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.

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.”