financial pressure

Closure of Clayton Early Learning center in far northeast Denver exposes pain points in early childhood care

Preschoolers play at Clayton Early Learning in 2015.

When the news broke last week that Clayton Early Learning planned to shutter its child care center in Denver’s Green Valley Ranch neighborhood, dozens of parents voiced anger and surprise as they scrambled to line up new child care arrangements.

Behind the scenes, local and national early childhood advocates also took note.

Suddenly, one of the most well-respected names in early childhood education was downsizing. After just four years, Clayton was leaving an underserved city neighborhood, ending service for middle class tuition-paying families and retreating from its aspiration to provide quality child care to a mixed-income population.

“That is not a decision that we wanted to have to come to,” said Clayton’s President and CEO Charlotte Brantley. “We don’t believe it’s the right way to go to segregate kids based on their race, income or anything else.”

The move, however, illustrates just how financially tenuous the child care business can be — even for the biggest players in the game.

“It is concerning for Clayton, being a really well-known, high-functioning provider, to not be able to make it work,” said Emily Bustos, executive director of Denver’s Early Childhood Council.

Clayton, whose flagship school in northeast Denver is part of the national Educare network of child care centers serving at-risk children, doesn’t look like a place with money worries. Stately buildings dot its 20-acre campus, which long ago housed a boys orphanage and school. The organization also owns the 155-acre Park Hill Golf Club, which brings in about $650,000 a year after expenses.

Still, Clayton leaders and industry experts say top-notch child care is extremely expensive — costing tens of thousands of dollars a year per child. And help from government coffers is lagging.

“It’s an example of how underfunded high-quality programs in early childhood are,” said Cheryl Caldwell, director of early childhood education for Denver Public Schools.

Said Brantley: “The industry runs on an absolute shoestring budget.”

While Clayton is closing its far northeast Denver location, many of the approximately 100 children served there will be allowed to transfer to Clayton’s flagship campus on Martin Luther King Boulevard because they qualify for federally funded Head Start or Early Head Start. By combining Head Start funds with Denver Preschool Program funds and state money available to low-income families, the school can cover the cost of those slots more easily.

Up to 43 children, half of them infants or toddlers, will lose their spots at Clayton after Aug.18. They include 25 tuition-paying children at the main campus, three tuition-paying children at the far northeast site and possibly up to 15 low-income children at both sites who currently get state child care subsidies. Some of 15 children may be eligible for Head Start, which would allow them to stay at Clayton.

The closure will hit families with infants and toddlers particularly hard because there’s a chronic shortage of quality care for children that age in Denver.

While displaced preschoolers will probably be able to find other arrangements, “The infants and toddlers … they have basically nowhere to go,” Brantley said.

Some tuition-paying parents expressed their frustration at Clayton officials for not having being more proactive in addressing the financial challenges.

“You are the caretaker for the families because we don’t work with the budget,” Nate Paul, who has a 17-month-old in care at the main campus, and is expecting a baby who is already on the Clayton waitlist, told school officials at a recent meeting. “We don’t know what the cost per head is. We don’t have our hand on the gears and levers. You do. Your job is to make Clayton sustainable.”

Ryan Walsh, a father of two children served at Clayton’s main campus, said, “We’re not just a bunch of noise-making, smear campaign kind of people. We actually advocate for early childhood education, and this situation doesn’t benefit the community as a whole when we’re talking about early childhood and education funding advocacy in general.”

Brantley said about 30 staff members at the far northeast location will be able to transfer to jobs at the main campus, though some may take on somewhat different roles.

After operating its flagship campus for decades, Clayton Early Learning opened its second location in a building called Z Place in the Green Valley Ranch neighborhood in early 2013.

The additional space allowed both sites to begin accepting tuition-paying families. They had access to the same raft of benefits that Clayton’s Head Start families and those eligible for state child care subsidies did— small class sizes, extensive special services and lots of parent support.

