model of inclusion

Growing approach helps kick preschool expulsion habit

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Teacher Dee Gilmore talks with two preschoolers at the Bal Swan Children's Center about tools.

Last year at preschool, Elena would stomp her foot when she got upset. When her teachers sternly told her there would be no foot-stomping in the classroom, she simply stomped harder.

It was a power struggle with no victors.

Elena, who has autism, was miserable at school. Her teachers were frustrated— ultimately telling Elena’s mother, Kristin Miesel, that the girl might have to be physically removed from the classroom if her emotions continued to escalate.

Miesel, a school psychologist at a Jefferson County elementary school, chokes up remembering that moment.

“It’s like, ‘Really? You need to physically remove my child because she’s stomping her feet or getting upset like that?’” she said.

Fast-forward a year. Four-year-old Elena now attends preschool at Bal Swan Children’s Center in Broomfield and Miesel has finally breathed a sigh of relief.

“This place is like heaven,” she said.

The center, where about one-third of children have special needs, uses an approach that Miesel and school leaders credit with creating a welcoming environment for every kind of child—even those who elsewhere might get kicked out for biting, hitting or other behaviors.

This 2011-12 data is from The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.
This 2011-12 data is from The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

It’s called the Pyramid Plus Approach and launched six years ago at four demonstration sites in Colorado, including Bal Swan. Today, it’s used at around 200 centers and preschools in the state.

While the program has grown slowly but steadily since 2009, it’s getting a closer look in light of recent state and national conversations about the alarming frequency of preschool expulsions.

Colorado Pyramid Plus Demonstration Sites

  • Bal Swan Children’s Center, Broomfield
  • Creative Options Center for Early Education, Denver/Aurora
  • Primetime Early Learning Center, Norwood
  • Fremont County Head Start, Canon City

Not only are preschoolers expelled at higher rates than their K-12 counterparts, a 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Education revealed that boys and minorities are disproportionately expelled from preschool.

Geneva Hallett, director of the Pyramid Plus Center at the University of Colorado Denver, said getting expelled at 3, 4 or 5 often leads to a lifetime trajectory that includes more of the same.

Bal Swan director of education Patti Willardson calls preschool expulsion her hot-button issue. She finds it frustrating that the default response to challenging children at some local centers is to send them to Bal Swan.

“We take as many kiddos as we can,” she said. “But I just keep telling other administrators, ‘You can’t depend on one school in the whole area to take these kids. You all need to learn to help them yourself.’”

A Full Toolbox

The Pyramid Plus Approach was created in Colorado, building off a free national framework for early childhood social emotional practices called the Pyramid Model. More than 24 school districts have adopted that model over the last eight years with support from the Colorado Department of Education.

The “Plus” in Pyramid Plus refers to its emphasis on including children with disabilities in early childhood classrooms.

Pyramid Plus includes an 18-session training and follow-up coaching. The idea is to give early childhood staff a full set of tools for teaching young children social-emotional skills and managing challenging behaviors.

Speech therapist Melissa Cain talks to a preschooler at the Bal Swan Children's Center.
PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Speech therapist Melissa Cain talks to a preschooler at the Bal Swan Children’s Center.

For example, teachers might learn when to ignore bad behavior so as not to reinforce it with a burst of attention. Or how to use puppets to demonstrate toy-sharing or teach students to be aware of their own emotional state.

At Bal Swan, you won’t typically hear admonishments like “no,” “stop,” or “don’t.” Correction is rephrased in a positive way. You’ll also see teachers using the same social skills they tell students to employ, like getting someone’s attention with a tap on the shoulder.

Pyramid Plus also includes a series of parent classes—called Positive Solutions for Families—that offer many of the strategies and tools that teachers use in the classroom. Miesel said even with her background as a psychologist, she’s learned a lot from the sessions.

“The language they use here has been educational for us,” she said.

The Pyramid Plus Approach is not the only program aimed at cultivating healthy social-emotional development in young children—or the only one cited as a remedy to preschool expulsions. Another evidence-based program called The Incredible Years, run by the Denver-based Invest In Kids, provides similarly themed trainings to teachers and parents.

Early childhood mental health consultants, who are typically called in to help teachers work with the highest needs students, represent another expulsion prevention strategy, but their ranks are relatively small in Colorado.

