discipline debate

Colorado could be at the forefront in cutting back on early childhood suspensions and expulsions. Here’s how.

PHOTO: Christopher Webb/Creative Commons

Legislation introduced this week would limit out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for Colorado children in state-funded preschool programs and early elementary school.

House Bill 1210 represents a major shift in Colorado’s approach to early childhood discipline and a key milestone in the years-long discussion in the state and nation about the disproportionate use of harsh discipline tactics on boys of color.

The bill, introduced Monday by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, would apply to students in kindergarten through second grade, as well as preschoolers in state-funded programs that serve at-risk students and students with disabilities.

While schools and preschools would still be allowed to use out-of-school suspensions and expulsions in some cases, suspensions would be limited to three days. The bill doesn’t address in-school suspensions. Expulsions would be prohibited except as allowed under federal law when kids bring guns to schools — which is extremely rare for kids so young.

The legislation is scheduled to get its first consideration March 13 before the House education committee.

A related bill also introduced this week would create a pilot program to help schools and districts take into account students’ culture and background in discipline decisions. House Bill 1211 comes with no state funding and the program would only launch if grants and donations are available.

House Bill 1210, the discipline bill, stems from months of work by a large coalition of advocacy groups. Supporters say it balances the needs of young students who exhibit challenging behavior with the needs of schools charged with keeping classrooms safe. If it passes — and supporters expect it will — Colorado would be at the forefront of early childhood discipline reform.

Pamela Bisceglia, who worked on the steering committee that helped draft the bill, called it “incredibly progressive” and praised its “focus on what’s appropriate for young kids.”

“Whenever a child is removed from school they’re missing instruction,” said Bisceglia, coordinator for child and family advocacy for AdvocacyDenver, which works on behalf of people with disabilities. “The concern is whether they’re able to make appropriate progress if they’re missing school.”

Aside from losing learning time, being removed from school in the early grades increases a student’s likelihood of being suspended and expelled later, dropping out of school and ending up in prison, advocates note.

In the last two years, both Connecticut and New Jersey have passed laws similar to Colorado’s proposed law. New York City, the nation’s largest school district, is set to take action soon on a revised discipline code that would dramatically reduce suspensions for kindergarten through second-grade students.

If passed, Colorado’s law would take effect August 9.

Last year, 7,800 preschool through second-grade students in Colorado received out-of-school suspensions and 14 were expelled, according to the Colorado Department of Education. Boys, black students and students with disabilities were over-represented in those discipline cases.

Currently, young children in Colorado can receive out-of-school suspensions for all manner of disruption, from spitting or throwing a chair to biting or hitting classmates.

“That was part of the problem,” said Gerie Grimes, president and CEO of the HOPE Center, which runs a preschool program in northeast Denver. “It was kind of a wide open book what would cause a suspension.”

Colorado’s bill would allow out-of-school suspensions if a child endangers others on school grounds, represents a serious safety threat or if school staff have exhausted all other options.

While educators still would have some discretion to determine whether a transgression is suspension-worthy, Grimes said the narrower criteria is a good first step.

“This is a start,” she said. “It doesn’t mean we might not come back and look at other things.”

The state doesn’t maintain detailed data on what type of incidents result in expulsions or out-of-school suspensions for young children, but most fall into three general categories.

About 40 percent of elementary school discipline is due to “detrimental behavior,” which can include bullying and other behavior that poses a risk to others.

Behavior classified as “disobedient/defiant or repeated interference” accounted for just over a quarter of disciplinary actions. “Other code of conduct violations,” which generally cover less serious issues such as dress code violations or inappropriate language, account for just under a quarter of elementary disciplinary actions.

Bill Jaeger, director of early childhood initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign and a participant in the bill-drafting process, said he doesn’t know of any opposition to the bill.

When conversations began last spring about potential legislation on early childhood discipline, some district officials expressed concern that limiting suspensions or expulsions would tie educators’ hands or take away necessary tools for dealing with misbehavior. But Jaeger said school districts were regularly consulted as the bill came to fruition.

“Every piece of feedback that school district partners gave us,” he said, “we moved on.”

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.