How many is too many?

Not all schools want the state telling them how to assess whether kids are ready for kindergarten. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Photo by Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat

Next week, Principal Lori Heller will drive to Denver from her tiny elementary school on the Eastern Plains for a hearing before the state Board of Education. She’ll bring along her kindergarten teacher, who this year has 10 students in her class.

They’ll be asking the board to grant their district, Peetz Plateau, an exception to a state rule that requires Colorado schools to assess kindergarteners using certain approved tools. If the vote goes in their favor — it didn’t on their first try in August — Peetz Plateau will be among eight school districts and 80 charter schools that have received such waivers over the last two years.

School and district leaders who’ve gotten the waivers see them as common-sense measures that give them more control over assessment decisions. But for some early childhood advocates the growing numbers of waivers are troubling — a sign that the lofty ambitions of a major 2008 school reform law are being watered down.

That law, called CAP4K, mandated that kindergarteners be assessed to see how well they were doing on a range of academic, developmental and behavioral skills as they entered school. And the results weren’t just for parents and teachers. They would be reported in aggregate to state lawmakers.

That is still set to happen, probably in about 18 months. Even so, there’s been a growing chorus of worry that those aggregate results won’t provide much clarity if they’ve been gleaned from many different types of assessments, some of which have been nationally vetted for validity and reliability, and many others that have been developed locally without rigorous scientific evaluation.

“At some point the state needs to step back and say, ‘Do we believe in the aggregate assessment of how our kids are doing at kindergarten entry or are we OK with not really knowing,’” said Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

Given the growing variability in assessment tools, he said, “It’s going to be very hard to know the value of investments we’re making in early childhood.”

State board members — both Democrats and Republicans — have also worried that the growing number of kindergarten assessment systems will make it impossible to meet their obligation to the legislature.

School districts with kindergarten readiness waivers

  • Academy 20
  • Cheyenne Mountain
  • Holyoke
  • Elbert County
  • Lewis-Palmer
  • Woodlin
  • Wray

During a hearing on a waiver request by the 6,300-student Lewis-Palmer district last April, board vice chair Angelika Schroeder said, “I just don’t believe that the legislature asked us to check on kindergarten readiness and then have it nicked away and nicked away until there isn’t anything were actually providing to them.”

At the same time, officials from districts and schools that have sought waivers say they are committed to kindergarten readiness assessments but prefer to use locally-grown systems developed with staff input over several years.

“Long before CAP4K…we had a pretty robust screening and diagnostic process in place that we used with all our kindergarteners,” said Walt Cooper, superintendent of the 5,100-student Cheyenne Mountain district in Colorado Springs, which won its waiver in March.

The process was developed by an interdisciplinary team, including teachers, speech pathologists, occupational therapists and school nurses.

“We did not want to abandon what we had been doing that had been so successful for us,” Cooper said.

In small rural districts, which represent five of the eight districts that have sought waivers, administrators say small class sizes and the close-knit nature of their communities ensure that teachers are intimately familiar with students’ strengths and weaknesses.

“They’re not going to get lost,” Heller said.

Rocky roll-out

One reason for the rocky transition to the kindergarten assessment system mandated under CAP4K and the growing stream of waiver requests has been frustration with the first assessment approved by the state.

Called Teaching Strategies GOLD, it’s now one of three approved assessments, but remains the most widely used one. (Unlike assessments for older kids, which might be paper-and-pencil or computer-based tests, kindergarten readiness assessments rely on teachers to observe students and document their skills.)

Over the past few years, many teachers and administrators have complained that GOLD is time-consuming, cumbersome and sometimes hobbled by technological snafus. In some districts, there were also concerns about privacy since the online tool allows teachers to document student progress using photos and videos of kids.

Since then, several changes have been made, including cutting the number of items on GOLD nearly in half and and requiring parental permission for student photos and videos. The streamlined version of GOLD was unveiled this fall.

But even with the improvements, administrators like Lori Heller say the tool duplicates what her school is already doing. Since Peetz Plateau hasn’t yet received a waiver, the kindergarten teacher used both the usual district assessments as well as GOLD this fall.

“At this point, we’re not getting any additional information from TS GOLD about students that we don’t already have,” Heller said. “It’s not really helping to drive our instruction.”

The situation was similar last year at Roots Elementary, a Denver charter school that opened in the fall of 2015 but didn’t have a waiver until this year.

Principal Jon Hanover said while he usually lands on the side of more assessment and accountability, he doesn’t feel that way about GOLD. The school used it along with a raft of other carefully chosen assessments last year.

It’s well-intentioned, he said, but puts an unnecessary burden on kids and teachers and didn’t add anything to the data they already collected.

Numbers stable for now

Despite worries about a mishmash of kindergarten assessment systems now in use across Colorado, it’s unclear whether the number will grow further.

