'A wondrous time to learn'

How a free Denver Public Schools camp seeks to stop the summer slide

PHOTO: Wesley Wright
Students eventually made DNA structures with the licorice and marshmallows in front of them.

At an eight-week elementary school summer camp run by Denver Public Schools, licorice and marshmallows are part of the program.

In one classroom last week, students twisted red licorice into helixes and wedged marshmallows stuck on toothpicks between them — a rough approximation of the structure of DNA. Sara Ulricksen, a DPS program specialist, described it as “disguised learning.”

“They think they’re playing with candy,” Ulricksen said this week at Cowell Elementary, site of the camp. “But they are really learning about DNA and how blood runs through the body.”

Dubbed Summer SLAM — the acronym stands for science, literacy, art and movement — the program is part of a broader movement nationally to arrest the so-called summer slide, when students left to their own devices lose what they’ve learned and fall behind.

“Our summer is a wondrous time to learn,” DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said during a visit to the camp last week.

The camp, in its fourth year, is free and open to all Denver Public Schools elementary students regardless of income. It is paid for by 2012’s voter-approved Measure 2A, which allowed Denver to retain and spend $68 million in tax revenue it otherwise would have been required to refund.

Most of the 150 students enrolled in this year’s camp are Latino, reflecting the location of the school in southwest Denver. The camp has a capacity of 180 students, officials said.

Research shows that children from poorer families fall behind in the summer as their more affluent peers attend camps or get support at home, setting them up for success in the fall.

Laura Johnson, spokeswoman for the National Summer Learning Association, which works with local organizations and school districts to promote effective programs, said the impact of falling behind on learning in the summer can be long-lasting.

“[The summer slide] has a cumulative effect, especially for low-income children,” she said.

According to the association, fifth-grade students with cumulative years of summer learning loss could be as many as three years behind their peers.

Finding affordable, accessible summer enrichment programs is another challenge, said Matthew Boulay, founder of the National Summer Learning Association.

“The formal camps are the gold standard,” he said. “They tend to have limitations on things like space or availability and price.”

Other states and cities have invested in programs designed to arrest the summer slide, as well.

Grant money from the Tennessee Department of Education paid for summer programming that has been credited for either raising or maintaining the participating children’s reading levels.

New York City students who spent more time on iPads as part of a summer program tended to improve their reading skills, research showed.

In Denver, staff at Cowell Elementary School have found that students who attend the camp are on par with or ahead of their classmates once school resumes, Ulricksen said.

Regardless of the approach, Boulay, of the National Summer Learning Association, said the key to avoiding the summer slide is keeping kids engaged in learning. For instance, you can curtail the amount of time kids devote to reading — just keep them reading.

“You can do it different ways,” he said. “It can be more relaxed [once school ends]. But keeping those same habits from the school year is really important.”

farewell

Head of Denver Preschool Program resigning after more than five years

PHOTO: Eric Lutzens/Denver Post
Jennifer Landrum, president and CEO of the Denver Preschool Program

Jennifer Landrum, who oversaw the Denver Preschool Program for the last five and a half years, announced Friday that she’s leaving for personal reasons.

During Landrum’s tenure, Denver voters increased the sales tax that supports the program, allowing it to cover summer tuition costs and serve more children, and extended it through 2026. Landrum also oversaw the redesign of the tuition credit scale, expanded scholarships and awards for teachers and directors to better support quality improvement efforts, and developed a new strategic plan.

Landrum said she was leaving not for a new job but to take care of herself and her family after experiencing “extreme loss.”

“I need time to pause, reflect and recharge,” she wrote in an email to supporters of the program.

The Denver Preschool Program provides tuition subsidies that scale according to family income and preschool quality for students in the year before they enter kindergarten. The largest subsidies go to the poorest families enrolled in the best preschools. The program also supports quality improvement efforts, including for younger students, part of a broader shift in focus in the early childhood sector. It is funded by a voter-approved 0.15 percent sales tax and has become a model for communities around the state.

“Jennifer has served with vision, boldness, and a constant and deep commitment to improving the lives of Denver’s young children and supporting Denver families,” preschool program board chair Chris Watney wrote in an email. “The board, staff, and community are going to miss her in this role. The board of directors firmly supports Jennifer’s decision and wishes her all the best.”

Deputy Director Ellen Braun will serve as the interim director while the board conducts a search process for a new leader this spring.

Meet Reggio Emilia

Power to the kids: A preschool approach imported from Italy comes to public schools in Denver

PHOTO: Courtesy of Boulder Journey School

Boulder Journey School feels different from most other child care centers almost as soon as you walk through the door. In the hallways, there’s a kid-sized mail-sorting station, a giant metal spaceship trimmed with white and green lights, and a child-designed memorial for the school’s chickens, who were killed by raccoons a few years ago.

Preschoolers there help decide what and how they learn, drawing on their interests, imagination, and environment. Which means trying out adult-style jobs, building 10-foot-tall contraptions, and even talking about death are all par for the course.

“Rather than covering the curriculum, we’re uncovering the curriculum with the children in the classroom,” said Alison Maher, Boulder Journey’s executive director.

It’s all part of the school’s Reggio Emilia-inspired approach to early education — one that prizes play-based and project-based learning, grounded in the local community. At least two public preschools in Denver will soon begin using the approach.

Early childhood leaders in Denver see the adoption of Reggio in district classrooms as a milestone that brings a celebrated approach typically found in private preschool programs to a diverse group of children in the public sphere.

