year in review

Colorado’s year in early childhood: Bright spots and persistent challenges

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

Efforts to improve child care quality in Colorado gained steam in 2016 amid ongoing concerns about abysmal pay for child care workers and excessive regulation in the field.

The year kicked off with a red-letter moment for the state’s child care rating system, Colorado Shines, which awarded its top Level 5 rating to the first two programs in the state. (Today, there are 25 child care facilities with Level 5 ratings.)

In the spring, a group of teen moms from Denver’s Florence Crittenton High School led the charge for a law change that makes it easier for teen mothers and domestic violence victims to secure state financial help for child care. The state also ushered in rules to inspect child care centers more often and give higher reimbursements to child care providers that earn high ratings.

But the focus on quality wasn’t just for licensed child care providers. Programs aimed at training unlicensed providers, including Spanish-speakers and undocumented immigrants, also ramped up in 2016.

On the innovation front, Westminster Public Schools’ in August began using a new financing mechanism to pay for full-day preschool — an effort that will be closely watched by other school districts over the next couple years.

The same month, U.S. Secretary of Education John King sang the praises of Colorado’s work to improve its early childhood systems during a visit to Denver.

One of 2016’s biggest unresolved early childhood conversations was about the suspension and expulsion of young children from preschool and early elementary school. While advocates had hoped to bring forward legislation on the issue during the 2016 session, a variety of factors, including concerns about the accuracy of discipline data, stymied those efforts.

Still, the state did significantly expand a program designed to help child care providers handle challenging behavior before it spirals into suspension or expulsion. In addition, a one-of-a-kind child care center opened in a poor northeast Denver neighborhood with a mission to serve local children, including those with challenging behavior.

Finally, there was much public conversation about the problem of harsh early childhood discipline — including a Chalkbeat Colorado’s panel discussion on the topic in May, a meeting of state and national experts at the Governor’s Mansion in August and a series of fall meetings by advocates planning for legislation during the 2017 session.

This is the first in a series of posts this week looking back at the year in Colorado education. 

Wanna go outside?

Less plastic, more trees: New effort seeks to reinvent preschool playgrounds and capture kids’ imaginations

This play structure at Step By Step Child Development Center in Northglenn will go away under a plan to create a more natural and engaging outdoor play space.

Michelle Dalbotten, the energetic director of a Northglenn child care center called Step by Step, doesn’t like her playground.

Sure, it’s spacious, with a high privacy fence bordering an adjacent strip mall parking lot. It’s also got a brightly colored play structure surrounded by lots of spongy rubber mulch.

But Dalbotten and her staff have long noticed that the kids get bored there. They clump together in the small shady area or on a few popular pieces of equipment. Sometimes, they start throwing trucks off the play structure or shoving their friends down the slide.

Something about it just doesn’t work.

Recently, Dalbotten found a solution in the form of a new grant program called the ECHO initiative, which aims to reinvent more than 100 preschool and child care playgrounds across Colorado over the next few years. Think mud kitchens, looping tricycle trails, vegetable gardens, stages, shady reading nooks and dump truck construction zones.

The idea is to create outdoor spaces that capture kids’ imagination, connect them with nature and keep them active in every season. Such efforts grow out of a recognition in the education field that healthy habits start early and boost learning.

The current preschool playground at Step by Step is covered by rubber mulch.

Step by Step staff members had talked many times about their stagnant play space. But it was hard to envision anything different until they attended a design workshop with experts from ECHO, a partnership between the National Wildlife Federation, Qualistar Colorado and the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University.

“We knew we were missing the boat somewhere because (the children) weren’t super-engaged and we had a lot of behavioral issues,” Dalbotten said. “But we just couldn’t see past it, I guess.”

For child care providers, it’s a common challenge, said Sarah Konradi, ECHO program director with the regional office of the National Wildlife Federation

“This is a very new idea to a lot of folks,” she said. “It’s hard to sort out as a layperson.”

ECHO, borne out of a decade of research from the Natural Learning Initiative, will hand out $355,000 in grants over the next three years. The initiative prioritizes centers that serve children from low-income families or other vulnerable populations.

Fourteen centers — Step by Step and Wild Plum Learning Center in Longmont are the first two — will get $10,000 awards for serving as demonstration sites willing to host visits for other Colorado providers.

Leaders at Step by Step say kids and teachers often congregate in the limited shady spots.

Around 100 other centers will receive ECHO’s $5,000 seed grants and expert assistance to revamp their outdoor spaces.

Such transformations can have a big impact on children who may spend thousands of hours a year at such centers, said Nilda Cosco, director of programs at the Natural Learning Initiative.

“When we do a renovation of the outdoor learning environments as we call them — not playgrounds — we see increased physical activity … more social interactions among children … less altercations,” she said.

“The teachers have to do less because the children are so engaged. There is so much to do.”

ECHO, which stands for Early Childhood Health Outdoors, is the latest iteration of a program Cosco started a decade ago called “Preventing Obesity by Design.” That effort revamped outdoor space at about 260 child care centers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.

