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.”

Planning mode

As lawmakers consider major preschool expansion, Colorado providers want more than just extra seats

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

With Gov. Jared Polis’ proposal for the biggest expansion of Colorado’s state-funded preschool program in its 30-year-history, many early childhood educators are cheering the possibility of 8,200 new preschool slots for at-risk children.

But they’re also asking hard questions about how providers will find the staff and space to create new preschool classrooms, and whether state leaders will reshape the program to broaden its reach and intensity. Suggestions from the field include expanding the definition of at-risk, accepting more 3-year-olds, offering more full-day slots, and rewarding top-rated providers with more money.

These discussions echo debates about preschool quality and access nationally as more state leaders prioritize early childhood education, and as public preschool programs from New York to California attempt massive scale-ups.

Research shows that early childhood programs can produce huge long-term gains for children, particularly those from low-income families. But there’s a caveat: The programs must be high-quality.

In Colorado, Polis’ preschool proposal hinges partly on his plan to offer free full-day kindergarten statewide. That’s because 5,000 of the new preschool slots would be funded with money currently earmarked for full-day kindergarten through a special pool of flexible early education dollars. Lawmakers likely won’t make final decisions on the full-day kindergarten and preschool expansion plans until late spring.

In the meantime, preschool providers are weighing the pros and cons.

One of them is Lynne Bridges, who runs a highly rated preschool designed to look like an old schoolhouse in downtown Pagosa Springs in southwest Colorado. It’s called Seeds of Learning and serves children from tuition-paying families and about two-dozen preschoolers who qualify for public dollars through the Colorado Preschool Program.

While Bridges is thrilled with Polis’ support for early childhood education, she’s frustrated, too, that the state’s preschool program doesn’t recognize top programs like hers with extra funding.

“It’s almost like this high-quality program I’ve created …. It’s my burden,” she said.

Bridges’ program holds a respected national accreditation and also has a high rating from the state through its Colorado Shines rating system. She fundraises constantly to fill the gap between her government allotment and the cost of providing preschool for her at-risk kids — the ones she said have the most to gain from a high-quality program.

“There’s only so much money to be had in a rural community,” Bridges said. “This shouldn’t be me laying awake at night trying to help these families.”

The $111 million Colorado Preschool Program serves about 21,000 preschoolers statewide — most of them 4-year-olds in half-day slots — as well as 5,000 kindergarteners in full-day programs. Most of the program’s slots are offered in public school classrooms, though some are in community-based facilities.

On average, providers get about $4,100 per state preschool slot, though the amount varies based on a district’s size, share of low-income students, and cost of living.

Jennifer Okes, chief operating officer at the Colorado Department of Education, said the state’s finance formula allocates preschools half per student of what’s earmarked for first- through 12th-graders.

That formula doesn’t account for preschool quality, she said.

“I guess you could take preschool funding out of [the Public School Finance Act] and fund it separately. That would be a big statutory change.”

A separate state program that provides subsidies to help low-income families pay for child care works the way Bridges wishes the Colorado Preschool Program did, but it’s governed by a different state department and set of rules.

Leaders in the suburban Westminster school district north of Denver, where three-quarters of preschoolers are funded through the Colorado Preschool Program, said Polis’ proposal fits with the district’s own plans to expand early childhood options.

“I’m all for it,” said the district’s Early Childhood Education Director Mat Aubuchon, of the state preschool expansion. “I’m just curious what latitude we’ll get as districts.”

Aubuchon said if the state funds more slots, he hopes more can be merged to create full-day preschool slots. Currently, state rules allow only a small fraction of slots to be combined.

In addition, he wants more leeway in the state’s primary eligibility criteria, which gives preference children from low-income families, those in unstable housing, or who have speech or social difficulties, among other factors.

“I would like to see a little bit more pre-academic stuff in there,” said Aubuchon.

For example, children likely to be at risk for later reading struggles, based on results from a pre-reading assessment, should be given greater consideration, he said.

Aubuchon said if Polis’ plan comes to fruition, he’d like at least 100 to 150 more state preschool slots — maybe more if districts get additional flexibility to make full-day slots. He said the district will likely be able to find space for additional preschool classrooms.

Christy Delorme, owner and director of Mountain Top Child Care in Estes Park in northern Colorado, would like more state preschool slots, too.

She knows some commercial child care centers aren’t happy about Polis’ preschool expansion plan “because it takes away those paying slots,” but said she thinks it’s a good idea.

“Most parents can’t afford child care,” she said. “The more kiddos we can get into early education programs the better off our society will be.”

Delorme doesn’t have the room for a new classroom at Mountain Top, but like Aubuchon, wants the option to create full-day slots for the children she’s already serving. Currently, the 10 children in half-day slots funded by the Colorado Preschool Program rely on scholarships from a local nonprofit to stay at Mountain Top all day. If they become eligible for full-day state slots, that scholarship money could be rerouted to at-risk 3-year-olds,

One challenge that many preschool providers will face if there’s a sudden influx of new state-funded preschool slots will be hiring qualified staff for new classrooms.

