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.”

All over the map

What do children need to know when they start kindergarten? You might be surprised

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

How many letters should kids recognize when they enter kindergarten? Should they be able to cut with scissors? How long should they be able to sit still?

Such basic questions seem like they should come with clear-cut answers, but parents and teachers — and even Colorado state standards — differ widely in their expectations for entering kindergarteners

Early childhood leaders in Larimer County discovered just how much variation exists after they surveyed 800 local parents, preschool teachers and kindergarten teachers in 2015.

“The answers were all over the map,” said Bev Thurber, executive director of the Early Childhood Council of Larimer County. “A lot of times it was way above what research says is developmentally appropriate.”

Such findings spotlight the lack of consensus about what it means to be ready for kindergarten. The survey found parents and preschool teachers generally had higher expectations for youngsters than kindergarten teachers or state standards, suggesting that some parents and preschool teachers may be focusing too much energy on teaching academic skills to young children.

“Our concern is not only do you have this variability, but also this pressure on the academic side … when that’s really not the most important thing, especially at this young age,” said Thurber.

To help parents sort it all out, Thurber and a team of early childhood teachers and advocates created a new eight-page parent guide called “Ready Set Kindergarten.” Available in English and Spanish, the whimsically illustrated booklet gives parents tips for building academic and social-emotional skills — things like simple counting, recognizing the letters in a child’s name, naming feelings and taking turns. It also includes a month-by-month schedule for the pre-kindergarten year highlighting logistical details like registration windows and meet-the-teacher opportunities.

All three Larimer County school districts, — Poudre, Thompson and Estes Park — have agreed to use the guide, which is being distributed through preschools, elementary schools, doctors’ offices and libraries.

But some experts say too much emphasis on getting children ready for kindergarten relieves schools of their obligation to serve students regardless of their background or experience.

“It’s critical for schools to take responsibility for being ready for children – not the other way around,” said Sherry Cleary, executive director of the New York Early Childhood Professional Development Institute at the City University of New York.

Cleary reviewed the guide and worried that it would create unneeded stress for families and set up teachers to have unrealistic expectations for kids.

Thurber said many teachers and parents already have unrealistic expectations for entering kindergarteners, according to survey results. The guide scales those back, she said, and offers a more reasonable list of activities that are based on state standards and Colorado’s early learning and development guidelines.

“This is what experts have said is developmentally appropriate,” Thurber said.

“I completely buy in that schools have to meet kids where they are at,” she said. ”However, within that, there is a certain anxiety among families when you have all these differing expectations.”

Karen Rattenborg, executive director of the Colorado State University Early Childhood Center and an assistant professor at the university, saw the disparity in expectations when she analyzed the survey data.

Take letters, for example. State standards say kids should recognize at least 10 letters when they start kindergarten, specifically the letters in their name. Survey results showed most parents and preschool teachers believed entering kindergarteners should recognize more than 20 letters. Kindergarten teachers opted for a lower 11-20 range.

The same dynamic held true for counting — about half of parents and preschool teachers thought kids should be able to count higher than 20 while state standards say 10 is enough.

In some cases, both preschool and kindergarten teachers placed a high value on tasks that state standards and other common benchmarks don’t mention. Both groups rated cutting with scissors as the second most important fine motor skill for entering kindergarteners, but state standards and the state’s early learning guidelines are silent about scissors.

“It’s things like that where we had these a-ha moments,” said Rattenborg.

In some cases, there was agreement. For instance, the vast majority of both preschool and kindergarten teachers said the ability to communicate needs and wants was the top communication skill kindergarteners need.

Rattenborg said the diversity of views made one thing clear.

“We realized having a common guide throughout Larimer County would be helpful for virtually everyone involved,” she said.

Diane Umbreit, a kindergarten teacher at Kruse Elementary School in Fort Collins and a member of the committee that conceived the guide, agreed.

Over the years, she’s seen plenty of confusion and anxiety among parents. Some push their kids hard to acquire new skills before kindergarten. Some want to do learning activities with their children, but aren’t sure where to start.

Others, she said, are “shocked that their child needs to know the letters in his name.”

Umbreit said of the new kindergarten guide, “Hopefully, it evens the playing field.”

Enter to win

Denver organization to launch national prize for early childhood innovation

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

A Denver-based investment group will soon launch a national contest meant to help scale up great ideas in the early childhood field — specifically efforts focused on children birth to 3 years old.

Gary Community Investments announced its Early Childhood Innovation Prize on Wednesday morning at a conference in San Francisco. It’s sort of like the television show “Shark Tank,” but without the TV cameras, celebrity judges and nail-biting live pitch.

The contest will divvy up $1 million in prize money to at least three winners, one at the beginning stages of concept development, one at a mid-level stage and one at an advanced stage. Gary officials say there could be more than one winner in each category.

The contest will officially launch Oct. 25, with submissions due Feb. 15 and winners announced in May. (Gary Community Investments, through the Piton Foundation, is a Chalkbeat funder.)

Officials at Gary Community Investments, founded by oilman Sam Gary, say the contest will help the organization focus on finding solutions that address trouble spots in the early childhood arena.

The birth-to-3 zone is one such spot. While it’s an especially critical time for children because of the amount of brain development that occurs during that time, it’s often overshadowed by efforts targeting 4- or 5-year-olds.

Steffanie Clothier, Gary’s child development investment director, said leaders there decided on a monetary challenge after talking with a number of other organizations that offer prizes for innovative ideas or projects.

One foundation they consulted described lackluster responses to routine grant programs, but lots of enthusiasm for contests with financial stakes, she said.

“There’s some galvanizing opportunity to a prize,” she said.

But Gary’s new prize isn’t solely about giving away money to create or expand promising programs. It will also include an online networking platform meant to connect applicants with mentors, partners or investors.

“We’re trying to figure out how to make it not just about the winners,” Clothier said.

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