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.

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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