Navigating a tricky system

Latino parents aren’t happy with southwest Denver preschool options, report says

PHOTO: Volunteers of America Colorado Branch
A teacher reads with children at the new Volunteers of America Early Childhood Education Center in southwest Denver.

A new report focused on southwest Denver sheds light on the difficulties some Latino parents face finding affordable, high-quality preschool spots for their kids.

The report, released Wednesday by the advocacy group Padres & Jovenes Unidos, found that some parents who responded to the group’s community survey were placed on waiting lists at sought-after preschool sites. Others found open slots, but only at centers with Level 1 ratings, the lowest of five tiers on the state’s child care rating system, Colorado Shines.

Officials from Denver Public Schools, interviewed by phone, say more could be done to connect parents with preschool options in southwest Denver, but too few slots isn’t the main problem there. Such shortages are more pressing in pockets of southeast Denver, they say.

DPS Acting Superintendent Susana Cordova, who spoke at the report release event at the Corky Gonzalez branch of the Denver Public Library, said expanding preschool access is a key strategy for the district, but noted that the state plays a major role in preschool funding and other early childhood issues.

Padres recommendations

  • Provide free full-day preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds from low to moderate income families.
  • Prohibit suspensions and expulsions in preschool.
  • Require preschool providers to adopt consistent policies to meet the needs of dual-language learners.
  • Fund preschool appropriately so that all employees earn a living wage.
  • Ensure preschool staff are trained on classroom management, implicit bias, developmentally appropriate discipline methods, dual language instruction and the use of inclusive culturally affirming practices.

“Let’s start talking about the legislative agenda we want to push forward,” she said.

The report, which marks Padres’ first major effort to address early childhood issues, drew from a survey of 330 southwest Denver parents. Several of the issues highlighted, including the high cost of care, barriers to access and the use of expulsions in preschool, are recognized problems across the state.

For example, there was enough space to serve only about 44 percent of Colorado children who needed care in 2013, according to the 2015 KIDS COUNT report by the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

As noted in the Padres report, there are also big differences in preschool-going rates for low-income and higher-income families. KIDS COUNT found that 38 percent of low-income Colorado children attend preschool while 57 percent of more affluent children do.

A spotlight on Southwest

The Padres report shines a spotlight on eight heavily Latino neighborhoods in southwest Denver where many families struggle financially. They are West Colfax, Villa Park, Sun Valley, Barnum, Barnum West, Westwood and Athmar Park.

District officials say compared to other parts of the city, the lack of spots there isn’t the biggest problem.

In fact, administrators considered closing some classrooms at the district’s highly rated Pascual LeDoux Academy preschool in Westwood because of low enrollment last fall, said Cheryl Caldwell, the district’s director of early childhood education. Ultimately, they decided against it.

Still, she agreed that connecting families to preschool can be a problem in southwest.

“I know there are kids that aren’t getting preschool and that we had openings that were not filled.”

She said the district could improve its preschool marketing efforts. Right now, outreach efforts vary a lot by school. Some school leaders man booths at preschool expo events, go door to door distributing information to families and post fliers at local churches and grocery stories. Others do less.

A patchwork quilt

For many parents, especially low-income parents who qualify for state or federal financial help, the preschool landscape is just plain confusing. Options vary depending on whether the care is offered in school or community sites, the length of the day, the child’s age and language ability, and the funding streams available to pay for the care.

Parents of 3-year-olds often face an even more daunting task because there are fewer subsidized slots for that age group.

Another piece of the early childhood puzzle is Colorado Shines, the state’s new rating system that only last month awarded the first two Level 5 ratings in the state—to centers in Denver and Loveland. Currently, about three-quarters of the state’s child care providers have Level 1 ratings.

Finally, there’s the red tape of application forms and financial documents.

Parent Elsa Oliva Rocha, co-executive director of Padres, said she recently discovered the challenge of preschool enrollment firsthand. She wanted to find her daughter, now 2 ½, a spot in a 3-year-old classroom next year.

First, she had trouble locating the application form on the district’s website and when she visited Pascual LeDoux to drop off the form, she found that not only had she filled out the wrong form, she had missed the center’s 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. drop-off window. She had to return to the school—which has a Level 4 rating on Colorado Shines—a couple days later to submit the paperwork.

She found the experience frustrating and worries such snafus create needless barriers for struggling families.