Diminishing problems

Using Pyramid Plus doesn’t mean that aggressive or disruptive behaviors magically disappear. They may occur less often, but many Pyramid Plus advocates say the biggest transformation is in the level of confidence teachers display when problems do arise.

“When they have a plan and they know they can deal with these things. They don’t see challenging behavior as a problem anymore,” said Alyson Jiron, a Bal Swan counselor.

“It’s not like there’s kids that people are like, ‘Oh I don’t want that kid in my class,’” she said. “Truly, across the board now…everyone’s like, ‘We got this. We can do this.’”

The "calm box" is a place in the classroom where kids can go when they feel upset.
The “calm box” is a place in the classroom where kids can go when they feel upset.

When a child recently jumped up on a table in the class Clarissa Villareal co-teaches, she ignored the behavior and instead focused her attention on a child nearby who had her feet on the floor. The table-stander soon got down on her own.

“A huge part of it is our reaction,” she said.

At Bal Swan and other centers that use the Pyramid Plus model, expulsion isn’t an option. In fact, providers sign an agreement beforehand stating they won’t resort to it.

Hallett said without that policy, expulsion could be a tantalizing option when the toughest cases rear up.

“That’s not a back door they can get out of…and that’s hard,” she said.

Slow build

While there are now 2,200 providers trained in the Pyramid Plus approach in Colorado, that represents only a fraction of the state’s early childhood workforce.

“It has been a slow steady build,” said Hallett. “The fact is this is very hard work.”

Pyramid Plus, which includes a 45-hour training costing up to $500 per person, can be a tough sell for time-crunched, cash-strapped childcare centers.

Elizabeth Steed, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver, said she’s visited hundreds of preschool classrooms and many don’t have the budget, leadership or staffing flexibility to take on the program.

“They feel very stretched already,” said Steed, who is a member of a state policy team promoting the Pyramid Model and inclusion practices.

Bal Swan, named for a philanthropist who donated to the school, is perhaps better positioned than smaller, less stable centers to embrace an effort like Pyramid Plus. Most of the school’s 350 slots are tuition-based. In addition, class sizes are small and the pay is above average. Willardson said teachers with a degree typically start at $18 an hour and go up to $23—at many centers it’s closer to $13-14 an hour.

Thriving

These days, Miesel doesn’t brace herself for bad news when she picks up her daughter at the end of the day.

Even when Elena slips up, she knows its not a stepping stone to ultimatums or expulsion.

feelings wheel

Take, for example, a recent day when Elena bit a classmate.

There were no gasps or scoldings. Instead, a teacher consoled the injured child and then enlisted Elena’s help to get an icepack and deliver it to the girl. Instead of being punished for hurting her friend, she was praised for helping her feel better.

Miesel admits she was mortified when she found out what happened, but Elena’s teacher and Willardson counseled her against overreacting.

“Don’t feed into it,” they told her.

While such a low-key reaction from teachers and parents can feel counterintuitive, it’s effective, said Willardson.

That’s what she likes about the Pyramid Plus approach.

“It’s changed our teaching skills…It’s changed our understanding of who children are,” said Willardson.

Planning mode

As lawmakers consider major preschool expansion, Colorado providers want more than just extra seats

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

With Gov. Jared Polis’ proposal for the biggest expansion of Colorado’s state-funded preschool program in its 30-year-history, many early childhood educators are cheering the possibility of 8,200 new preschool slots for at-risk children.

But they’re also asking hard questions about how providers will find the staff and space to create new preschool classrooms, and whether state leaders will reshape the program to broaden its reach and intensity. Suggestions from the field include expanding the definition of at-risk, accepting more 3-year-olds, offering more full-day slots, and rewarding top-rated providers with more money.

These discussions echo debates about preschool quality and access nationally as more state leaders prioritize early childhood education, and as public preschool programs from New York to California attempt massive scale-ups.

Research shows that early childhood programs can produce huge long-term gains for children, particularly those from low-income families. But there’s a caveat: The programs must be high-quality.

In Colorado, Polis’ preschool proposal hinges partly on his plan to offer free full-day kindergarten statewide. That’s because 5,000 of the new preschool slots would be funded with money currently earmarked for full-day kindergarten through a special pool of flexible early education dollars. Lawmakers likely won’t make final decisions on the full-day kindergarten and preschool expansion plans until late spring.

In the meantime, preschool providers are weighing the pros and cons.

