Quality quest

How Colorado is trying to boost access to quality child care for poor kids

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

When Colorado changed the way it paid child care providers for educating little kids from low-income families — paying high quality providers more than lower-quality ones — there was both elation and frustration.

Deb Hartman, program director at a highly rated center in Las Animas County in southern Colorado, called the new approach “life-changing.” The extra money, she said, helped save infant and toddler classrooms that otherwise would have closed. She was able to give her teachers raises and even buy a coffee-maker for the teacher’s lounge.

But 300 miles north in Larimer County, officials who administer the state’s child care subsidy program for residents weren’t so happy. The new reimbursement rates meant a growing price tag for the program and today, nearly 370 kids on the wait list.

The dichotomy illustrates the growing pains that have come with state efforts to get low-income youngsters into high-quality child care — a key factor in making sure kids are ready for kindergarten and reading well in third grade.

While Colorado policy-makers have made an array of changes to the complicated $86 million subsidy program in recent years — several focused on promoting child care quality— there’s a long way to go to ensure poor kids get the same level of care available to upper-income kids.

Not only are there too few high-quality providers across the state, but many don’t accept subsidies, which is often the only way low-income families can gain access to top-notch child care.

Thousands of providers — about 84 percent — are still on the lowest rungs of the state’s two-year-old quality rating system, Colorado Shines. The lowest rating is Level 1, which means a provider is licensed and has met basic health and safety requirements. Level 2 is a step up and means a provider has started to climb the quality ladder, but has not yet achieved what is considered the mark of high quality — a Level 3, 4 or 5 rating.

Of about 680 high-quality providers across Colorado, about 37 percent accept subsidies. Sometimes it’s because they can easily fill their rosters with children whose parents pay full freight. In other cases directors balk at accepting subsidies because the program, officially called the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, has a reputation for red tape and out-of-date technology.

“It’s not very 21st century at all,” said Terri Albohn, who helps administer the subsidy program for Boulder County.

State officials say they’re in the process of streamlining and modernizing the program, which helps low-income parents afford child care if they’re working, in school or looking for jobs.

State officials aim to increase the number of providers that have ratings above Level 1 and to improve the distribution of high-quality programs that accept subsidies so communities outside the Front Range have better access.

“The idea is to try to break out of that I-25 corridor in particular,” said Erin Mewhinney, director of early care and learning for the state Department of Human Services.

When kids lack access to high-quality care, it can mean less-than-ideal child care arrangements — sitting in front of the TV or staying home with grandparents or older siblings.

One state initiative in the works will award grants to providers rated Level 2-5 that accept or plan to accept child care subsidies. Mewhinney said the state’s goal is to ensure that 33 percent of Colorado communities have at least one high-quality provider that takes subsidies. Right now, that number stands at 26 percent.

One person on the front lines of efforts to get more providers to accept subsidies is Jennifer Sanchez McDonald, coordinator of the Huerfano and Las Animas Counties Early Childhood Advisory Council.

She likes to tell providers that the program is “going to empower your site, not decrease your opportunities.”

In one recent example, she visited a licensed provider who cares for children in her home, discussing the subsidy program over a conversation at the kitchen table. The woman was worried about shrinking enrollment because some of her families were struggling to pay. Shortly after that conversation, the provider began taking the subsidies.

Sanchez McDonald hopes to get up to eight more of the 16 licensed providers in the two-county area to accept state subsidies. Currently, four take the subsidies — only two that have high ratings.

Besides getting centers to take subsidies, there’s also the challenge of getting parents to apply for them. Although area poverty rates are high and children often lag academically, many parents keep their kids at home until kindergarten, Sanchez McDonald said.

In Boulder County, officials launched a campaign called “Just One More” urging high-quality child care providers to set aside one new slot for a subsidized child. In some cases, the centers are accepting subsidies for the first time.

The campaign, begun 18 months ago, hinges on personal outreach to providers by county workers who describe the impact quality care can have on a low-income child and check in frequently during the early weeks of enrollment.

Elizabeth Groneberg, outreach coordinator for Boulder County’s subsidy program, said she tells providers, “You let me know when you get your first (subsidized) family. We’ll be in touch every day.”

At one high-quality private preschool, she said, the director agreed to begin accepting the subsidies so the child of one the center’s teachers could attend. Today, the center has two children in subsidized slots.

In Larimer County, where demand for subsidies far outstrips supply, officials say they’re not recruiting more providers to take subsidies because they couldn’t place children in those slots.

While about a dozen Colorado counties have wait lists for subsidies, Larimer has the largest, according to state officials.

“We want to pay for good quality care, but you have to have additional finances … to do it,” said Heather O’Hayre, deputy director of human services for Larimer County.

The real problem is that the state’s formula for distributing funds to counties isn’t working the way it should, O’Hayre said. She and her colleagues also lament that the committee that determines the formula is heavy on metro Denver representation and that members have no term limits. There are no voting members from Larimer County.

While state officials say they understand Larimer’s concerns about the long wait list, the fact that the problem is acute in just one county rather than several doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem with the allocation formula.