Pressing problems in Southeast

District officials say the shortage of preschool slots is most acute in parts of southeast Denver, where more than two-thirds of students are poor, schools are overcrowded and there are fewer community-based preschool providers.

On a color-coded district map showing the areas with the most pressing 4-year-old preschool needs, that area is the only one shaded red. Much of southwest Denver is shaded a less urgent yellow, while parts of northwest and northeast Denver are an even better green.

Four construction projects that would add preschool seats to district schools are under consideration for the 2016 bond that will go before Denver voters next November. The two most pressing early childhood projects are in southeast Denver— at Placebridge Academy and Shoemaker Elementary. The other two are in southwest Denver—at Fairview Elementary School and Pascual LeDoux.

That said, all four projects have lower priority rankings than several elementary, middle and high school projects and may not be funded.

Even so, there’s at least one new prospect for southwest parents seeking high-quality preschool.

Up to 45 new seats are on the way as a new center in the Westwood neighborhood ramps up its capacity. The Volunteers of America Early Childhood Education Center, which has a Level 4 Colorado Shines rating, moved into its new facility last July from rented quarters in a church gym.

It currently serves 74 neighborhood children, but will eventually serve around 120, said Lindi Sinton, vice president of program operations for the Volunteers of America Colorado Branch.

“Starting now, we’re recruiting for next year,” she said.

Pre-K payoff

Who benefits from Head Start? Kids who attend — and their kids, too

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

Early childhood education benefits more than the kids who participate — it also helps their kids, even decades later.

A new study of Head Start, the large federally funded pre-kindergarten initiative that started in the 1960s, found that the children of kids who participated were substantially more likely to graduate high school and attend college, and less likely to commit crime and become a teen parent.

It’s the latest signal that a substantial investment in early childhood education, particularly when paired with well-funded K-12 schools, can have long-lasting benefits — and offers a striking extension of that research into a second generation.

“Our findings indicate that societal investments in early childhood education can disrupt the intergenerational transmission of the effects of poverty,” write researchers Andrew Barr of Texas A&M and Chloe Gibbs of Notre Dame.

Since the study focuses on the effects of Head Start as it existed decades ago, it’s unclear if today’s program would have the same positive effects. Still, the research is relevant to the nationwide debate on whether to expand, maintain, or reduce spending on early childhood education.

The program currently serves about 40 percent of three- and four-year-olds in poverty nationwide.

Critics of Head Start have pointed to evidence that test-score boosts from the program fade in early grades, and some have advocated cutting the program entirely. But the latest study, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, adds to previous research showing that Head Start can lead to major benefits in adulthood.

To determine the effects of Head Start, the researchers looked at children whose grandmothers did not have a high school diploma and whose mothers lived in counties where the program first launched. In order to isolate the effect of the program, Barr and Gibbs compared children of mothers who grew up in places where Head Start was initially rolled out to those who did not have the option to attend; the researchers could not directly measure whether someone actually enrolled.

The study finds that disadvantaged women who had access to Head Start seemed to benefit from the program in ways that helped their children down the line. Because of the program, crime in the second generation fell by 15 percentage points and high school graduation increased by 12 percentage points. Rates of teen parenthood dropped by nearly 9 percentage points and rates of college attendance rose by 17 percentage points.

The study does not examine the income of those second-generation beneficiaries, but the authors point out that a number of the outcomes, like graduating college high school or avoiding crime, are associated with avoiding poverty.

It’s not entirely clear why the program had such big effects years later. The mothers benefitted directly from Head Start — including in the form of higher adult earnings and greater educational attainment — and this may have translated in a number of ways to their children. Other research has shown that increases in family income improve children’s well-being and academic achievement.

The findings also suggest that previous estimates may miss the true cost-effectiveness of Head Start by failing to account for its effects across multiple generations. If investing in the program now reduces poverty later, that saves society money — potentially including resources spent on Head Start.

Still, changes in Head Start, and in America, make it unclear whether the program will have similar effects today.

Head Start was originally intended to provide comprehensive support to students and families, including health services. That goal remains, but Gibbs says the program now focuses more on improving kids’ cognitive skills, and that students entering the program are likely much less disadvantaged than they were 50 years ago. Alternatives to Head Start may also have changed in quality over the last several decades, and home environments for students not attending pre-K may have, too.

But her finding, Gibbs says, “is a proof of concept that an early childhood program can in fact have important anti-poverty implications in the second generation.”

Wanna go outside?

