education interrupted

What experts on preschool expulsion talked about at the Colorado governor’s mansion this week

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Metro State University professor Rosemarie Allen introduces state Rep. Susan Lontine at an event on preschool suspension and expulsion.

The national conversation about whether it’s appropriate to expel 3- and 4-year-olds came to the governor’s mansion Wednesday.

While Gov. John Hickenlooper didn’t attend, a group of state and national experts discussed the issue and state Rep. Susan Lontine, D-Denver, promised she would help craft legislation for the 2017 session.

“I really want to look for some solutions here,” said Lontine, whose adult son struggled with learning disabilities and behavioral issues in school. “Stay tuned.”

Chalkbeat sat in on the discussion, as experts talked about the extent of the problem — and some of the solutions already gaining traction. Here are some highlights.

The ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ starts in preschool.
Several speakers pointed out that the disproportionate share of black teen boys who wind up in the juvenile justice system maps almost exactly to the disproportionate share of black boys suspended and expelled from preschool.

Black students make up just 18 percent of the national preschool population but 42 percent of those suspended once, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. For students suspended multiple times, the disparity is even greater.

“I always say we cannot talk about suspensions without talking about race when nearly half of all preschool suspensions are African-American children,” said Metro State University professor Rosemarie Allen, who organized the event.

She said the disparities won’t shrink until educators learn to overcome implicit bias — the unconscious assumptions people make based on characteristics like race and gender.

Suspensions of the youngest students are often invisible.
In the K-12 school system, there are due process hearings when kids are formally removed from class for long periods. At the preschool level, parents may simply be asked to pick up their children early from preschool because of problem behavior, said Phil Strain, professor of educational psychology and early childhood special education at University of Colorado Denver.

“That’s an expulsion and suspension with a small ‘e’ and a small ‘s’ that has, I would argue, an equally devastating effect on the family,” he said.

Teachers’ mental health and well-being are important.
Speakers noted that suspensions and expulsions are about adult decision-making and all the factors that influence it — things like stress, mental health problems, unconscious bias, and inexperience. Research shows that teachers who screen positive for depression, for example, expel children at twice the rate of teachers who don’t.

“We have a population of teachers that are starving,” said Walter Gilliam, a Yale University professor who conducted pioneering research on early childhood expulsion rates. “They are starving for attention, validation, and supports, and that’s what we need to provide for them.”

There are effective ways to prevent suspensions and expulsions.
Some teacher trainings—including the Colorado-created Pyramid Plus Approach— have been proven to give teachers the skills to manage challenging behavior. Having early childhood mental health consultants coach teachers helps too — and Colorado just doubled the number of those state-funded consultants, from 17 to 34.

“I am thrilled to see the awareness of the problem, but let’s not forget we have solutions too,” said Barbara Smith, research professor at University of Colorado Denver’s Center for Evidence Based Practice in Early Learning.

Strong parent-teacher relationships help, too.
Gilliam pointed out that, if the first time a parent and teacher talk is after a child’s challenging behavior, that sets the stage for a difficult relationship.

“I’ve seen a lot of kids expelled from preschool programs and a lot of kids suspended, but I’ve never seen a case of a child suspended or expelled when the parent and teacher knew and liked each other,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the university where Phil Strain and Barbara Smith work. They work at University of Colorado Denver. 

new perks

Can in-house child care keep young teachers in the classroom? These districts want to find out.

PHOTO: westend61 | Getty Images

When Sheridan Brull and her husband moved to Durango from Kansas a couple years ago, finding care for their 1-year-old daughter was “unimaginably hard,” she said.

“I think I Googled and called about 20 different places and left messages, and got no calls back,” said Brull, who was starting a job as an English teacher at Durango High School.

Although a neighbor eventually helped her find a spot at a local child care center, Brull’s initial dead-end search illustrates just how tough it can be for working parents to line up dependable child care, especially for infants and toddlers. Such predicaments can have wide-ranging consequences for schools, forcing young teachers to look for jobs elsewhere or quit altogether, and leaving students with a revolving door of instructors.

