pushing proficiency

Landmark Colorado reading law draws kudos, concerns from teachers three years in

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Kim Ursetta works with a student in her classroom at Denver's Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy.

For Cassandra Ewert-Lamutt, seeing some of her young students crumble from the relentless push to become better readers is heartbreaking.

One little girl—a second-grader whose first language is Spanish—recently broke down crying during a reading test.

“She said, ‘I just know I’m not as good as the other kids. It’s because I speak Spanish, too,’” recalled Ewert-Lamutt, who works with English language learners at Parr Elementary School in Arvada.

To Ewert-Lamutt, the student’s tattered emotional state is an extreme case, but reveals one way the nearly three-year-old READ Act—which has also garnered plenty of positive reviews—can impact Colorado kids.

The law, passed with solid majorities in 2012, is a stronger version of the state’s previous literacy law. It requires schools to identify struggling readers in kindergarten through third grade and create special plans using a list of state-approved approaches to help them improve. Starting next year, the law allows but doesn’t require administrators to hold back third-graders who still struggle with reading.

The READ Act is the only major Colorado education reform of recent years for which the legislature provided funding to districts for implementation.

As with many education policies, how things play out in the trenches depends on a host of factors ranging from district leadership to student demographics. Based on Chalkbeat’s interviews with a half-dozen teachers in urban, suburban and rural districts, educators often see the law as a mixed bag—promising, or at least well-intentioned, but not perfect.

Some educators argue that the READ Act contributes to the culture of overtesting, creates time-consuming paperwork and data entry for teachers, and offers too few resources for helping English-language learners. They also worry the retention provision could be misused.

Others say the law, which has counterparts in about two-thirds of states, has brought more urgency to the plight of struggling readers, helped schools more tightly focus reading instruction and provided critical new funding to help pay for it all. It’s also received plaudits for better informing parents about their children’s reading status and including them in the improvement process.

Part of the reason Colorado and so many other states have passed reading laws in recent years is because third-grade reading proficiency plays a big role in future success. Children who can’t read well by the end of third grade are more likely to drop out of school, which can lead to other problems like unemployment and criminal activity.

“The data is there that shows that third grade reading proficiency is huge,” said Bruce Atchison, director of early learning at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, which tracks research and advises state education policymakers.

Overall, he believes the READ Act is a good approach.

“Is it the silver bullet? We don’t know that. We haven’t found the silver bullet.”

Looking at the numbers

Last year, nearly 14 percent of K-3 students in Colorado had a “significant reading deficiency”—READ Act terminology for struggling readers who get reading improvement plans under the law. That’s down from 16.5 percent in 2012.

This decrease—celebrated in a report issued by the business group Colorado Succeeds last summer—comes with a couple caveats. State officials say about 9,000 special education students weren’t initially tested under the READ Act—a factor that may have led to greater gains than if that population had been included. In addition, some districts have been slow to switch from the less sensitive tests used under Colorado’s old literacy law to the ones approved under the READ Act.

Starting July 1, all districts will have to use one of seven READ Act-approved tests.

Alisa Dorman, executive director of the state education department’s Office of Early Literacy, said there’s no similar deadline for including special education students in the testing, but as the state has provided training on the topic districts have been including them more each year.

Dorman said the initial reduction in struggling readers is an early indicator of success, but not definitive because of the data discrepancies.

Even after such wrinkles get ironed out, it’s not clear how much time it will take to see major changes in third grade reading proficiency.

“The truth is we really don’t know if these state legislative efforts are helpful or not because we don’t have enough data over long enough to be able to figure that out,” said Nell Duke, professor of literacy, language and culture at the University of Michigan.

She said when states do see positive results after the passage of laws like the READ Act, it’s hard to isolate which of their many components made a difference.

Grappling with testing

So what’s the READ Act experience like for the five- to nine-year-old students who’ve been living it out for the past few years?

It depends on their school, but frequent assessment—maybe 10 or 15 minutes every week or so—is par for the course for students with READ Plans. For some children, it’s a chance to have one-on-one time with teachers or paraprofessionals—sometimes with the extra bonus of working on an iPad. For others, like Ewert-Lamutt’s tearful second-grader, it can be a regular ding to self-esteem.

Duke said while such state-approved assessments can be useful for certain skills, they typically don’t cover the range of skills needed for reading success. For example, it’s much faster and easier to test whether children knows the ABCs than the thinking strategies they use to make meaning from what they read.

Every student in Kim Ursetta's class regularly checks their personalized reading progress charts. The black line shows where they're supposed to be each month.
Every student in Kim Ursetta’s class regularly checks their personalized reading progress charts. The black line shows where they’re supposed to be each month.