“I know they’re frustrated for sure,” Mewhinney said.

Correction: Due to incorrect information provided by Larimer County, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that there were nearly 600 kids on subsidy wait list there. The actual number is 368. 

New direction

Three years in, an ambitious experiment to improve the odds for kids at one elementary school is scaling back

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Tennyson Knolls students return to school after a ribbon-cutting ceremony on school grounds in September.

Blocks of Hope was once envisioned as a pint-sized version of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

The project would provide an array of educational and social services to young children and families living within the boundaries of one high-poverty Adams County school — in the process, changing not only the lives of individual children but also the community around them.

But after three years, the Westminster-based nonprofit that spearheaded Blocks of Hope is scaling back its ambitions.

While the project won’t disappear entirely, the nonprofit’s leaders say they’re no longer focusing services and staff so tightly on the school’s boundary zone and may eventually stop using the Blocks of Hope name.

“We’re starting to question whether it’s the right strategic direction for the organization,” said Karen Fox Elwell, the new president and CEO of Growing Home, which launched the project in 2014.

The shifting shape of Blocks of Hope — originally framed as a 20-year effort intended to change the trajectories of children 0 to 9 within the Tennyson Knolls Elementary School enrollment zone — is a disappointment for some advocates who’d hoped this “placed-based” approach would not only be successful, but also possibly serve as a model for other Colorado communities.

A raft of issues have prompted the changes, including greater-than-expected mobility among the school population, fundraising challenges, and the tension that came from devoting resources to the 2.25-square-mile project zone while also trying to serve the broader Adams County community.

“It was hard to find that balance to do both well,” said Fox Elwell, who joined Growing Home in January.

Organizers knew when they started that the community was changing, but gentrification pushed out families faster than they expected. About a quarter of Tennyson Knoll’s students left the school in 2015-16.

Leaders said that was one reason it was tricky to track child outcomes that would demonstrate the project’s impact — a hallmark of successful place-based work.

Fox Elwell said there’s more stability among residents in the Harlem Children’s Zone because of rent-controlled housing.

“So families are really staying in that community for years upon years,” she said. “With Blocks of Hope, it’s just not the case.”

Fox Elwell said the board and staff will determine the future of Blocks of Hope during the group’s upcoming strategic planning process starting in late spring.

Teva Sienicki, the former president and CEO of Growing Home and the project’s original champion, said significant evidence supports the place-based strategy that underpinned Blocks of Hope, but didn’t want to second-guess the decisions of Growing Home’s current leaders.

“I really do wish them the best,” said Sienicki, who left Growing Home last summer.

Even at the outset of the project,  Sienicki acknowledged that changing demographics and funding challenges could alter the long-term course of the project. Still, she was optimistic, projecting a gradual expansion that would bring two to three other elementary schools in the Westminster district under the Blocks of Hope umbrella, and increase the number of employees dedicated to the project from two to 70.

In addition to improving family functioning, the project’s goal was to boost school attendance, kindergarten readiness, and third-grade reading scores, and reduce the number of children referred for special education services. This year, 85 percent of Tennyson Knolls students are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, a proxy for poverty.

One of the essential ideas behind place-based efforts like Blocks of Hope and the Harlem Children’s Zone is to flood a carefully defined geographic area with services in the hopes of touching a critical mass of residents, usually around 60 percent. By reaching such a large proportion of a population, proponents say such efforts create a kind of tipping point that pushes the whole community to adopt the norms and aspirations of those who receive services.

But Blocks of Hope never got close to that tipping point.

While certain components of the project, such as backpack and school supply giveaways, reached a large number of families, others, such as parent programs, never got above 15 percent, said Fox Elwell.

Aside from high mobility, the fact that many students ride the bus to Tennyson Knolls — instead of getting dropped off by their parents — made it harder to connect with parents than organizers anticipated.

The nonprofit’s limited budget was also a factor. Spending on the project was originally set at $250,000 annually, with eventual plans to reach $3 million if it expanded to other schools.

The nonprofit’s actual spending on Blocks of Hope has been around $100,000 a year, said Fox Elwell. In addition, a grant that Growing Home leaders hoped would pay for an evaluation of the project never came through.

“There were some incredible hopes to grow the budget and deeply invest in the community,” she said. “And maybe it was more challenging to fundraise than we anticipated.”

There are still several Blocks of Hope programs at Tennyson Knolls this year, including backpack giveaways, holiday gift and meal help, and two parenting classes. The school also houses a boutique with used children’s clothing and gear.

An after-school tutoring program was discontinued after last school year because it wasn’t effective, leaders said. Another program aimed at grandparents raising grandchildren was slated to launch this spring, but will not because school leaders felt they had too much going on.

A community organizer originally hired to work with Blocks of Hope families to advocate for affordable housing has expanded her territory to include other neighborhoods.

“There’s a lot of need just a little bit south and a little bit east of those (school) boundaries,” said Leslie Gonzalez, a Growing Home board member.