School districts in Colorado and the nation are increasingly trying to solve such problems by offering in-house care to district employees. While not free, the programs are convenient — aligned to district calendars and often located down the hall or down the street from teachers’ classrooms.

Both the 5,000-student Durango district in southwestern Colorado and the 31,000-student Boulder Valley district in the state’s populous Front Range will open child care programs for infants and toddlers in the next two weeks — both to be housed in district high schools. Leaders in the tiny West End district in western Colorado plan to launch an infant and toddler program at the district’s elementary school sometime this fall.

Last fall, a fourth district, the rural 750-student Dolores district in southwestern Colorado, opened an infant and toddler program in the same location as its preschool, a half a block away from the district’s main campus.

Together, the four district-run child care programs could soon produce about 80 full-time slots for infants and toddlers in Colorado. It’s a relatively small number in a state lacking licensed care for about 93,000 of 244,000 young children being raised by two working parents or a working single parent. Still, the programs help beef up local child care ecosystems, and represent a promising piece of the state’s teacher recruitment and retention puzzle.

Like non-salary benefits such as district-provided housing or loan forgiveness, child care could give some Colorado school districts a competitive edge in attracting staff. The state’s average teacher salary is about 15 percent below the national average of $59,660 and a recent report on teacher shortages found that 95 percent of rural districts paid average salaries below the local cost of living.

But some observers say that statewide solutions are needed to fix Colorado’s school funding crisis, not individual district investments in things like employee child care.

Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, said in an email, “While CEA is very appreciative of those school districts using innovative approaches to attract and retain quality teachers, the state should not keep putting districts in the unenviable position of meeting student needs with stopgap funding solutions.”

A persistent problem

The creation of district-run child care for staff often starts with a nagging need — then a brainstorm. That’s what happened in the 317-student West End district near Colorado’s western border with Utah.

“Being in a rural area specifically … we had just been going through hard times being able to keep and attract qualified people,” said Hank Nelson, principal of Naturita Elementary School.

Starting salaries in the district are about $30,000 a year.

Nelson knew of a handful of respected teachers who were scrambling to find workable care for their small children. Christine Harty, the high school science teacher, was one of them.

The Norwood child care center she settled on for her now 2-year-old son — one of the few options in the region — was 40 minutes from her home and a half hour from her classroom at Nucla High School.

“It’s an expensive daycare and it’s a lot of gas to get there, but it’s just what you do to have peace of mind,” said Harty, who will start her 4-month-old daughter at the Norwood center this week.

Nelson said his idea of the perfect school has long included child care, a natural preface to district-run preschool and then kindergarten.

Learning, he said, “doesn’t start at 5 years old, it starts much younger.”

Nelson floated the idea of an infant and toddler center to the West End superintendent last year. He was game, so with the help of the local early childhood council and economic development corporation, the project slowly took off.

The new program — called Colt Care after the elementary school mascot — will enroll 13 youngsters and be housed in a portable classroom at Nelson’s school. The district’s preschool program is in an adjacent portable.

While the district is still working to raise money to finish outfitting the new center, Nelson hopes it will open by October.

“We’re very confident that we’re going to have a waiting list,” he said.

Once it’s up and running — and equipped to accept the state child care subsidies — Harty said she’ll consider moving her kids to Colt Care.

“The fact that they’re only five minutes from my work is very appealing,” she said. “We haven’t had a daycare facility in the community for I don’t know how many years.”

Preparing to launch

For districts adding on-site child care programs, one commonality is extra space.
In the Dolores and West End districts, which are about 85 miles apart, there were portable buildings available. In Durango, a larger community in southwestern Colorado, there were free classrooms across from the high school’s welding shop. In Boulder Valley, district officials repurposed nursery space previously earmarked for the children of students in the district’s dwindling teen parent program.

Perhaps tougher than finding space is undertaking renovations or equipment purchases to ensure new child care centers and playgrounds adhere to the slew of state rules governing child care facilities. It’s not cheap.