One of them is Lynne Bridges, who runs a highly rated preschool designed to look like an old schoolhouse in downtown Pagosa Springs in southwest Colorado. It’s called Seeds of Learning and serves children from tuition-paying families and about two-dozen preschoolers who qualify for public dollars through the Colorado Preschool Program.

While Bridges is thrilled with Polis’ support for early childhood education, she’s frustrated, too, that the state’s preschool program doesn’t recognize top programs like hers with extra funding.

“It’s almost like this high-quality program I’ve created …. It’s my burden,” she said.

Bridges’ program holds a respected national accreditation and also has a high rating from the state through its Colorado Shines rating system. She fundraises constantly to fill the gap between her government allotment and the cost of providing preschool for her at-risk kids — the ones she said have the most to gain from a high-quality program.

“There’s only so much money to be had in a rural community,” Bridges said. “This shouldn’t be me laying awake at night trying to help these families.”

The $111 million Colorado Preschool Program serves about 21,000 preschoolers statewide — most of them 4-year-olds in half-day slots — as well as 5,000 kindergarteners in full-day programs. Most of the program’s slots are offered in public school classrooms, though some are in community-based facilities.

On average, providers get about $4,100 per state preschool slot, though the amount varies based on a district’s size, share of low-income students, and cost of living.

Jennifer Okes, chief operating officer at the Colorado Department of Education, said the state’s finance formula allocates preschools half per student of what’s earmarked for first- through 12th-graders.

That formula doesn’t account for preschool quality, she said.

“I guess you could take preschool funding out of [the Public School Finance Act] and fund it separately. That would be a big statutory change.”

A separate state program that provides subsidies to help low-income families pay for child care works the way Bridges wishes the Colorado Preschool Program did, but it’s governed by a different state department and set of rules.

Leaders in the suburban Westminster school district north of Denver, where three-quarters of preschoolers are funded through the Colorado Preschool Program, said Polis’ proposal fits with the district’s own plans to expand early childhood options.

“I’m all for it,” said the district’s Early Childhood Education Director Mat Aubuchon, of the state preschool expansion. “I’m just curious what latitude we’ll get as districts.”

Aubuchon said if the state funds more slots, he hopes more can be merged to create full-day preschool slots. Currently, state rules allow only a small fraction of slots to be combined.

In addition, he wants more leeway in the state’s primary eligibility criteria, which gives preference children from low-income families, those in unstable housing, or who have speech or social difficulties, among other factors.

“I would like to see a little bit more pre-academic stuff in there,” said Aubuchon.

For example, children likely to be at risk for later reading struggles, based on results from a pre-reading assessment, should be given greater consideration, he said.

Aubuchon said if Polis’ plan comes to fruition, he’d like at least 100 to 150 more state preschool slots — maybe more if districts get additional flexibility to make full-day slots. He said the district will likely be able to find space for additional preschool classrooms.

Christy Delorme, owner and director of Mountain Top Child Care in Estes Park in northern Colorado, would like more state preschool slots, too.

She knows some commercial child care centers aren’t happy about Polis’ preschool expansion plan “because it takes away those paying slots,” but said she thinks it’s a good idea.

“Most parents can’t afford child care,” she said. “The more kiddos we can get into early education programs the better off our society will be.”

Delorme doesn’t have the room for a new classroom at Mountain Top, but like Aubuchon, wants the option to create full-day slots for the children she’s already serving. Currently, the 10 children in half-day slots funded by the Colorado Preschool Program rely on scholarships from a local nonprofit to stay at Mountain Top all day. If they become eligible for full-day state slots, that scholarship money could be rerouted to at-risk 3-year-olds,

One challenge that many preschool providers will face if there’s a sudden influx of new state-funded preschool slots will be hiring qualified staff for new classrooms.

That very problem is what led Bridges, of Seeds of Learning in Pagosa Springs, to cut her program down from four classrooms to three a few years ago. Turnover was high and she couldn’t find reliable substitutes.

With the switch to three classrooms, she also raised wages. Today, a lead teacher with a bachelor’s degree makes about $22 an hour, competitive pay in a community where her workers sometimes used to leave for jobs at the local Walmart. Today, Bridges has no problem with turnover.

Delorme, whose teachers start at $15 to $17 an hour, agreed that the field’s low pay makes it tough to find qualified staff.