Residents in some of those areas began to assume they were no longer eligible for any of the nonprofit’s services as Blocks of Hope ramped up. That wasn’t true, but the project sent some “unintended negative messages,” she said.

Despite looming questions about the future of Blocks of Hope, leaders at Growing Home and Tennyson Knolls say the project has helped families, sparked welcome changes to the nonprofit’s case management strategy, and built community at the school.

Tennyson Knolls Principal Heather McGuire, who is the school’s third principal since Blocks of Hope began, said the project helped get parents involved at school, whether attending PTA meetings, taking Blocks of Hope classes, or attending “coffee with the principal” meetings.

She credits the project with giving rise to the school’s tagline, “We are TKE,” a reference to the school’s initials.

Gonzalez said, “We don’t view Blocks of Hope as a failure necessarily … Even though there were a lot of challenges, a lot of good came out of it, too, and we were able to meet even more families in that community we serve.”

safe haven

Colorado could get its first 24/7 child care facility for families in crisis

PHOTO: Jamie Grill | Getty Images
Mother rubbing forehead while holding baby son.

Last fall, Lisa Rickerd Mills, a medical social worker in Grand Junction, worked with a single mother who needed inpatient mental health treatment.

The problem was child care. The woman had no one to watch her two small children during her stay and bowed out of treatment.

It’s exactly the kind of scenario a group of advocates hope to prevent with a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week child care facility for families facing emergencies or periods of high stress.

The center, to be called the Grand Valley Crisis Nursery and set to open in late 2018, would provide free care for children 0 to 5 years old for periods ranging from a few days to 30 days. The idea is to give parents a safe place to leave their youngest children when they’re facing a crisis — a period of homelessness, an emergency medical procedure, domestic violence, or the threat of job loss. It’s meant to prevent child abuse and neglect and keep kids out of the foster care system.

While there are around 70 crisis nurseries nationwide, the one planned for Grand Junction would be the first of its kind in Colorado. It could pave the way for a new type of state child care license and perhaps crisis nurseries elsewhere in the state. The project is unfolding amidst a broader push in the western Colorado community to improve child and family outcomes by dramatically expanding child care options over the next three years.

Kaleigh Stover, a former pharmaceutical sales representative who moved to Grand Junction from Sacramento last summer, is leading the charge on the crisis nursery. Prior to her move, the 26-year-old volunteered at the Sacramento Crisis Nursery, which runs two of five crisis nurseries in California and, like many such facilities, relies heavily on volunteers to care for the children.

“I’m like that girl in the grocery store who will offer to hold your baby,” she said. “I have a soft spot for babies and moms and helping those people who are experiencing hard times.”

When she first arrived in Grand Junction, Stover called around to several nonprofit organizations and was surprised to learn there wasn’t a crisis nursery in town.

She said local advocates told her, “We don’t have anything like this … but we need it.”

Child abuse cases — and hotline calls about suspected child abuse — have steadily risen over the last few years in Mesa County. The western Colorado county also faces numerous other challenges: higher than average rates of child poverty, foster care placement, and teen pregnancy.

The community’s transience also means that parents of young children often arrive without a circle of family and friends to help out in a pinch, said Rickerd Mills, a member of the crisis nursery’s board.

That can mean parents leave their kids in the care of people they don’t know well or enlist older siblings to watch them.

In addition to providing licensed overnight care for young children, crisis nurseries have case managers who work to connect parents with community resources and get them back on their feet.

While there are a host of typical housing, job, and medical problems that prompt parents to use crisis nurseries, parents with a child care problem outside the usual list won’t be turned away at the Grand Valley center, Stover said.

“We let families define the crisis,” she said, adding that parents using the center would be required to check in with case managers regularly.

Over the past six months, Stover has steadily made progress on the nursery — holding a community town hall, recruiting board members, and finding a local nonprofit to serve as the nursery’s fiscal sponsor. She’s currently in the process of finding a location for the nine- to 12-bed center and will soon begin fundraising.

Stover expects the first-year costs to be around $455,000 if the group purchases a building, with operations costing $150,000 in subsequent years. About 80 percent of the nursery’s funding will come from individual and corporate donations and 20 percent from grants, she said.

In what might be the nursery project’s biggest victory so far, Stover got a preliminary nod in February from the state’s child care licensing advisory committee, which agreed to consider giving the crisis nursery a waiver from state licensing rules.

If the waiver is granted, it could set the stage for a new kind of child care license in Colorado — a cross between a typical child care center license, which doesn’t allow 24-hour care, and a residential child care facility license, which allows 24-hour care but doesn’t permit care for children under 3 years old.

“Having a new license type is kind of nightmare, but it changes the whole state if we can make it happen,” Stover said.

Ebony White Douglas, program manager at the 22-year-old Sacramento Crisis Nursery, praised Stover’s persistence in pursuing the project. She said she routinely consults with people in other states interested in launching crisis nurseries and has seen many such projects sidelined because of complex licensing logistics or daunting fund-raising requirements.

Rickerd Mills said she was heartened to hear about the positive reception from the state’s licensing advisory committee.

“I think it just goes to show the need in this community and the state,” she said.