Cosco said such makeovers can ”prevent obesity by counteracting sedentary lifestyles. Children walk more, exercise more, are conversant with healthy eating strategies.”

Dalbotten and her staff have big plans for their play areas, which sit behind a plaza that houses a bingo hall, Dollar Tree and Big D’s Liquor store. They’ll get rid of the colorful play structure and the rubber mulch in favor of a more natural look. There will be trees, shrubs, small grassy hills and a winding trail leading to a wide array of activity areas.

This porch will get new lighting, fencing and foliage to make it a more attractive outdoor space at Step by Step.

The center’s smaller toddler playground will get a similar reboot and its tiny yard for babies — mostly bare except for a couple low-hanging shade sails — will be expanded to include a shaded deck where teachers can sit or play with babies. A barren concrete porch on the side of the building will be remade into a cozy activity area decorated with bird houses, planter gardens and butterfly-attracting foliage.

At the recent design workshop Dalbotten attended, ECHO leaders displayed photos from other centers around the country that have gone through outdoor transformations. She saw one that stuck with her.

“There were kids everywhere,” she said. “It was super cool looking. I was like, ‘Oh look, we can be that. We can have kids everywhere.’”

PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The play space at Johnson Pond Learning Center in Fuquay-Varina, NC, after a makeover.
PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The outdoor play space at Spanish For Fun Academy in Chapel, Hill, NC, after a makeover.

Starting early

For a struggling Colorado school district, full-day preschool — and the unusual way it’s paid for — shows promise

A staff member works with full-day preschoolers at Fairview Elementary School in 2016,

Promising first-year results from a study of full-day preschool in a high-poverty suburban Denver school district have stoked optimism about a new financing approach officials are testing there.

It’s called Pay For Success and has gained traction nationwide in recent years as a way to pay for social programs that yield long-term dividends but are expensive to launch.

The struggling 9,600-student Westminster Public Schools is using a version of the complicated financing model, also known as social impact bonds, to fund and rigorously evaluate full-day preschool.

While similar projects in Salt Lake City and Chicago have been underway longer, Westminster’s three-year pilot project provides the first Colorado case study of Pay For Success as a preschool expansion tool.

It’s also a key component of the early childhood efforts outlined in the district’s state-mandated improvement plan. Only about a third of Westminster kindergartners meet expected benchmarks when they start school.

This year, about a quarter of the district’s 600 preschoolers attend full-day programming — at a cost of about $10,000 per student.

The full-day classrooms are the most expensive in the district because of state class size and student-teacher ratio requirements, but not as pricey as some high-quality preschool programs elsewhere.

The idea behind Pay For Success financing is that private investors or philanthropists pay upfront for social programs and get repaid with interest if those programs save public money by preventing the need for costly services such as special education or reading remediation. If a project doesn’t yield the hoped-for savings, the investors lose some or all of their money.

Westminster Public Schools dipped its toes into Pay For Success waters last year, offering full-day preschool to 112 4-year-olds at seven elementary schools. Two foundations — Gary Community Investments and the Ben and Lucy Ana Walton Fund of the Walton Family Foundation — put up a combined half million dollars for the project.

(The Walton Family Foundation and Gary Community Investments — through the Piton Foundation — are Chalkbeat funders).

Westminster’s pilot is not a full-fledged Pay For Success transaction because the state is not a partner in the agreement as would typically be the case. In addition, the project agreement doesn’t require the two funders to be repaid fully if the district’s full-day preschool program yields the hoped-for savings.

However, the gold standard study by outside evaluators comparing full-day and half-day preschoolers is standard Pay For Success fare. It’s also a key part of what funders and other school districts may be looking at as they consider preschool expansion efforts.

So far, Westminster’s results look good.

Full-day preschoolers there performed better than their half-day peers on a bevy of early childhood assessments that measure everything from early literacy to social and emotional development.

“We’re seeing some real statistical significance in terms of full-day (preschool),” said Mat Aubuchon, the district’s director of early childhood education.

Further evaluations over the next two years will provide more definitive results, he said.

In addition to preliminary data gleaned from the official evaluation, Aubuchon said the district has discovered some unanticipated benefits of the full-day program. These include higher attendance rates in full-day preschool classrooms and increased likelihood that full-day preschoolers will come back for kindergarten.

While 60 percent of half-day preschoolers returned for kindergarten this year, that number was 76 percent for full-day preschoolers.

Asked if the district’s full-day preschool initiative might continue beyond year three as a full-blown Pay For Success project, Aubuchon said, “I certainly hope so.”

Steffanie Clothier, investment director for child development at Gary Community Investments, said Westminster’s project will provide a valuable evidence base for other districts interested in preschool expansion even if they don’t use Pay For Success.

“I think Pay For Success is a great way to help understand the financing and short term and longer term savings from preschool programs,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s essential as a funding stream.”