digging into discipline

Jeffco Public Schools suspended an average of four young students a day last year — and district officials are paying attention

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jefferson County work on their assigned iPads during a class project.

Jeffco Public Schools handed out more suspensions to young students than any other Colorado district last school year, and did so at rates that are among the highest in the state among large districts, a review of data by Chalkbeat has found.

The 86,000-student district, Colorado’s second largest, gave nearly 700 out-of-school suspensions to kindergarten through second-grade students in 2015-16 — an average of four every school day.

Neighboring Denver Public Schools — the state’s largest district at 91,000 students — handed out 500 suspensions in those grade levels during the same period, and affluent Douglas County — the state’s third largest district — gave out just 77.

At a time of growing national concern about the long-term impact of harsh discipline tactics on young children, along with efforts in Colorado and around the nation to curb the use of suspensions and expulsions, the numbers in Jeffco are startling.

Dave Kollar, director of the district’s student engagement office, said he’s “certainly not happy” about the early elementary suspension numbers but believes they’ll drop as various efforts, including training on restorative justice and cultural awareness, take hold in district schools.

“Any time kids are out of class, that’s not where we want them to be,” he said.

Jeffco is not the only large district in Colorado that hands out early elementary suspensions at high rates. In fact, among the state’s 10 largest districts, the 28,000-student Colorado Springs District 11 hands them out most often relative to its kindergarten through second grade enrollment — averaging one suspension for every 14 children last year.

Jeffco, and Adams 12 in the north Denver suburbs, are just behind it — both handing out an average of one suspension for every 27 K-2 students.

The large districts that hand out suspensions least often relative to their K-2 enrollment are Douglas County, Poudre and Boulder Valley. Douglas County, in particular, serves few poor students, followed by Boulder Valley. Nearly one-third of Poudre’s students come from low-income families, about the same as in Jeffco.

While Jeffco administrators are hopeful about turning the tide, the trend line isn’t headed in the right direction. For the last few years, the district’s total number of elementary-level suspensions has been rising, peaking at 1,800 last year after being in the 1,300s from 2012 to 2014.

Some observers say the district’s recent struggle to pass local tax measures limits funding for efforts that could push down suspensions. Jeffco voters rejected two ballot initiatives last fall, and while most of the funds were earmarked for building renovations and teacher raises, some would have paid for part-time elementary school counselors.

More than 80 schools serve kindergarten through second-grade students in Jeffco, and suspension rates range widely among them. A handful of schools didn’t suspend a single child last year, while five schools gave out dozens of suspensions.

As is the case in districts across the state and nation, Jeffco’s early elementary suspensions are disproportionately given out to boys and Hispanic and black students.

The numbers, provided to Chalkbeat by the Colorado Department of Education, refer to the number of suspensions given, not the number of children suspended. At some schools, students are suspended multiple times during the year. Experts say sending little kids home for acting out doesn’t help change bad behavior and sets the stage for the school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately affects boys and men of color.

The Jeffco school with the highest number of suspensions in the last two years for which state data are available is Lumberg Elementary, a high-poverty school in the Edgewater neighborhood near Jeffco’s border with Denver. It had 49 suspensions last year and 48 the year before. (Data from prior years is unavailable because the education department has only broken out suspensions by grade since 2014-15.)

Lumberg Principal Rhonda Hatch-Rivera said, “We recognize that suspensions are not the optimal approach,” but added that safety considerations play a key role when she and her two assistant principals choose to suspend a young student.

Lumberg parent Joel Newton, who is also executive director of the community nonprofit Edgewater Collective, said he was surprised by the school’s high number of early elementary suspensions and wouldn’t have guessed it from the school’s culture.

“Now, I do know students come in with a lot of stress from family poverty,” he said. But so many suspensions is “definitely an indicator that something’s not right.”

Hatch-Rivera, who is in her third year as principal, said the school’s already made a dent in early elementary suspensions this year. To date, 27 suspensions have been given out to 10 kindergarten through second-grade students, according to preliminary numbers. (Last year, the 49 suspensions were divvied among 18 students.)

Hatch-Rivera said several recent or planned changes will help reduce suspensions. Those include last year’s shift from a part-time to full-time social worker and the addition of a part-time therapist from the Jefferson Center for Mental Health.

Last year, the school also launched a structured recess program through the nonprofit Playworks, which has helped reduce recess-related incidents, Hatch-Rivera said. Next year, Lumberg will begin using a restorative justice approach to discipline.

Like Lumberg, most Jeffco schools with high K-2 suspension numbers serve many poor students. Still, there are some schools with similar populations that buck the trend. They include Edgewater, Allendale, Fitzmorris, Lasley and Pleasant View elementaries. All of them get extra federal money because of their large low-income populations but gave out five or fewer suspensions last year.

Edgewater Elementary School is only a mile away from Lumberg, is about the same size and serves similar proportions of poor and Hispanic students.

“They’re doing something right over there,” said Newton, whose organization focuses on schools in the 80214 zip code, including Edgewater and Lumberg.

Principal Katherine Chumacero said a variety of efforts help limit suspensions of kindergarten through second-graders, including the hiring of a dean who is helping the school adopt restorative justice practices and district trainings on creating an environment that recognizes students’ culture and background.

She said it gets as specific as talking to teachers about what tone of voice to use with children, what words they use to describe students — “our kids” not “those kids” — and how they control their reactions when students misbehave.

Chumacero said she was called to a classroom last year when a young boy had a major meltdown, sweeping everything off the desks so the carpet was covered with crayons and other supplies. Although she described his actions as violent, it was the first time he’d ever behaved that way and he was not suspended.

“The first step is try to find out what is going on with this child,” she said.

For such offenses, she said, administrators often call parents and have students fill out a form reflecting on their transgression, talk with the school social worker or therapist, or do schoolwork during an in-school suspension.

“Punishment is not the way to go right away,” Chumacero said. “It’s about learning.”

Out-of-school suspensions are usually reserved for cases where kids repeatedly have shown significant aggressive behavior, she said.

Newton said while it’s worth digging deeper into the practices that keep suspensions down at Edgewater, it shouldn’t lead to finger-pointing at Lumberg.

The problem “needs to be fixed as a whole community,” he said.

A group of advocates and lawmakers tried for a statewide solution earlier spring, proposing legislation that would have limited the reasons preschoolers and early elementary kids could be suspended. After rural districts rose up against the bill, it died in a Senate committee.

Kollar said there was some trepidation among district staff about how the law would have worked in practice, but philosophically they agreed with it.

Denver, where discipline reform efforts have been in the works for a decade and voters easily pass school tax measures, is one district that has recently taken a strong stand against suspending young children. In March, the district announced a new policy that would eliminate suspensions and expulsions of preschool through third-grade students except for the most serious incidents. The policy, which still must be finalized, is set to take effect July 1.

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.