debating discipline

Threats, attacks and thrown chairs: DPS fields concerns about effort to reduce early childhood suspensions

PHOTO: John/Creative Commons

One 6-year-old Denver student told his pregnant teacher he was going to kick her to kill her unborn baby. A first-grader tried to stab her teacher in the eye with a sharpened pencil. Another young child threw a classmate against a brick wall and gave her a concussion.

Such jaw-dropping incidents — detailed in dozens of comments submitted to Denver Public Schools in recent months — illustrate the tightrope walk district officials face as they consider a policy change that would dramatically curb suspensions and expulsions of preschool through third-grade students.

Advocates hail the proposal as a key step toward early childhood discipline reform and a way to combat the disproportionate use of harsh discipline tactics on young boys of color. But many educators are wary — saying that the district already provides too little help in managing the most explosive young students and that the new policy will only exacerbate the problem.

The policy, scheduled for a school board vote Monday, would reserve suspensions of preschool through third-grade students for “only the most severe behaviors impacting staff or student safety” and they would be limited to one day. Expulsions would be allowed only if young students bring guns to school.

Debate about the district’s new policy comes as school districts nationwide grapple with efforts to reduce racial and gender disparities in early childhood discipline, and a few months after state legislation to reduce suspensions and expulsions in preschool through second grade died in a Senate committee.

At a Denver school board meeting last month, at least a dozen people spoke in favor of the district’s proposed changes, including two state representatives, as well as leaders from the Denver NAACP, the Urban League, Democrats for Education Reform, and the advocacy groups Padres & Jovenes Unidos and Advocacy Denver.

They argued that suspensions don’t work to change bad behavior, that they set children back academically and increase the risk of future suspensions.

But a number of educators — even those who support the move philosophically — are skeptical.

Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said she worries the proposal is an example of district officials adopting a stance that “looks wonderful but doesn’t put the appropriate supports in place.”

“I have some trepidation about DPS always wanting to be the first and a ground-breaker without thinking about how it affects the classroom,” she said.

In response to an open records request from Chalkbeat, DPS provided 66 comments — with names, school names and contact information redacted — received through a special email address for public feedback about the proposed policy.

Most respondents were district staff, a few were parents and one was a district official from Pittsburgh, which is considering a moratorium on suspensions for preschool to second grade students.

Only a handful of the 66 commenters favored the proposed policy change, which would take effect for the coming school year.

One parent wrote, “As a father of two current DPS Black male students, I am writing to support the proposed policy … The current practice/policy is out of sync with the mission of DPS.”

A school psychologist also wrote in support, saying, “In much the same way that we wouldn’t attempt to expel a student who lacked essential academic knowledge or skill, we should not attempt to expel young students who lack essential behavioral knowledge or skill.”

More often, educators expressed anger, frustration and disappointment over the proposal — painting a picture of teachers, students and sometimes whole schools at the mercy of a few violent young students.

One third grade teacher wrote, “Students have no fear of breaking rules. I have had students who attack others regularly, throw chairs at students’ heads, punch students and teachers in the face, choke others, stab at necks with fists full of pencils, curse violently, run out of the school, elaborate on their plans to harm others at the school or get them to commit suicide — and those are just my students.”

Eldridge Greer, the district’s associate chief for student equity and opportunity, said the proposed changes are targeted at eliminating suspensions for children whose behavior is “in some ways more irritating than threatening.” Children who show extremely violent or aggressive behavior could still be suspended, he said.

In the 2015-16 school year, the district suspended about 500 kids in preschool through third grade. None were expelled.

A number of DPS staff members who provided written comments said current practices — including regular lessons on social and emotional skills and efforts to use restorative justice — don’t work in the most extreme cases.

A second grade teacher wrote, “These ‘restorative’ conversations lead absolutely no where and have close to zero effect as the same students are continuing to repeat these same behaviors and they become more extreme and regular.”

But district officials say a new infusion of cash approved by voters last November will provide extra help to educators — in the form of extra staff or other services devoted to students’ mental health and social and emotional needs

Greer said $11 million from the district’s mill levy will be divvied among schools based on enrollment, number of low-income students and other factors. Principals will be able to pay school social workers, counselors or psychologists to work additional days, partner with local mental health organizations or propose other ideas, he said.

Three-quarters of district schools would receive $30,000 or more from the $11 million pot.

Shamburg said on a per-school basis it’s not much money.

Greer said, “I think it is a good chunk of support when you think an average elementary school may be able to increase by one, two or three days of mental health coverage.”

Some commenters on the proposed policy urged the district to create new specialized programs for the most challenging children or find such slots outside the district. A couple commenters who previously worked in other districts voiced their surprise at the lack of social and emotional help available in their DPS schools.

A former Aurora teacher gave a plug for universal mental health screenings. Others urged smaller class sizes and more recess time.

Some commenters — including a school social worker and school psychologist — reported instances of school staff not reporting or misreporting discipline cases to make their schools’ rates look better, and expressed concern that the practice will persist under the new policy.

District spokeswoman Nancy Mitchell said of the assertions, “We’re not doubting that people are telling us their experiences when they give us comments.” 

Greer said the district holds monthly trainings to help administrators implement the district’s discipline policy and document discipline incidents. The district also works with Padres and Advocacy Denver to address parent concerns about inappropriate discipline reporting.

A district special education teacher wrote of mixed feelings about the proposed early childhood discipline policy: “I am happy that DPS is nationally recognized but I hope this recognition does not come at the expense of scared children, injured children and hopeless staff and personnel.”

The comments below are a selection of those submitted to the district.

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.