Local roots

In a long-neglected Denver neighborhood, an innovative preschool offers sanctuary

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Assistant teacher E’Monna Moore plays with a child at the Sewall Child Development Center at the Dahlia Campus.

The new preschool in northeast Denver is nestled in one wing of a sleek modern building with neat rows of peas, turnips, and spinach flourishing in a huge garden out front.

In gentrifying Denver, the scene is familiar—sparkling new construction rising up from the site of a razed shopping plaza.

But the story of this preschool and the new Mental Health Center of Denver facility in which it sits isn’t about satisfying the demands of the city’s new arrivals. If anything it’s the opposite—an effort to meet the needs of existing residents who have long been overlooked and underserved.

They are the families—nearly half of them African-American and many low-income—that call Northeast Park Hill home.

Opened in January, the Sewall Child Development Center at the Dahlia Campus is taking an approach its leaders say is unique in Denver and perhaps the nation: providing one neighborhood in need with a high-quality full-day preschool that serves all kids together, including those with challenging behavior and other special needs.

Photo credit: PB Smith/Sewall Child Development Center
Photo: PB Smith/Sewall Child Development Center

Although a small number of preschool programs in Colorado do offer this type of inclusive program, they usually draw students from a wide area.

At the same time, neighborhood-based preschool programs often exclude, counsel out or expel challenging children who may be given to explosive tantrums, aggression or chronic crying.

“A lot of preschools just place a huge emphasis on obeying, complying with adult requests,” said Christine Krall, who heads the Dahlia campus program. “We get kids who (have been) kicked out of three preschools.”

The center also serves kids who previously attended specialized programs far outside northeast Park Hill. While the programs may have worked educationally, they didn’t work geographically — forcing parents to miss school meetings or family nights and weakening the bonds between neighborhood families whose children with special needs were spread out across Denver.

“We want kids to go to school where they live,” Krall said.

Heated conversations

Officials from the Mental Health Center of Denver began considering building a new community facility on the site of the former Dahlia Shopping Center in 2013.

In a series of community conversations that lasted more than a year, local residents were plenty skeptical. They worried about the stigma of a mental health center in the neighborhood. What they wanted were places to buy healthy food and more early childhood choices, especially for kids with special needs.

As talk turned to the possibility of including a preschool in the new space, they feared they’d lose the preschool spots to more affluent residents who live in the Stapleton redevelopment farther east.

Lydia Prado, vice president of child and family services at the Mental Health Center of Denver, said community members painted a picture of the future they predicted.

She relayed what they told her: “There are a lot of people in Stapleton who work downtown. They’re going to come down (Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.). They’re going to drop their child off and they’re going to go to work. They’re going to be able to pay and you’re going to take them.”

But Prado didn’t want that scenario either. So she and the residents made a deal. When publicizing the new preschool, mailers would be sent only to residents in the 80207 zip code, which covers a large swath of northeast Park Hill.

PB Smith/Sewall Child Development Center
Photo: PB Smith/Sewall Child Development Center

The new complex, called the Dahlia Campus for Health and Well-Being, opened in January. Besides the preschool, it offers an array of health and mental health services and includes a vegetable garden, greenhouses and a fish-farming operation.

Sewell Child Development Center, a longtime Denver nonprofit specializing in inclusive education, runs the preschool. Denver Public Schools, which provides funding for some of the preschool slots, and the mental health center are both partners in the program.

It’s not a simple or cheap program, which explains why there aren’t more centers like it. It requires a complicated mix of state, school district, city and private funding to pay for the extra staff needed to maintain high adult-child ratios, including a raft of specialists such as speech therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists and social workers.

Currently, about a dozen employees staff three preschool rooms at Dahlia. Together they have of 45 slots—most filled by children from the neighborhood who attend for free or pay a small portion of the cost. A fourth classroom will open eventually.

“I think it’s great to have an alternative that’s inclusive—that has that intensity of mental health support, said Cheryl Caldwell, director of early childhood education for Denver Public Schools. “It’s good for families and kids.”

Opening doors for parents

Charella Hysten enrolled her 2-year-old son, Jair, at the Dahlia campus preschool about a month ago on the advice of a special education advocate.

Landing a spot there has allowed her son to get speech therapy consistently, where previously it was impossible. Bringing therapists to the house or meeting them in libraries set the stage for explosive outbursts from her 10-year-old twins, who have severe behavioral issues.

The preschool slot, along with inpatient treatment for her twins elsewhere, also allowed Hysten to start a job as a cook at a Qdoba restaurant after eight years at home.

“It allows me to make a paycheck…and possibly boost my self-esteem because I’ve been in the house feeling like nothing,” she said.

Hysten knows Jair likes his time at the preschool because of how easily he parts from her each day.