“An important piece for Colorado to grapple with is are we assessing and providing instruction in all the skills?” Duke said.

The meat of the READ Act are the tools used to help kids catch up. Sometimes, these don’t feel much different than the usual school fare. For example, all kids may head off to reading groups for a half-hour in the morning. Other times, the extra help is more obvious— computer-based reading activities, extra literacy groups, tutoring or summer school.

Dorman said finding the right kind of instruction is where schools need the most help.

“They need to know what to do next to really impact the change,” she said.

These charts show how many high-frequency words kindergarteners in Kim Ursetta's class know. For some, it's dozens and others a couple.
These charts show how many high-frequency words kindergarteners in Kim Ursetta’s class know. For some, it’s dozens and others a couple.

But teachers aren’t the only ones with their eyes on that goal. Students themselves often know what marks they have to hit to stay on track.

Kim Ursetta’s Spanish-speaking kindergarteners at Denver’s Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy monitor their monthly reading progress using small charts tucked inside red folders. On a recent afternoon, when Ursetta asked how many sight words they’d gotten correct that day, each quickly piped up with their personal best. One little girl in pigtails said two, the boy to her right said 15, and the boy to her left said 52.

At North Elementary School in Brighton, kindergarten teacher Rachelle Matossian tells her students to visualize a red, yellow and green stoplight to understand their path to reading success.

“We’re trying to get to the green zone,” she’ll tell the children, most of whom started the year far below grade level—in the red zone of a common reading test.

Teacher views run the gamut

Teachers’ feelings about the READ Act vary widely. For some, it depends on the path their school or district was on before the law.

Micah Evans, a first grade teacher in Greeley, said the READ Act didn’t require a major shift in practice because her district had already overhauled its elementary literacy program years earlier after it was placed on the state’s watch list for poor academic performance. Many of the district-initiated changes aligned with those in the READ Act.

“I think the READ Act is a positive thing for kids,” said Evans, a self-described data freak. “For us, it’s the normal way of life.”

For other teachers, the law feels more onerous—adding a new degree of chaos to daily schedules, requiring teachers to hit certain compliance marks and cutting into instruction time.

Matossian, who has seven students with significant reading deficiencies, estimated that she spends two to three hours a week giving some type of assessment, though not just for the READ Act.

Ursetta, who has about 10 students with reading troubles, has similar worries, both about testing time and the extra work she does to record the data—sometimes in four different places.

“I do think that there needs to be some sort of accountability,” she said. “It’s just a lot on your plate.”

Discrete skills versus the joy of reading

One blessing-and-a-curse aspect of the READ Act seems to be its emphasis on determining the very specific reading skills  students struggle with and targeting instruction to those skills.

Ten of 27 students in Kim Ursetta's classroom have major struggles with reading. Seven of them are boys.
PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Ten of 27 students in Kim Ursetta’s classroom have major struggles with reading. Seven of them are boys.

Some teachers said they appreciate the intentional and systematic approach favored under the READ Act, but others fear it fragments the reading experience and sucks the joy away.

“I just don’t want the skills to kill the desire to read….I guess that would be my one worry,” said Rita Merigan, a reading interventionist at Gunnison Elementary School. “Reading is so much more than these targeted pieces.”

Ewert-Lamutt, from Jeffco, has related concerns, worrying that few of the state-approved strategies address the literacy needs of English learners.

“Most of the interventions really focus on discrete ideas: This is a ‘t’ and it makes this sound ‘ta, ta, ta ta’….It’s not going to do it for them,” she said. “They need connections to real text.”

Dorman agreed that finding good materials for English learners is a challenge, but said it’s a supply and demand issue.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of selection in the market for that,” she said.

The specter of retention

In the first couple years of the READ Act, relatively few schools recommended that struggling readers be held back—a controversial strategy because some research suggests it’s ineffective.

State READ Act data reveals that just over 3,000 students—or 1.2 percent of the K-3 cohort—were recommended for retention and only 927 of them, or .4 percent, were actually retained in 2013-14.

“That is not an intervention strategy or a path that very many have chosen,” Dorman said.

A few teachers said they’ve recommended holding back students who were chronically absent or had across-the-board problems, but in the end it’s been up to parents.

That changes next year for third-graders. Although parents can still request advancement to fourth-grade, principals or other administrators will make the final decision. Exemptions from the provision are available for students who’ve already repeated third grade and some English learners and students with disabilities.

All told, 16 states and Washington, D.C. require holding back students who aren’t reading at grade level by the end of third grade, according to a 2014 report from the Education Commission of the States.

While the READ Act doesn’t go that far, some educators are nervous about the stricter retention provision.

“It kind gives you pause to wonder what that will look like,” Merigan said. “I don’t want to see a bunch of children held back.”

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.