Vangi McCoy, a Dolores school board member and coordinator of the Montelores Early Childhood Council, said the district’s 15-slot infant and toddler center — part of its Teddy Bear preschool — was a community effort. Local contractors provided plumbing and electrical services for free, gravel and fill dirt were donated, and town officials waived permit fees. The district also used about $25,000 in grants to get the job done.

McCoy, who calls the new center a godsend, said, “It’s a great way to show district employees that you appreciate them, to align educational goals from the very beginning … It was really worth the effort here in Dolores.”

In Boulder County, there’s not the same dearth of child care that plagues rural communities like Dolores, but district officials say the new center, called Early Connections, will benefit staff.

“The advantage, of course, for teachers is it’s only open and you’re only charged for the days you’re here,” said Joan Bludorn, principal of the Arapahoe Campus where the nursery is located.

Tuition at the 40-spot center is similar to local market rates — $1,550 a month for toddlers and $1,600 for infants. But district officials say teachers will save about $3,000 annually by not having to pay for child care during summer and school breaks. While Boulder Valley has some of the highest teacher salaries in the state, the cost of living is also high there.

While district-run centers like the one in Boulder are designed around the needs of teachers and other district staff, community members will be able to use them too if there’s space.

In Durango, where work crews are scrambling to finish the new infant and toddler center before its August 13 opening day, Sheridan Brull, the high school English teacher, is looking forward to having her 10-month old son just one floor below her second-story classroom. (Her daughter, now 3, will stay in the child care center she’s attended since the family first relocated to Durango.)

It doesn’t surprise Brull that more and more school districts are providing child care to staff.

“I think it’s smart,” she said. “When I look at where education is in our country right now, something is going to have to give in order to keep teachers, who are primarily women, in the career.”

Nature's classroom

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
A girl plays during a Worldmind Nature Immersion School class at Matthews/Winters Park in Jefferson County.

A 2½-year-old boy named Ben was ankle-deep in a Jefferson County creek when suddenly he lost his footing and plopped onto his bottom in the cold shallow water. The fall didn’t faze him. Neither did his dripping shorts. He got up and kept playing.

About a dozen children frolicked in or near the creek that day — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, building dams with sticks and mud, or inspecting bugs that flitted nearby.

It was a typical day at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, one of a growing number of programs where toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergarteners spend all their time outside — no matter the weather.

“When children look like they’re playing in nature, huge amounts of learning is taking place,” said Erin Kenny, founder of the American Forest Kindergarten Association and the co-founder of a pioneering outdoor preschool program in Washington state.

Established first in Scandinavia, such “forest schools” occupy a steadily expanding niche in the American early-childhood landscape. But even with the movement’s popularity, advocates wonder if it can reach beyond the homogenous slice of families — mostly middle-class and white — it now serves.

Advocates like Kenny lament the academic push found in many traditional preschools and say that young children thrive outdoors — developing independence, resilience, and other valuable social-emotional skills.

Parents say their kids like the expansive space, non-stop play, and dearth of rules in outdoor classes. And as long as they’re dressed for the conditions, they take rain, snow, or frigid temperatures in stride.

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Megan Patterson, the founder of Worldmind Nature Immersion School, pretends her preschool students are penguin chicks.

“I think it’s great to come in bad weather,” said Denver parent Tracy Larson, who has two children in the Worldmind class. “It makes us go outside when we’re at home in bad weather too … You’re not afraid of it.”

Forest schools nationwide face significant regulatory and logistical barriers to expanding their footprint — and serving students of color and those from low-income families.

“This movement is not going to move forward or it’s going to be stigmatized if we don’t rapidly move the needle from white middle-class to all-inclusive,” said Kenny.

Perhaps the most immediate problem is that states have no rules for outdoor-based programs that serve young children and thus, no way to grant them child care licenses. Besides signaling that programs meet basic health and safety rules, a license opens the door to state subsidies that help low-income families pay for child care.