Currently, Peetz Plateau is the only district scheduled for a waiver hearing at an upcoming state board meeting. Officials at the education department said they weren’t aware of any other pending requests.

With the requirement for statewide kindergarten readiness assessment now in its second year, it’s possible educators are getting used to the new system. Even before the tool was scaled down this year, it garnered praise from some teachers who said it provides a comprehensive picture of how children are doing and is easy for parents to understand.

Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance, said she’s heard positive feedback from districts since the simplified version of GOLD was released.

“They like it better,” she said. “It’s much more user-friendly.”

Even with the changes, some rural district leaders believe GOLD is more than they need in their small communities, Murphy said.

Low bar for some applicants?

Some district officials have been surprised by what they see as inconsistencies in how the state decides who gets kindergarten readiness assessment waivers and who doesn’t.

Some waivers, especially those from charter schools, seem to sail through the approval process. Others have faltered even when modeled on successful waiver applications submitted by other charter schools or districts. In addition, some district waivers expire after three years while others continue into perpetuity.

These disparities are partly due to the three different waiver pathways that exist in state law — one for charter schools, one for school districts and one for schools or districts seeking innovation status.

But timing also seems to be a factor, with more scrutiny for some districts that have sought waivers later in the process when the number of waivers was beginning to alarm the state board.

Cooper said his staff developed their waiver application in close collaboration with a local charter school that had easily obtained a waiver the year before. He said he was surprised at the “double standard of scrutiny” applied to Cheyenne Mountain’s proposal — hours of conference calls with state education department officials and multiple revisions to parts of the plan.

Melissa Colsman, executive director of teaching and learning at the education department, said, “We recognize that a charter that comes forward with a waiver request has already had a level of oversight and scrutiny by their district or local authorizer.”

The education department plays that vetting role for school districts requesting waivers, she said.

But Cooper argued that local school boards vet waivers from both charters and their own school districts, so the different standard by the state doesn’t make sense.

Murphy also lamented the high bar that districts such as Peetz Plateau must hurdle to get waivers.

“I’d just like to see small rural (districts) have an easier time in the review process,” she said.

help wanted

It’s hard to find qualified early childhood teachers. Here’s what one Denver provider is doing about it.

Malanna Newell is a toddler teacher at the Mile High Early Learning center in Denver's Westwood neighborhood. She started as a teaching assistant before taking Mile High's Child Development Associate training last fall.

Scattered around a meeting room in groups of three or four, 13 women bent over laptop computers and smartphones, squinting at Colorado’s hundreds of child care regulations.

They were child care and preschool employees from all over Denver on a scavenger hunt of sorts, searching for answers to worksheet questions such as how quickly child care workers must be trained on child abuse reporting and which eight kinds of toys and equipment classrooms are required to have.

The exercise on a recent Tuesday night was part of a 120-hour course — the equivalent of two college classes — that leads to a nationally-recognized child care credential.

Leaders at Mile High Early Learning, which operates seven centers around Denver, decided last summer to launch the training program to help solve one of the organization’s — and the field’s — most intractable problems: A shortage of qualified teachers and assistant teachers.

“We were having difficulty finding staff so we thought, ‘How could we grow our own?’” said Pamela Harris, the organization’s president and CEO.

In a field known nationally for low pay and high turnover, Mile High’s staffing struggles are hardly unique. What’s more unusual is the organization’s decision to address the problem with a formal in-house training. It’s a move that illustrates the anxiety providers face in finding high-quality staff and the gaps that exist in the state’s early childhood worker pipeline.

Over the next three years, a new state early childhood workforce plan aims to fill some of those holes, in part through alternative pathways like the training offered by Mile High. But experts agree the task is formidable.

Three participants in a recent training at Mile High Early Learning look through child care regulations.

In Colorado, the dearth of well-trained child care and preschool teachers has worsened in recent years even as evidence mounts that quality caregivers play a critical role in setting kids up for long-term success.

Christi Chadwick, who heads the Transforming Colorado’s Early Childhood Workforce project at the nonprofit Early Milestones Colorado, said the state’s population growth, stagnant wages in the field and more demanding worker qualification have exacerbated the problem. It’s particularly acute for community child care providers, which can’t usually pay preschool teachers as much as school districts do.

“The compensation is a challenge,” Chadwick said. “If we’re going to ever professionalize the field, we have to think of how we have our teachers on par with those in elementary education.”

A winding road

Experts say many child care workers back into the profession — following a twisting path that may not include any formal training on how to work with little kids.

Some come in with only high school diplomas, some with associates degrees and some with bachelor’s degrees, though often in unrelated subjects.

Take Muna, a 24-year-old participant in the recent Mile High training. She holds a bachelor’s degree in international affairs from the University of Colorado Boulder and has held jobs working with adult refugees and teaching high school girls in Saudi Arabia.

Until eight months ago when she became a staff aide at Mile High’s center in the Lowry neighborhood, Muna had never worked with young children.