But tuition — currently about $1,000 a month for full-day preschool and about $1,200 a month for full-day infant/toddler care — never covered the true cost of all that was provided, Brantley said.

Clayton covers $200,000 to $300,000 each year to close the gap between what tuition covers and what the program actually costs, Brantley said.

School officials launched the new location knowing that, but they hoped that more public funding would be coming to the early childhood field. At the time, a campaign was underway for a statewide ballot initiative that would raise millions for education, including preschool and full-day kindergarten. Voters soundly rejected the measure in November 2013.

There were other setbacks. In 2014, Colorado lost its bid for a federal grant that would have paid for new state preschool slots. Clayton would have been a partner in the effort.

Brantley said the state legislature’s perennial reluctance to increase education funding, combined with uncertainties about what will happen to federal early childhood funding under the Trump administration’s budget, also factored into the discussion to close the far northeast location.

In the midst of the deliberations, Clayton leaders learned that two separate grants that help fund other parts of the organization’s work — weekly “play and learn” groups for kids and caregivers, and coaching for other child care providers — would not be renewed.

“It’s this multitude of things that crashed together all at once,” said Brantley. “This was an incredibly difficult and disappointing decision to have to come to.”

Although Clayton owns the Park Hill Golf Club land and is in the midst of deciding whether and how to redevelop it, Brantley said it wouldn’t solve the problem of the far northeast site. For one thing, it will remain a golf course at least through the end of 2018, meaning no additional revenue is expected any time soon. In addition, any revenue from it would also need to support other aspects of Clayton’s large operation, which includes research, training and coaching.

Brantley said the fate of the seven classrooms at Z Place became clear in the spring as school leaders were developing the budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. The board voted to close the far northeast site in June.

Some of Clayton’s tuition-paying parents argued that they would have been willing to pay more if only school leaders had asked. But Clayton officials say the gap was too large.

Mike Burke, vice president of the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, a national Educare partner, said that he understands the parents’ instinct, but that it probably wasn’t a realistic request.

“An organization of Clayton’s caliber would have made it work if they could,” he said.

Educare programs have very robust staffing models “where you’re paying for degreed professionals, you’re paying for one, two, three teachers in the classrooms, family support workers, nurses, mental health consultants, speech and language consultants,” Burke said.

“When you start piecing it all together, you can see these cost-per-child averages raising, raising, raising.”

Burke said only a few of the country’s 21 Educare schools, including those in Miami, Maine and suburban Chicago, have classrooms that include children from tuition-paying families. But in most cases, it’s small-scale integration — only about 10 children.

Research on mixed-income preschool classrooms shows that such diversity has a positive influence on language development and social and emotional skills of low-income children. But Burke said early childhood financing structures aren’t set up to encourage socioeconomic integration because they come with strict eligibility requirements, often based on family income.

Locally, Mile High Early Learning, which like Clayton focuses on serving low-income families through Head Start and Early Head Start, draws around 7 percent of its 500 children from tuition-paying families.

But Pamela Harris, the organization’s executive director, knows how hard the balancing act is. Leaders there recently increased monthly tuition from $1,400 to $1,700 after a year of discussions.

That said, there’s still an invisible subsidy at work, Harris said — the discount that comes from paying child care workers a relatively low wage. Some in the field make so little they qualify for government assistance.

Overall, Harris believes there’s been progress on the early childhood front — gradual growth in Colorado’s state-funded preschool program, a new focus on early education in the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, and local efforts to connect the birth to five age span to the K-12 education system.

Against that backdrop though, Clayton’s plan to close its far northeast site “exposes the pain points that are still in early childhood,” she said.

'class of 2031'

An earlier start: Once rare, more Denver charter schools are embracing preschool

Caroline Hiskey, a preschool teacher at KIPP Northeastern Elementary in Denver, reviews letters with the help of "Phonics LIon."