In Colorado, the inability to get licensed means that forest schools can only have up to four young children in a class or, as is the case at Worldmind, must require parents to stay for each session. But licensing rules here could soon change. The same is true in Washington state, where there are dozens of outdoor preschool programs.

Government officials in both states are working with outdoor preschool providers as part of pilot programs that could lead to creating a child care license for outdoor preschools. The idea is to ensure children’s safety without stamping out the creek-wading, tree-climbing sensibilities that make the programs what they are.

Kenny said there are now around 50 forest preschools in the U.S. and another 200 “nature schools,” which put a major emphasis on outdoor learning but have buildings, too. Colorado and Washington are the only ones she knows of that are actively exploring special licensing classifications for outdoor preschools, but hopes their pilot programs will build momentum nationally.

“I used to feel I was riding the crest of a wave,” she said. “Now I feel the wave has crashed and it’s moving in ripples everywhere.

Testing the model

In Colorado, two providers — Worldmind and a Denver-based program called The Nursery School — are participating in the state pilot program. It starts this month for the Nursery School and in August for Worldmind. Both providers will be allowed to serve up to 10 children ages 3 to 6 during half-day sessions without parents present. The schools must adhere to a staff-student ratio of 1 to 5 — stricter than what is required in a traditional preschool.

They’ll also have to abide by other rules, including keeping tree-climbing children within arm’s reach and seeking indoor shelter in extreme weather.

In addition, both programs will track heaps of data, ranging from hourly weather changes to the circumstances behind any wildlife encounters or potty accidents. State licensing officials will also visit each program regularly. The pilot will run through February — to capture all kinds of Colorado weather — with a licensing decision possible in the summer of 2019.

Matt Hebard, a former preschool teacher and early childhood school district administrator, launched The Nursery School with Brett Dabb last fall at Denver’s Bluff Lake Nature Center. In recent weeks, the handful of children enrolled there have spotted newly hatched goslings and mule deer, and made “snowmen” with fluff from cottonwood trees.

The two men first conceived of the school in 2013 during their time in an early childhood leadership program and soon after discovered the long, bureaucracy-laden road to state recognition. There were waiver applications, denials, a hearing before the state attorney general, and even a look at whether state legislation would further the cause of outdoor preschools in Colorado.

“It’s been slow going,” but worthwhile, Hebard said. “It’s going to allow other practitioners to open outdoor preschools … It’s going to give parents another option.”

A child plays in the limbs of a tree at Matthews/Winters Park in Jefferson County.

Megan Patterson, a former elementary school teacher in Alaska and Colorado, launched Worldmind in 2015 — complying with state rules by offering “child and caregiver” classes at local parks and botanical gardens in Boulder County and metro Denver.

“I studied urban ecology in Boston and after that I realized … how important it is to connect kids to places around where they live,” she said. “I finally found the type of education I believe in 100 percent.”

State officials say they have been approached by other outdoor preschool providers interested in the pilot, but don’t plan to expand it beyond the two programs, and the roughly 40 children they’ll serve during the pilot period.

“We feel the model needs to be even more rigorous in the state of Colorado,” said Erin Mewhinney, director of the state’s early care and learning division in the office of early childhood.

She said while forest schools are popular in United Kingdom — where leaders of Worldmind and The Nursery School have both attended special teacher training courses — Colorado weather and terrain pose different challenges

“We all love the outdoors, but we all know how dangerous it is and we’re trying to strike a balance with that license type,” she said.

A sense of freedom

The recent Worldmind class where 2-year-old Ben plopped in the creek took place at Matthews/Winters Park in Golden on a warm, sunny May morning. While Patterson offered some general structure to the dozen kids in attendance — a snack break, a brief discussion of a picture book they’d read, and a chance to feel animal pelts, the kids were mostly free to do what they wanted.

Their parents lingered nearby, chatting with each other, chasing after younger siblings, or joining their kids in the creek or on a green tarp laid out nearby. It felt like a big, free-flowing playdate in the woods.