“He tells me ‘Bye,’” she said. “As a mother of seven, when you drop off your child and he says ‘Bye,’ that’s a good thing.”

Administrators at Sewell and the Mental Health Center of Denver say for many preschool families at the Dahlia campus, the program gives them respite from the raised eyebrows and instant judgement they face at restaurants, stores or elsewhere when their children act out.

“It’s not embarrassing to be here,” said Krall.

A twist on the Sewall model

Sewall runs 10 preschool sites around Denver, all of them with a mixture of typically developing kids and kids with special needs. Usually, about one-third of the students have a specific diagnosis such as autism.

Children play in the "Bear Cubs" classroom at the Dahlia Campus preschool.
PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Children play in the “Bear Cubs” classroom at the Dahlia Campus preschool.

At the Dahlia campus program, it’s a little different. There are fewer kids with diagnosable conditions and more kids with challenging behavior due to trauma such as abuse, chaotic living conditions or other factors. That makeup reflects the needs in the neighborhood.

Take teacher Kindal Matson’s classroom. Only two of nine students have a diagnosis, but four additional students need extra help regulating volatile emotions. One little girl has trouble when it gets too noisy, throwing things off shelves, running away or climbing on tables.

That’s part of the reason there are two teachers plus an additional staff member—a therapist or special education teacher—for every 15 kids. The three, all trained to teach social and emotional skills proactively and avoid punishing kids, work as a team with all the children.

“Each day a specialist comes in and works right alongside us,” Matson said. “They change diapers just as we do.”

The work can be draining at times. At a recent debrief with a social worker, Matson’s teaching team talked about coping with the daily ups and downs.

“You’re a sponge and you’re absorbing all these children’s needs and their disregulation, and you might have gotten bit three times today,” she said.

Still, Matson finds the work rewarding and is happy she moved to the Dahlia campus preschool in June after a stint at a more traditional preschool. The program’s emphasis on including all kinds of kids was what appealed most to her.

It also comes with benefits for both children with special needs and their typically developing peers, she said.

The girl who struggles with noise almost always manages to keep her emotions under control when she plays with a certain even-keel friend. Meanwhile, the mother of that friend reported to Matson that her daughter has grown more patient with her little brother since she came to the preschool.

Acknowledged at last

With seven months since the Dahlia campus preschool opened, there’s a sense that the puzzle pieces are falling into place.

There’s still an alphabet soup of funding sources to contend with, some empty slots to fill and new hires to make. But amidst such challenges are moments like the one Prado experienced after the center opened.

She said the mother of a little girl with special needs approached her one morning to say thank you. Tearing up, the woman confided that she’d long felt invisible.

She told Prado, “No one has seen me before and no one has seen my daughter…You have seen us. I never thought that would happen.”

Head Start restart

Children left in limbo as Detroit Head Start providers stand to lose federal grants

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat

Four major providers of Head Start programs in Detroit must re-apply for funding after losing their federal grants this year, throwing the future of dozens of classrooms in doubt for the fall.

One of the four providers was forced to re-compete for funding after leaving a 3-year-old outside in freezing winter weather and putting children in unsafe classrooms. The other three were ranked poorly in a federal performance review that scores how students and teachers interact.

Head Start, the federally funded program that provides free preschool and other services to the nation’s neediest children, has long struggled in Detroit. Years of program neglect while under the supervision of a cash-strapped city agency left providers without adequate buildings and a teacher shortage so severe that two years ago, 800 funded seats for the most vulnerable children in the city were going unused.

Since then, the program had expanded, but providers are still struggling to create enough programs to use all of the 5,200 Head Start seats the federal government would fund. As of last spring, 260 seats were going unused, according to Patrick Fisher, spokesperson for the Administration for Children and Families, the federal organization that oversees Head Start.

Thousands of Detroit families rely on these programs for free childcare and meals for ages 0 to 5. Head Start is especially important for low-income families struggling with the skyrocketing cost of childcare. Despite the longstanding issues, these Head Start facilities are many families’ only option for affordable quality early childhood education. Studies on Head Start show the program can influence everything from whether kids succeed in school, to whether they become smokers as adults.

The prospect that programs could be closed or moved if current providers are not able to win new grants has been unsettling to families who might not be able to bring their children to a school that’s farther away.

“It would definitely be a disruption because I would have to travel, and a lot of us don’t have the means to travel,” said Monika Chester, the mother of three children who attend Head Start at the Samaritan Center on Detroit’s east side. “A lot of us are walking, taking the bus, getting a cab, even in the winter, and my baby is five months old.”

“But the worst thing would be for my babies to adapt to new teachers,” she said. “That’s the worst. That’s really bad.”