Less plastic, more trees: New effort seeks to reinvent preschool playgrounds and capture kids’ imaginations

This play structure at Step By Step Child Development Center in Northglenn will go away under a plan to create a more natural and engaging outdoor play space.

Michelle Dalbotten, the energetic director of a Northglenn child care center called Step by Step, doesn’t like her playground.

Sure, it’s spacious, with a high privacy fence bordering an adjacent strip mall parking lot. It’s also got a brightly colored play structure surrounded by lots of spongy rubber mulch.

But Dalbotten and her staff have long noticed that the kids get bored there. They clump together in the small shady area or on a few popular pieces of equipment. Sometimes, they start throwing trucks off the play structure or shoving their friends down the slide.

Something about it just doesn’t work.

Recently, Dalbotten found a solution in the form of a new grant program called the ECHO initiative, which aims to reinvent more than 100 preschool and child care playgrounds across Colorado over the next few years. Think mud kitchens, looping tricycle trails, vegetable gardens, stages, shady reading nooks and dump truck construction zones.

The idea is to create outdoor spaces that capture kids’ imagination, connect them with nature and keep them active in every season. Such efforts grow out of a recognition in the education field that healthy habits start early and boost learning.

The current preschool playground at Step by Step is covered by rubber mulch.

Step by Step staff members had talked many times about their stagnant play space. But it was hard to envision anything different until they attended a design workshop with experts from ECHO, a partnership between the National Wildlife Federation, Qualistar Colorado and the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University.

“We knew we were missing the boat somewhere because (the children) weren’t super-engaged and we had a lot of behavioral issues,” Dalbotten said. “But we just couldn’t see past it, I guess.”

For child care providers, it’s a common challenge, said Sarah Konradi, ECHO program director with the regional office of the National Wildlife Federation

“This is a very new idea to a lot of folks,” she said. “It’s hard to sort out as a layperson.”

ECHO, borne out of a decade of research from the Natural Learning Initiative, will hand out $355,000 in grants over the next three years. The initiative prioritizes centers that serve children from low-income families or other vulnerable populations.

Fourteen centers — Step by Step and Wild Plum Learning Center in Longmont are the first two — will get $10,000 awards for serving as demonstration sites willing to host visits for other Colorado providers.

Leaders at Step by Step say kids and teachers often congregate in the limited shady spots.

Around 100 other centers will receive ECHO’s $5,000 seed grants and expert assistance to revamp their outdoor spaces.

Such transformations can have a big impact on children who may spend thousands of hours a year at such centers, said Nilda Cosco, director of programs at the Natural Learning Initiative.

“When we do a renovation of the outdoor learning environments as we call them — not playgrounds — we see increased physical activity … more social interactions among children … less altercations,” she said.

“The teachers have to do less because the children are so engaged. There is so much to do.”

ECHO, which stands for Early Childhood Health Outdoors, is the latest iteration of a program Cosco started a decade ago called “Preventing Obesity by Design.” That effort revamped outdoor space at about 260 child care centers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.

Cosco said such makeovers can ”prevent obesity by counteracting sedentary lifestyles. Children walk more, exercise more, are conversant with healthy eating strategies.”

Dalbotten and her staff have big plans for their play areas, which sit behind a plaza that houses a bingo hall, Dollar Tree and Big D’s Liquor store. They’ll get rid of the colorful play structure and the rubber mulch in favor of a more natural look. There will be trees, shrubs, small grassy hills and a winding trail leading to a wide array of activity areas.

This porch will get new lighting, fencing and foliage to make it a more attractive outdoor space at Step by Step.

The center’s smaller toddler playground will get a similar reboot and its tiny yard for babies — mostly bare except for a couple low-hanging shade sails — will be expanded to include a shaded deck where teachers can sit or play with babies. A barren concrete porch on the side of the building will be remade into a cozy activity area decorated with bird houses, planter gardens and butterfly-attracting foliage.

At the recent design workshop Dalbotten attended, ECHO leaders displayed photos from other centers around the country that have gone through outdoor transformations. She saw one that stuck with her.

“There were kids everywhere,” she said. “It was super cool looking. I was like, ‘Oh look, we can be that. We can have kids everywhere.’”

PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The play space at Johnson Pond Learning Center in Fuquay-Varina, NC, after a makeover.
PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The outdoor play space at Spanish For Fun Academy in Chapel, Hill, NC, after a makeover.