled out statewide this school year.

And some districts and schools have been unhappy with the most widely used readiness assessment tool, Teaching Strategies GOLD.

During its past few meetings the state board has granted waivers to charter schools without discussion and by voting on applications as a group. Schroeder said she has less concern about charter applications because those have to be approved by local school boards before they come to the state.

But waiver applications from school districts have prompted a bit more board discussion. Readiness waivers have been given to three small rural districts in eastern Colorado, Holyoke, Kiowa and Woodlin.

The board faced a different case on Oct. 7, when the 24,578-student Academy 20 district in El Paso County came before the state board for a waiver. Academy is the state’s 11th largest district and is ranked at the top level of the state accreditation system.

“We understand the important purpose underlying the state law,” Academy Assistant Superintendent Susan Field told the board. But she said the district believes its own system for evaluating kindergarteners is “meeting the intent of the law in a manner far better suited to our community.”

She noted that a charter school in her district already has a waiver.

“If the waiver is good for the kindergarten students in our charter school, why isn’t it good for the rest of the kindergarten students?” Field said.

A key reason that Academy wanted a waiver was so it could continue evaluating kindergarteners’ readiness within the structure of its standards-based report cards, which it uses in elementary grades. The district argued that kindergarteners need to kept within that system so that there’s continuity in tracking student progress from grade to grade.

The district’s application contained more than a dozen documents making its case. CDE staff reviewed the application and concluded, “The district provided documentation to demonstrate how the standards-based report card is inclusive of the areas for school readiness.”

The board granted Academy’s request.

Two concerns raised about waivers

Observers of the waiver surge raise two issues.

The first is whether the individual substitute plans offered by school districts are adequate.

“They vary significantly,” Jaeger said. “Do the replacement plans adequately meet the intent of the law? It’s an open question.”

Walmer has a similar feeling. “The replacement plans are all over the map. … I have a concern that the state board isn’t looking closely at the replacement models.” Walmer added, “I’m OK with flexibility as long as we’re holding to the intent of the law.”

One of the sponsors of the CAP4K law had similar thoughts. Former Democratic Rep. Christine Scanlan of Dillon said she hasn’t been following the waiver applications closely, but added, “I hope that those districts who have waived out of the assessments either have good data sharing with preschool providers that give district teachers necessary information to best support the needs of new kindergarteners or that the local assessments being used have proven to be better than the state’s at identifying specific learning needs and gaps.”

Jaeger noted that state law gives the board fairly limited grounds for denying waiver applications.

“It is difficult for the state board to deny waivers even if they have concerns,” he said.

The second concern was voiced by Schroeder, a Democrat from Boulder. While charters are overseen by local school boards, she said, “We don’t have a re-evaluation plan for districts,” given that waivers for districts are open-ended. “Where’s the oversight when we grant all these waivers?”

Teaching Strategies GOLD a sore point

Readiness timeline
  • 2008 – Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids passed
  • 2010 – Expert panel reviews criteria for readiness assessments
  • 2012 – CDE determines only TS GOLD meets criteria
  • 2013 – Program supposed to launch statewide, but SBE gives districts flexibility because only one assessment available
  • 2014 – CDE adds to new assessments and short version of TS GOLD to approved list
  • 2015 – All schools to do evaluations this school year
  • 2016 – SBE to adopt system for reporting results

Part of school and district anxiety over readiness is driven by the Teaching Strategies Gold assessment tool, usually referred to as TS GOLD.

The tool is widely used by schools and also in the Colorado Preschool Program for at-risk students. Part of that is because for two years it was the only state-approved assessment. Additional tools were added to CDE’s list only last year.

TS GOLD has been criticized by some teachers and administrators as too time-consuming.

Some parent activists also fear it infringes on family privacy with questions asked about a child’s social and emotional development and have worries about the privacy of that data.

“Teaching Strategies GOLD has gotten mixed reviews,” said Jaeger, agreeing that some teachers find it too time-consuming.

A lot of the concerns were summed up in testimony to the board by Cindee Will, principal of the James Irwin Charter Academy in Colorado Springs, which has a waiver.

“All that glitters is not gold; it might be fools gold,” she said. Use of the tool “amounts to a significant loss of instructional time.”

Will added, “Assessing the whole child is nothing new … what’s new is the intrusion into personal matters. Teachers are required to upload private and personal data. … Why does personal information have to be uploaded to follow a student throughout their school years and perhaps into their careers?”

Information about students is uploaded to a central database. TS GOLD also allows teachers to upload photos and videos of children to the database, a feature that makes some parent activists nervous. The state doesn’t require use of photos of videos. That decision is left to individual schools and districts.

Reporting whether students are ready

The CAP4K law also requires creation of a statewide data reporting system about the readiness of kindergarten students.

The state board is only beginning to consider that task. Some members indicated during a recent discussion that they want to be careful about that process.

Republican member Debora Scheffel of Parker was critical of the data collected by TS GOLD.

“These data points are far in excess of what’s needed to measure readiness,” she said.

Board chair Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, said, “It would seem to me the legislature wants to know whether kids are school ready. That’s yes or no. That’s two data points. … When it comes to the data collected, less is better.”

What’s next

The flow of school readiness requests may have crested for the moment.

“There are other districts talking about it,” said Michelle Murphy, new executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance. “There are a lot of other districts interested in it, [but] there are none in the hopper right now.”

Murphy speculated that districts’ interests in waivers may turn to the state’s new graduation guidelines, which have been criticized in some quarters. The state board recently approved those, with the proviso that districts could seek waivers.

“It’s an open question to me if we will see [waiver laws] used for something other than school readiness,” Jaeger said. He and Schroeder both suggested the legislature might want to review the broad question of waivers from education laws.

More immediately, Schroeder said the board itself needs to take a deeper look.

“I think we’re all ready to have a serious conversation about this,” she said.

Learn more about school readiness requirements and programs on the CDE website. Get details on assessments and readiness plans here.

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.