The four providers that must recompete — Matrix, Starfish Family Services, New St. Paul Tabernacle Head Start Agency Inc., and Metropolitan Children and Youth, Inc. — must divert attention from running facilities to competing for the federal money that allows them to run the programs. 

The process to reapply for one of the five-year grants is significantly easier if providers have no issues with their federal scores, providers say. Meanwhile, providers who score below passing on the federal examinations or have other issues are forced to undergo a multistep process that can take several people a month or longer to complete.

Ann Kalass, whose Starfish Family Services leads the coordination of a large Head Start collaborative called Thrive by Five Detroit, said her biggest concern is how reapplying affects the children and families in the program, rather than the time it takes for staff to reapply.

“What I worry about is that it creates a disruption and they leave our programs in May and June not knowing who to count on in the fall,” said Ann Kalass, who runs Starfish Family Services.

“There is a lot of work going on among many providers to submit quality plans and applications in mid-January, so yes, it’s definitely taking resources for us to do that,” Kalass said. “But from my perspective, we do this work all the time — we’re always competing for grants and new opportunities, so it’s people spending time on writing grants who might otherwise be thinking about the program strategy and implementation.

“The real concern for me at a system level is that we’re trying to rebuild and reinvest and it feels like taking a step back to move a step forward,” she added.

The federal auditors grade facilities in three categories: emotional support, classroom organization, and instructional support. Providers are compared against one another nationally, and the lowest scoring 10 percent must automatically rebid for the federal money that pays for  the program.

In the category of classroom organization, Matrix, Starfish, and New St. Paul all scored in the bottom 10 percent range nationally.

Kalass said teacher turnover played a role in why the scores were so low in that category.

“Classroom organization looks at the routines and the structures of learning in the classroom,” Kalass said. “It talks about routines in the classrooms, the overall management of what’s happening in the classroom, and we have a high level of teacher turnover in the city, and some of the highest rates of teacher turnover in the country.”

The median salary for a preschool teacher who works full-time in Michigan is less than $30,000 a year, according to one study, making it hard to retain teachers. A report from the Kresge and Kellogg foundations pointed to the shortage of qualified preschool teachers as one of the challenges to improving early education in Detroit.

The next category, instructional support  — how children are taught — “involves how teachers promote children’s thinking and problem solving, use feedback to deepen understanding, and help children develop more complex language skills,” according to a guide to understanding the scoring metrics.

Nationwide, providers struggle to meet the federal standards for this category. The passing score has a low threshold — it is only about 2.31 out of seven. In Detroit, all three providers had low scores, but New St. Paul fell below the threshold for passing in that category.

In the emotional support category, all of the providers in Detroit scored above the minimum. This area measures how teachers “help children resolve problems, redirect challenging behavior, and support positive peer relationships.”

The federal Office of Head Start, which conducts the reviews, has proposed a change to the bottom 10 percent rebid rule and other scoring guidelines, but it won’t have an effect on the current process.

Providers in Detroit support the change. They believe comparing the city with providers outside of the area isn’t right. Last year, 32 percent of grantees nationwide had to recompete for grants. In Detroit, that number is higher as providers struggle with crumbling buildings, high teacher turnover, and a Head Start program that has endured years of turmoil.

But the other issues submitted to the federal office by the facilities themselves are harder to debate.

At the Samaritan Center, a Matrix facility on the east side near Chandler Park, on Jan. 8, 2018, a teacher was terminated after kicking a 2-year-old who fell asleep in a chair, according to the federal report released in February. The Samaritan Center had another violation in October of last year, when a 3-year-old was told to walk back to class unsupervised and was later found by personnel “alone, lying on the floor in a classroom crying,” according to a May report. The teacher was terminated.

The Eternal Rock Center, another Matrix facility located in Southwest Detroit, was given a violation after a 4-year-old was left in a classroom unsupervised for a short time in January. The teacher was terminated in this case as well.

Matrix Family Services declined a phone interview to speak on the low facility scores, rebidding for contracts, and the offsite reports from this year.

A report on the Metropolitan Children and Youth, Inc.’s facility was enough to trigger the contract rebid process. In winter of 2014, at the Harper/Gratiot Center on Detroit’s east side, a 3-year-old was left outside on a playground and later found by a parent crying and knocking on the door of the building. Neither the center’s investigation nor a review by the federal office was able to determine how long the child was outside in freezing temperatures.

Only Metropolitan Children and Youth is forced to rebid because of the offsite reports.

“Reviewers examine documentation sent by the grantee to identify program strengths or weaknesses, deficiencies, or that an issue has been remediated,” said Patrick Fisher, a spokesperson for the Administration for Children and Families, the federal office that oversees Head Start.