That very problem is what led Bridges, of Seeds of Learning in Pagosa Springs, to cut her program down from four classrooms to three a few years ago. Turnover was high and she couldn’t find reliable substitutes.

With the switch to three classrooms, she also raised wages. Today, a lead teacher with a bachelor’s degree makes about $22 an hour, competitive pay in a community where her workers sometimes used to leave for jobs at the local Walmart. Today, Bridges has no problem with turnover.

Delorme, whose teachers start at $15 to $17 an hour, agreed that the field’s low pay makes it tough to find qualified staff.

“Education in general, it’s hard to recruit, but does that mean I wouldn’t want to expand my program because of that?” she said. “No.”

Race for mayor

How to help Chicago’s younger learners? Mayoral frontrunners skip a chance to say.

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang

The challenge of mending and strengthening Chicago’s network of care and education for its youngest residents defies instant solutions, but four candidates for mayor agreed Monday on one point: The city needs to care for its child care centers rather than imposing more burdens on them.

And the city should include those crucial small businesses, which often anchor neighborhoods, in its growing pre-kindergarten system.

Related: Why Rahm Emanuel’s rollout of universal pre-K has preschool providers worried

At a forum Monday at the University of Chicago on the topic of early childhood education, candidates addressed how city government can stitch together a stronger early learning system. Chicago’s mayoral election is Feb. 26.

Chicago is in the first year of a four-year universal pre-kindergarten rollout, and the city’s next mayor will determine much of the fate of the program. About 21,000 children have enrolled out of an estimated 45,000. And cost estimates are now north of $220 million, much of it federal and state money earmarked for early childhood expenditures. But the mayor can direct how that money is spent.

The forum attracted four candidates: former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot, former Chicago schools CEO Paul Vallas, state representative and former teacher La Shawn K. Ford, and John Kozlar, a University of Chicago graduate who, at 30, is the youngest candidate in the race.

Four candidates considered front-runners — Toni Preckwinkle, Susana Mendoza, Bill Daley and Gery Chico — didn’t attend. Nor did six more of the 14 candidates.

All of the mayoral candidates who answered said they would continue to support Chicago’s universal pre-K expansion but did not specify how.

The event was organized by Child Care Advocates United, a statewide alliance of child care providers who banded together four years ago when the state budget crisis was forcing many providers and child care agencies to cut back or close.

The central topic of conversation was how city government can build a stronger early learning system. Several questions revolved around issues faced by for-profit and nonprofit day care owners and preschool operators who are facing teacher shortages, budget pressures, and a churn of students. Some advocates say Chicago’s rollout of universal pre-K has made a operating a difficult business even more tenuous, as they lose children and revenue to Chicago Public Schools.

A Chalkbeat analysis of data published last week showed that public school preschool programs are at 91 percent capacity, while one in five seats at community-run preschools and centers is empty.

The candidates Monday offered different suggestions for alleviating the pressure.

Related: Care about schools? Read Chalkbeat Chicago’s voter guide to the mayor’s race. 

“We have to end this fight between Chicago Public Schools and (community) providers. It is killing an industry,” said Ford, a state legislator who described the budget pressures many providers faced under former governor Bruce Rauner, when Illinois did not pass a budget for more than two years.

A September report from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, which tracks openings and closures among licensed daycare facilities, shows a loss of 3,400 licensed facilities statewide from 2010 to 2018.

“Chicago Public Schools cannot do (preschool) cheaper, and it cannot do it better,” said Vallas, also a former budget director for the city of Chicago, who has put out a detailed prenatal-to-preschool platform that starts with universal prenatal care and a detailed menu of services and supports for children birth to age 5.

“The challenge with the universal pre-K program that Rahm Emanuel and (schools chief) Janice Jackson rolled out is that there was no engagement with community-based providers,” said Lightfoot, who questioned the timing of the May 2018 announcement just weeks before a Chicago Tribune series cast a spotlight on a pattern of mishandling student sexual abuse cases in the K-12 system. “This program was ill-conceived and rolled out in spring to be a distraction to the sex assault investigation about to be unveiled by the Tribune.”

At the forum, held in the auditorium of the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, Vallas also spoke about creating incentives to entice more prospective teachers into the field, including grow-your-own programs that target parents.

He also described a system of startup grants and opportunity zones that would make it easier for new businesses to take root and tax breaks for providers who serve a variety of children well.

Ford advocated pressuring state legislators to increase reimbursement rates to providers, which could be used to increase teacher pay, and setting aside tax-increment financing, or TIF, dollars for early childhood businesses. And Lightfoot talked about converting some of the schools that Chicago has closed into job training and early childhood centers.

“The policy that has been rolled out is not equitable and not sustainable,” she said of Chicago’s universal pre-K rollout. “We need to work in partnership with our communities.”

Are you ready to vote on Feb. 26? Find everything you need at Chi.vote, a one-stop shop for the Chicago election — Chalkbeat Chicago is a partner.