“Education in general, it’s hard to recruit, but does that mean I wouldn’t want to expand my program because of that?” she said. “No.”

Race for mayor

How to help Chicago’s younger learners? Mayoral frontrunners skip a chance to say.

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang

The challenge of mending and strengthening Chicago’s network of care and education for its youngest residents defies instant solutions, but four candidates for mayor agreed Monday on one point: The city needs to care for its child care centers rather than imposing more burdens on them.

And the city should include those crucial small businesses, which often anchor neighborhoods, in its growing pre-kindergarten system.

Related: Why Rahm Emanuel’s rollout of universal pre-K has preschool providers worried

At a forum Monday at the University of Chicago on the topic of early childhood education, candidates addressed how city government can stitch together a stronger early learning system. Chicago’s mayoral election is Feb. 26.

Chicago is in the first year of a four-year universal pre-kindergarten rollout, and the city’s next mayor will determine much of the fate of the program. About 21,000 children have enrolled out of an estimated 45,000. And cost estimates are now north of $220 million, much of it federal and state money earmarked for early childhood expenditures. But the mayor can direct how that money is spent.

The forum attracted four candidates: former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot, former Chicago schools CEO Paul Vallas, state representative and former teacher La Shawn K. Ford, and John Kozlar, a University of Chicago graduate who, at 30, is the youngest candidate in the race.

Four candidates considered front-runners — Toni Preckwinkle, Susana Mendoza, Bill Daley and Gery Chico — didn’t attend. Nor did six more of the 14 candidates.

All of the mayoral candidates who answered said they would continue to support Chicago’s universal pre-K expansion but did not specify how.

The event was organized by Child Care Advocates United, a statewide alliance of child care providers who banded together four years ago when the state budget crisis was forcing many providers and child care agencies to cut back or close.

The central topic of conversation was how city government can build a stronger early learning system. Several questions revolved around issues faced by for-profit and nonprofit day care owners and preschool operators who are facing teacher shortages, budget pressures, and a churn of students. Some advocates say Chicago’s rollout of universal pre-K has made a operating a difficult business even more tenuous, as they lose children and revenue to Chicago Public Schools.

A Chalkbeat analysis of data published last week showed that public school preschool programs are at 91 percent capacity, while one in five seats at community-run preschools and centers is empty.

The candidates Monday offered different suggestions for alleviating the pressure.

Related: Care about schools? Read Chalkbeat Chicago’s voter guide to the mayor’s race. 

“We have to end this fight between Chicago Public Schools and (community) providers. It is killing an industry,” said Ford, a state legislator who described the budget pressures many providers faced under former governor Bruce Rauner, when Illinois did not pass a budget for more than two years.

A September report from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, which tracks openings and closures among licensed daycare facilities, shows a loss of 3,400 licensed facilities statewide from 2010 to 2018.

“Chicago Public Schools cannot do (preschool) cheaper, and it cannot do it better,” said Vallas, also a former budget director for the city of Chicago, who has put out a detailed prenatal-to-preschool platform that starts with universal prenatal care and a detailed menu of services and supports for children birth to age 5.

“The challenge with the universal pre-K program that Rahm Emanuel and (schools chief) Janice Jackson rolled out is that there was no engagement with community-based providers,” said Lightfoot, who questioned the timing of the May 2018 announcement just weeks before a Chicago Tribune series cast a spotlight on a pattern of mishandling student sexual abuse cases in the K-12 system. “This program was ill-conceived and rolled out in spring to be a distraction to the sex assault investigation about to be unveiled by the Tribune.”

At the forum, held in the auditorium of the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, Vallas also spoke about creating incentives to entice more prospective teachers into the field, including grow-your-own programs that target parents.

He also described a system of startup grants and opportunity zones that would make it easier for new businesses to take root and tax breaks for providers who serve a variety of children well.

Ford advocated pressuring state legislators to increase reimbursement rates to providers, which could be used to increase teacher pay, and setting aside tax-increment financing, or TIF, dollars for early childhood businesses. And Lightfoot talked about converting some of the schools that Chicago has closed into job training and early childhood centers.

“The policy that has been rolled out is not equitable and not sustainable,” she said of Chicago’s universal pre-K rollout. “We need to work in partnership with our communities.”

Are you ready to vote on Feb. 26? Find everything you need at Chi.vote, a one-stop shop for the Chicago election — Chalkbeat Chicago is a partner.