In Detroit’s Head Start classrooms, reported treatment like this is rare but not out-of-the-blue: underpaid teachers working in buildings struggling to keep the heat on sometimes results in poor conditions.

If the four providers don’t manage to win contracts, families could  be forced to find new centers and forge new connections with teachers. Moving locations can be hard on families and children alike, and requires a concentrated effort between the old and new provider to successfully transition students and staff.

A transition occurred last year after Southwest Solutions abruptly shuttered 11 Head Start centers. Luckily for the 420 children affected, Starfish Family Services was able to transition the children and many of the teachers to other agencies, allowing many to remain in their existing facilities.

There’s no guarantee that relocation of families could happen so smoothly in the future, but the Detroit providers are keeping lines of communication open.

“I think there are a lot of encouraging signs for early childhood programing in Detroit,” Kalass said. “Providers are meeting monthly to problem solve together — around workforce, facilities, and about better connecting with families.”

“We’re in a place of rebuilding and I’m optimistic that we won’t see a situation like this again. We won’t be in this place a few years from now.”

Scroll down to read some of the reports that led to one Head Start agency being asked to reapply for funding.

 

sunset

Victim of its own success: Qualistar, pioneer in rating Colorado child care, to close

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat

With efforts to measure and improve child care quality in Colorado now ensconced in state government, the nonprofit organization that laid the groundwork for that system will close next month.

Leaders at Qualistar Colorado said the state’s recent progress in prioritizing quality in child care centers and preschools makes it the right time to end operations as a stand-alone entity.

“That’s always the best story you can have for a nonprofit, where it puts itself out of business,” said Kathryn Harris, Qualistar’s president and CEO.

One of Qualistar’s chief accomplishments over its 20-year history was pioneering a rating system for preschools and child care centers well before the state took on the task with federal dollars in 2014.

Unlike the mandatory state system, called Colorado Shines, Qualistar’s system wasn’t widely used among providers because it was voluntary and expensive. Still, it was a respected tool at a time when many states had no mechanism at all for letting parents, providers, or the public know whether children were in good hands at preschool or child care.

Most states now have quality rating systems, which evaluate everything from teacher credentials to classroom set-up and parent engagement efforts. High quality child care helps children develop skills they need to start school and over the long term is associated with better health, education, and economic outcomes.

Qualistar has 30 employees and a $3.7 million annual budget.

More than one early childhood advocate said Qualistar’s decision to close wasn’t a complete surprise, given the evolution of the rating system from a privately funded initiative to a statewide effort scaled up with government dollars.

Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said while Colorado hasn’t yet achieved universal quality in its child care centers and preschools, Qualistar has achieved a key part of its mission by elevating discussions about quality.

“What Qualistar set out to do is becoming the norm,” he said.

Anna Jo Haynes, co-chair of the state’s Early Childhood Leadership Commission, helped found Qualistar in 1999 following the release of a multi-state study that gave Colorado low marks for child care quality.

“Boy, did we say, ‘Enough of this,’” recalled Haynes, who sat on Qualistar’s board during its early years.

Qualistar, which was originally named Educare, drew substantial philanthropic support to create and advance its four-star rating system. Those efforts, Haynes said, along with constant advocacy at Colorado’s capitol, helped convince lawmakers that measuring and improving child care quality was important.

Now, that Qualistar’s era is ending, she said, “I think they can take a bow and say, ‘We did a good job.’”

After Qualistar closes, some projects will continue under the auspices of other local early childhood organizations or, in one case, a spin-off group.

Clayton Early Learning, which does research, training and runs a well-respected child care center in northeast Denver, will take over Qualistar’s state contract to conduct on-site assessments for the Colorado Shines system. Child care centers and preschools seeking one of the top three of Colorado Shines’ five ratings must have an on-site assessment.

State officials said Qualistar’s closing will not affect any providers’ current ratings and that they’re working to ensure there will be no delays in upcoming ratings as the hand-off to Clayton unfolds.

The Early Childhood Council Leadership Alliance, which works on behalf of Colorado’s 31 early childhood councils, will take over administering a scholarship program for early childhood providers pursuing college-level classes in the field.

One Qualistar initiative, Healthy Child Care Colorado, will spin off into its own nonprofit. It will continue to provide training and technical assistance to child care providers on health, wellness and safety topics. It will also continue making grants for playground and building improvements.

Harris said the groups taking over Qualistar initiatives will have authority over staffing, but she’s hopeful a number of Qualistar employees will land jobs with them.

Harris, who took the helm of Qualistar four years ago, said she’s not sure what she’ll do next, but it will be something related to education.

Contemplating Qualistar’s legacy, she said, “Colorado and the people who led this organization before me were trailblazers and I think that’s something to be very, very proud of.”