To be sure, there were the usual little-kid frustrations. One small girl, after repeatedly scrambling up the bank of the creek without much trouble, was reduced to tears once her hands went from merely dirty to muddy.

Worldmind’s upcoming pilot program class will look similar to the child and caregiver class, though without the parents. It will take place at Denver’s City Park, with the adjacent Denver Museum of Nature and Science serving as a backup in case of extreme weather.

Several parents who attended the recent class at Matthews/Winters Park said they planned to send their children to the pilot program. They often used the same word to describe why they liked the outdoor classes: Freedom.

Brittany Courville, of Lakewood, said she brought her 5-year-old daughter Siena to her first Worldmind session after the family relocated to Colorado from Texas a few years ago. The move had been jarring for the then 2-year-old, but the outdoor class seemed to restore her spirits.

“She loved it … It was freezing and she didn’t want to leave,” said Courville. “You know, you go to library story times — ‘Sit down. Do this. Do that’ — and she came here and there were other kids she could play with and also be herself and just explore.”

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent “forest school” class.

Brit Lease, a Denver resident and the mother of 2-year-old Ben, has friends who are excited that their daughter’s preschool has pledged she’ll be reading on a first-grade level by the time she starts kindergarten. But Lease doesn’t want that for Ben.

“What social-emotional learning did they miss out on or interpersonal kinds of things did they miss out on because they were so focused on learning how to read?” she asked.

While she talked, Ben growled like a tiger and showed off his “sword” — fashioned out of two thin branches bound together with black cord.

“My theory right now is just let them be kids as long as they can because it does start sooner,” Lease said. “Kindergarten is no joke anymore.”

A bigger tent

While Patterson launched Worldmind with a primary focus on getting kids outside, she’s lately shifted her goals. The organization is revamping its mission to aim for racial and ethnic, socioeconomic, cultural, and ability diversity.

If Worldmind becomes licensed, she also plans to accept state child-care subsidies. Tuition for four half-days of forest school during the fall semester of the pilot project runs about $2,900.

But like other outdoor preschool providers, Patterson knows the typical part-day forest school schedule doesn’t work for everybody.

In part to accommodate working parents, Patterson hopes by the fall of 2019 to open a brick-and-mortar child care center that would still focus on outdoor learning, while enabling Worldmind to serve infants and toddlers, and offer full-day care for children up to age 6.

Megan Patterson, the founder of Worldmind Nature Immersion School, talks with two children while others play nearby.

Hebard said he doesn’t plan to accept child-care subsidies because they come with requirements he thinks don’t apply to an outdoor preschool model. These include evaluating students using a state-approved assessment tool.

Still, he would eventually like to raise money for a scholarship program. But with only a handful of tuition-paying families enrolled now and much of his extra time spent working nights at UPS Inc., that reality could be a ways off.

“It would be nice to have a broader demographic,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity for any child.”

Nationally, some forest preschools have come up with creative ways to open their doors to a wider slice of their communities. For example, the Forest Freedom School, based in Oakland, gives students of a color a 30 percent break on tuition. It’s billed as the “Struggle Is Real” discount.

Aside from financial obstacles, there can be cultural barriers that make outdoor preschools perplexing or unthinkable for some families. These may include worries that children will get sick if they spend time in the rain and cold or simply the sense that school isn’t an outdoor activity.

Hebard said a colleague at another organization told him about concerns voiced by parents about plans to replace the preschool’s brightly colored plastic play equipment with a nature-themed playground. Some of the parents worked outside all day and were put off by the idea of their children playing in the dirt at school.

Overcoming those perceptions will take parent education and outreach to local groups that work with communities of color, forest school leaders say.

Kenny said programs must be aggressive about serving all kinds of families. And it’s not just tuition help that’s needed, she said. Because children are outside in all kinds of weather, families may need help ensuring their children have access to high-quality clothing and gear.

“It’s incumbent on these schools to offer some kind of assistance because right now the government’s not doing it, nobody’s doing it,” she said.