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
A spaceship designed by preschoolers at the Boulder Journey School.

Next fall, with help from Maher and other partners, a new Reggio Emilia-inspired child care center and preschool will open in a facility called Z Place in the Green Valley Ranch neighborhood. A new preschool program planned for Inspire Elementary School in the Stapleton neighborhood will also use the Reggio approach, which school leaders said ties in well with the expeditionary learning focus in other grades.

“Denver has been a bold city around early childhood,” said Rebecca Kantor, dean of the school of education and human development at the University of Colorado Denver, a partner in the work at Z Place. And adopting the Reggio approach is a “continuation of that bold theme.”

Denver isn’t the first community to incorporate Reggio principles into public classrooms. Early education programs in Boston, Indianapolis, and Tucson, among other cities, have implemented them, but the approach is hardly widespread.

At Z Place, the student body will include some children in the federally funded Head Start preschool program. School leaders say that there are special challenges when adapting Reggio for taxpayer-funded classrooms because of additional state and federal regulations governing everything from technology use to how children are assessed. Still, they believe it’s doable since Reggio is a philosophy of teaching and learning, rather than a prescriptive program.

In addition to Z Place and Inspire, Denver district officials may also bring Reggio to two programs in South Denver in 2020: The Stephen Knight Center for Early Education, which includes preschool and kindergarten, and Place Bridge Academy, a school for immigrant and refugee students that will soon be getting new preschool space.

Lisa Roy, executive director of the Denver Public Schools’ early education department, said incorporating Reggio principles into preschools in different neighborhoods advances the district’s plan to offer high-quality school choice options throughout the city.

Currently, most district-affiliated preschools use what’s called the Creative Curriculum, a research-based curriculum popular nationwide. About 15 use a curriculum called Tools of the Mind, which emphasizes social-emotional skills. Another handful uses the Montessori method, in which students in multiage classrooms learn at their own pace with the help of special educational materials. In addition to using the Reggio philosophy, the Z Place program will incorporate Montessori principles and emphasize the inclusion of students with disabilities alongside typically developing children.

Unlike Montessori, which is named for its founder, Italian educator Maria Montessori, Reggio Emilia is named for a place — that is, the northern Italian city where the educational philosophy first emerged after World War II. That’s because learning about and through the local community figures prominently into the approach, even for the smallest children.

For example, in Molly Lyne’s toddler classroom at Boulder Journey School, “bus” is the name of the game these days. That’s because city buses and school buses often pass by the playground just outside her room — regularly piquing the interest of her 1-year-old charges who watch the vehicles through holes in the fence and often blurt out the word “bus.”

To capitalize on their interest, Lyne and her two assistant teachers sometimes project a video on the wall showing what it’s like to be on a moving bus, from showing the traffic passing by to a simulation of the loud, creaky lurch passengers hear when the bus stops. Like all the technology used at the school, the video isn’t meant for the kids to sit and watch quietly. It’s intended as a backdrop and inspiration for their play.

Older students at Boulder Journey get even more opportunity to interact with the community. When a new pizza restaurant opened near the school several years ago, preschoolers got to visit — taking photos and interviewing restaurant patrons. They also offered up a critique: The restaurant didn’t quite work for little kids — the stools didn’t spin, for example, and the toilets in the bathroom were too high. Back at school, the children fashioned their own ideal restaurant furnishings out of clay, a collection featured at the pizzeria for a time and now displayed in the school hallway.

“It’s not only getting kids ready to read at third grade proficiently, but it’s for them to become citizens, owners of their community … and understand how their neighborhoods are different from other neighborhoods in the city,” said Roy, who last year visited Reggio Emilia schools in Italy with a delegation from Boulder Journey School and the University of Colorado Denver.

Maher said there’s a common misconception that Reggio-inspired schools are unstructured.

“People think because children have a voice in their education, in the way the day’s organized, in the projects that are developed, that the teachers are invisible and hands-off, and that’s not the case,” she said. “It’s a highly structured dance between children and adults to make sure all voices are represented.”

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
The “materials room” Boulder Journey School.

At Reggio schools, you won’t likely see any commercially produced alphabet charts, daily schedules, or cartoony posters. Many Boulder Journey classrooms have attractive blond wood furniture, colorful light tables and aquariums full of fish. The “materials room,” where kids can craft and create, is a feast for the eyes — with wood, colorful fabric, tubes, lids and other supplies arranged neatly on white shelves that line bright orange walls.

Maher said people who tour her school tend to think she has a big budget because the school is beautifully appointed. But many of the school’s decorations and supplies are inexpensive, everyday items that can be found around town, she said.

Maher acknowledges that being in Boulder, an affluent community northwest of Denver, means a wealthier pool of families. About 20 percent of her students receive some kind of help paying tuition, which is about $1,300 a month for a preschooler who attends four hours a day, five days a week.

The percentage of students who need financial assistance will be higher at the Denver programs’ adopting the approach next year. A little over one-third of Inspire’s student body come from low-income families, and the new Z Place program will likely serve a high proportion of such students.

At Inspire, there are already two teachers with training in Reggio, both graduates of a special masters degree program run by the University of Colorado Denver and Boulder Journey School.

One of them is Sarah McCarty, a kindergarten teacher who had never heard of Reggio before she entered the program. She believes the approach, in addition to helping kids build creativity, work collaboratively and develop problem-solving skills, instills a love of learning.

“I’ve never seen a kid who, when they got to do what they wanted, wasn’t happy about it,” she said.