In many ways, the new preschool in Denver’s growing Green Valley Ranch neighborhood looks like any other preschool.

At playtime, a little girl trots toy dinosaurs across a table heaped with plastic animals. Nearby, a 4-year-old boy shows off a picture he drew with lots of red scribbles and dots. There is the usual collection of books, tiny plastic chairs and colorful rugs.

There are also telltale signs that the preschool is run by KIPP, one of the country’s largest college prep charter school networks. The classrooms are all named for colleges, like in KIPP’s higher grades. The preschoolers wear blue polo shirts emblazoned with the school’s logo. A crisp blue banner in the hallway proclaims them the “Class of 2031.”

Across Denver, a growing number of preschoolers are getting their first dose of formal education at charter schools that have retrofitted their models to meet the needs of younger students. The trend is fueled by a growing awareness that getting kids in the door early pays off later academically and by a hunger among parents for affordable, high quality preschool options.

It also signals charter leaders’ increasing willingness to navigate the complicated — and often unfamiliar — early childhood funding and regulatory landscape.

At least six Denver charter schools, most serving large low-income populations, have launched preschool programs in the last five years. Besides KIPP — which enrolls 48 preschoolers at its Northeastern Elementary School — they include two locations of Rocky Mountain Prep, Highline Academy’s school in Green Valley Ranch, Academy 360 in Montbello and REACH Charter School in central Denver. (A couple charter schools offered preschool even earlier, but have since closed.)

There’s little dispute about the need for more quality preschool programs. Several neighborhoods in Denver, including parts of Montbello and Green Valley Ranch, are considered “child care deserts” because of the dearth of licensed preschool and child care slots, according to a recent report from the Center for American Progress.

A banner outside the preschool classrooms at KIPP Northeastern Elementary School in Denver.

Lindsey Lorehn, the school leader at KIPP Northeastern Elementary, said when the school first opened in a smaller location with kindergarten and first grade in 2015, “What we heard pretty resoundingly from families was they wanted a high quality early childhood education program.”

The school’s new building, nestled among recently built homes in Green Valley Ranch, made that possible. Its three preschool classrooms opened this fall, just as a highly regarded child care center in the same neighborhood was closing its doors. There already are 41 children on KIPP’s preschool waitlist.

Rocky Mountain Prep, which offers preschool to both 3- and 4-year-olds, has more than 150 children on waitlists for a spot at one of its two Denver schools and about 30 children on the waitlist at its newest school in Aurora.

Of the six charter-run preschool programs in Denver, four have Level 3 or 4 ratings, markers of quality under state’s child care rating system. Like other new preschools, KIPP’s program has the lowest Level 1 rating, which means it’s licensed but hasn’t yet gone through the lengthy process required for a higher rating. Leaders there hope to reach Level 3 by next year.

While preschool programs run by charter schools aren’t new, experts say they make a lot of sense educationally — with one major caveat. They must be developmentally appropriate and not overly academic. In other words, plenty of play and lots of time devoted to social-emotional skills. No rote memorization, drill-and-kill tactics or long sit-down lessons.

“There’s no doubt you’re gonna get better outcomes if you start with those children at a younger age,” said Geoffrey Nagle, president and CEO of the Erikson Institute, a Chicago graduate school focused on child development.

Many charter schools initially launched with a K-5 or K-8 structure mainly because of the way school funding was allocated, he said. Their leaders later realized, “We have to go upstream and get these kids earlier.”

Nationwide, the prevalence of charters with preschool programs varies by state.

In Colorado, 33 of 149 charter schools that include elementary grades, or 22 percent, offered preschool last year, according to state education department officials.

Figuring out how to pay for preschool is one of the challenges for Colorado schools, charter or otherwise. The state funds some preschool slots for at-risk children, but most are half-day spots and there’s not enough to meet demand. There’s also limited state funding for preschoolers with special needs.

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
A preschooler at KIPP Northeastern Elementary School plays with dinosaurs.