Staff aides are entry-level workers who make about $12 an hour. They allow Mile High to meet staff-child ratio requirements, but under state rules, can’t be left alone with children.

Muna, who asked that her last name not be used, is exactly the kind of person Harris wants to nudge up the career ladder with the new training program,

“We want to push them out of staff aide. We want them to be teacher assistants,” Harris said, noting that a pay bump comes with the promotion.

Mile High is among a variety of organizations that offer the training, which leads to a credential called the Child Development Associate. Mile High staff can take the course for free as long as they commit to stay for a year. Employees at other Denver area centers can participate for a fee. Harris said one of Mile High’s next steps will be to offer the training in Spanish.

For Muna, the course was mainly a way to learn the ropes of a profession she’s found both fulfilling and unfamiliar.

“I felt like I really didn’t know anything,” she said. “I didn’t want to be making mistakes or doing anything wrong.”

During the scavenger hunt activity, Muna and her two partners — both of whom work at centers outside the Mile High network — talked about the maze of rules that govern child care.

Muna recalled how jarring it was to learn that she had to don gloves first before tending to a crying youngster with a bloody nose.

Megan O’Connor, a former marketing officer and the mother of a teenage boy, laughed about the fact that there’s not only a specific technique for changing a baby’s diaper, but also for throwing the diaper away.

The changing pipeline

Starting in the 1980s, state law prohibited Colorado’s universities from offering bachelor’s degrees in early childhood education. When that changed a few years ago, it opened the way for a new crop of college graduates with specialized coursework focusing on young children.

But that spigot, while promising, is also very new.

A recent survey of about 5,000 early childhood workers across the state revealed that while just over half of lead teachers have a bachelor’s degree, only 25 percent have degrees in early childhood education or a closely related field. (The full results of the survey are due out in mid-August.)

Diane Price, president and CEO of Early Connections Learning Centers in Colorado Springs, was pleasantly surprised this summer to land three new teachers who’d recently graduated with bachelor’s degrees in early childhood. But with more than 40 percent of her staff turning over every year, recruitment is still a battle.

“I firmly believe that right now in early education you either grow your own or steal from someone else,” said Price, who was a member of the steering committee that helped developed the state’s new plan.

Early Connections doesn’t offer its own Child Development Associate training like Mile High does, but the course is available through local partners.

Both Harris and Price say the training is enjoying a resurgence at the moment. It provides a gentle way of introducing child care workers, who may find college intimidating or unaffordable, to the prospect of higher education.

“We don’t want this profession to be a dead end,” Price said. “We want them to see there is a pathway. You can become a teacher, you can be a lead teacher … You can be a director some day.”

(Very) early education

Helping expectant and new mothers can lead to health and education gains for children, new paper says

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
A toddler at Loveland's Teaching Tree Early Childhood Learning Center, draws on an outline of his foot.

A new paper released Monday identifies health and educational benefits for children whose mothers participated in a home visitation program that provides medical assistance and early childhood development.

The Nurse-Family Partnership program begins in prenatal stages and ends when the child turns 2. The program offers care to disadvantaged, first-time and single mothers. Registered nurses visit the women’s homes and assist both with medical needs and early education.

University of Chicago Professor James Heckman, in tandem with four other professors and researchers at major American universities, analyzed a Nurse-Family Partnership program in Memphis, Tennessee. The paper concludes, among other things, that Nurse-Family Partnership programs improve cognitive skills for babies of both genders by age 6, and specifically social and emotional skills for girls. At age 12, males whose mothers were involved in Nurse-Family Partnership program perform better academically.

It is very important to provide a strong start early in life,” said Maria Rosales-Rueda, a professor at the University of California, Irvine and one of the paper’s authors. “We have seen several research children arrive to school already with big gaps between low socioeconomic status and high socioeconomic status. Programs like Nurse-Family Partnership target low income very disadvantaged families, first-time mothers, sometimes teenagers, by helping them to invest in their children.”

Nurse-Family Partnership receives federal funding from the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program. The funding expires Sept. 30. If Congress does not reauthorize the program, Nurse-Family Partnership and other early childhood programs could lose crucial federal dollars, said Fran Benton, a spokesman for the program’s national office.

Rosales-Rueda said she hopes the paper will help raise awareness about the effectiveness of Nurse-Family Partnership.

Currently, its programs are widely available in Colorado, according to Michelle Neal, director of the program at the Denver-based organization Invest in Kids. While federal funding makes up a smaller portion of Nurse-Family Partnership’s revenue, Neal said if the federal funding is not reauthorized, Colorado’s program could be in jeopardy.

“In Colorado at least we have great support for the program in that we’re available in all 64 counties,” she said. “A (paper) like this can have an impact on our advocacy to have the federal funding be reauthorized because that’s up in the air. We need that funding to continue flowing after October 1.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated when federal funding for the Nurse-Family Partnership expires.