A 2015 report from the Fordham Institute designated Colorado as offering charters that wanted to provide preschool a “somewhat hospitable” climate — the middle of three ratings. The state was dinged for its relatively low level of state preschool funding and because most charter schools have to seek the funding through their authorizing districts, which the report authors described as a barrier.

But it’s not a problem in every district. State officials say Denver Public Schools is exemplary when it comes to sharing state preschool funding with charter schools and community-based providers.

Even so, Denver charter schools that offer preschool usually have to cobble together dollars from lots of sources — the state, the city, the school district and in-house fundraising. Many offer the programs free to families or charge a sliding-scale fee.

James Cryan, CEO of Rocky Mountain Prep, said the rest of his program helps subsidize preschool, which is a money-loser.

In Denver, the number of charter schools offering preschool is likely to grow.

KIPP officials say they’ll include preschool in their planned southwest Denver elementary school, which could open in 2018 or 2019.

A spokeswoman for STRIVE Prep, Denver’s second largest charter network, said via email that leaders there will “absolutely” consider adding preschool at five planned elementary schools if those school communities see it as a need and priority.

In 2012, when Rocky Mountain Prep first launched preschool with the opening of its Creekside school in south Denver, there weren’t many charters in the city offering preschool. Subsequently, a number of charter school leaders contacted Cryan to ask how his team had untangled preschool licensing and funding rules. Since then, most of those leaders have added preschool.

“Where I’m excited is that I think high quality charter (schools) help provide new options and innovative approaches in the Pre-K space,” he said.

While there’s already lots of research showing that high-quality preschool boosts student achievement, there’s also evidence showing the impact of certain charter preschool programs.

A recent study by Mathematica Policy Research found that KIPP students who started in preschool had an advantage in reading over their peers who started in kindergarten. It also found positive effects in both math and reading for kids who attended preschool through second grade at KIPP. More than two-dozen KIPP schools have preschool nationwide.

Cryan said internal data from Rocky Mountain Prep show that students who start in the school’s preschool program at age 3 enter kindergarten more than half a year ahead in reading compared to peers who didn’t attend at age 3.

So how do charter schools, particularly ones that advertise rigorous college-prep environments in the upper grades, create preschools suitable for little kids who may not be adept at sharing toys, much less holding a pencil?

It was a worry for Aidan Bassett, KIPP Colorado’s director of early childhood education and a former early childhood special education teacher with Denver Public Schools,

“You think, ‘Charter — oh, it’s gonna look like kindergarten in preschool,” she said, “And that was not what we wanted.”

To prepare for the preschool launch at KIPP Northeastern, Bassett visited a KIPP preschool program in Washington, D.C., where she was pleased to see a focus on play.

She said it’s a key part of the Denver program, which runs eight hours a day and offers dance, Spanish and art as “specials.”

While KIPP sometimes has very structured ways of doing things at higher grades, Bassett said teachers can tweak them to work better for preschoolers. For example, they might urge 4-year-olds to keep “all eyes on” whomever is speaking, a gentler version of the “tracking the speaker” approach used with older kids.

While, KIPP’s version of preschool looks familiar, there’s no mistaking the school’s emphasis on early literacy.

KIPP’s preschool teachers make a concerted effort to expose kids to a wide variety of language and vocabulary in and out of structured lessons. A list taped to a shelf reminds teachers to “push in” words — empty, full, float, sink, funnel, measuring cup, carefully — related to a current story or theme during the natural course of children’s play.

But even formal lessons come with plenty of lightheartedness.

During circle time on a recent morning in a classroom named for Emory University, teacher Caroline Hiskey used a puppet named “Phonics Lion” to lead the kids through a series of animated jingles about different letters of the alphabet.

“Get your pans out,” she said, as the children followed her mime of shaking a frying pan. “Ready … Say, ‘S, s, sizzling sausages’. Say, ‘Ssssssss.’ Take a bite.”

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.