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.”

Starting early

Colorado’s state preschool program doesn’t serve English learners well, report finds

PHOTO: energyy | Getty Images
Preschool children doing activities.

Colorado’s public preschool program fails to meet most targets for effectively serving young English learners, according to a new state-by-state report released today.

Besides having just two of nine recommended policies in place for serving such youngsters, Colorado also doesn’t know how many of the 22,000 preschoolers in its state-funded slots speak a home language other than English.

These findings come from the “State of Preschool 2017” report put out by the National Institute for Early Education Research, or NIEER, at Rutgers University. This year, in addition to the organization’s usual look at state preschool spending, enrollment, and quality, the report includes a section on how states are serving English learners. Nationwide, 23 percent of preschool-aged children fall into this category.

Colorado fared about the same as last year — average or below average — on the criteria examined annually in the preschool report. It ranked 25th among 43 states and Washington, D.C., for 4-year-old access to preschool, 10th for 3-year-old access and 39th for state preschool funding. It also met only five of 10 benchmarks measuring preschool quality, worse than most other states.

Colorado’s state-funded preschool program, called the the Colorado Preschool Program, provides half-day preschool to 3- and 4-year-olds who come from low-income families, have parents who didn’t finish high school, or other risk factors. Seven states, mostly in the West, have no public preschool programs.

Colorado isn’t alone in having few provisions focused on preschoolers learning English. About two-dozen other states also met two or fewer of the report’s nine benchmarks, which include policies such as allocating extra funding to English learners, and screening and assessing them in their home language.

Only three states met eight or nine of the benchmarks: Texas, Maine, and Kansas.

Colorado education department officials said the NIEER report could help spur changes in the Colorado Preschool Program.

“This actually might be an opportunity for us to look at these more specific indicators of high quality practices [for] dual-language learners, to help drive improvements in our program,” said Heidi McCaslin, preschool director at the Colorado Department of Education.

To alter the program or its data collection requirements, she said the state legislature would have to change the law or the State Board of Education would have to change rules.

Authors of the new report say supporting English learners is important, especially early in life.

“For all children, the preschool years are a critical time for language development.” said Steve Barnett, senior co-director of the institute. “We know that dual-language learners are a group that makes the largest gains from attending high-quality preschool. At the same time they’re at elevated risk for school failure.”

Colorado earned credit for two of the study’s English-learner benchmarks: for allowing bilingual instruction and having policies to support families of young English learners. Those policies include providing enrollment information and communicating with the child’s family in the home language.

McCaslin mentioned one Colorado preschool initiative focused on dual-language learners. It’s a training to help preschool teachers distinguish between children who have speech problems because of a disability and those who have speech delays because they are learning English and another language at the same time.

Data dive

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

PHOTO: KIdStock | Getty Images
Boy standing near school bus.

Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates in school districts across Colorado. Some rural districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state. And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up.

These are a few of the findings from a new Chalkbeat analysis of three years of data on out-of-school suspensions given to students in kindergarten through second grade. Chalkbeat obtained the district- and state level data — some of it disaggregated by race and gender — from the Colorado Department of Education through a public records request.

Last year, rural district leaders and the lawmakers who represent them beat back a bill that would have limited the use of suspensions in the earliest grades. This year, advocates decided not to bring forward a new version after struggling to find common ground with opponents. At the same time, at least three large metro Denver districts have recently launched their own efforts to reduce the number of small children sent home for misbehaving — but not without some trepidation from teachers.

Amidst these discussions, we wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado’s public schools.

Supporters of policies that limit suspensions of young children say such discipline doesn’t work to change students’ behavior, harms them educationally, and disproportionately affects boys and children of color. Opponents of such policies say suspension is a tool sometimes needed to help restore classroom order, ensure student and teacher safety, and focus a family’s attention on the problem.

Young children are suspended for a variety of reasons, including hitting, biting, fighting, and chronically disrupting their classrooms.

It’s important to note that we examined the number of suspensions given out in each district, not the total number of students who were suspended. In some cases, individual students receive multiple suspensions during a school year. (Suspension numbers are self-reported by each school district and not independently verified by the state.)

Colorado districts handed out more suspensions to young students last year than they did the year before (or the year before that).

Even as local and national groups have recently spotlighted the harm caused by suspending young children from schools, Colorado schools have handed out more suspensions.

Even as the statewide population of kindergarten to second grade students has shrunk over the last three years, schools have handed out more suspensions to this age group.

Last year, districts statewide gave approximately three suspensions per 100 kindergarten to second grade students, up from 2.6 in 2014-15. The state education department first began disaggregating suspension data by grade level three years ago.

Three-year trends in Colorado’s K-2 suspension rates

This chart shows the number of suspensions given per 100 kindergarten through second grade students in rural districts, small rural districts and all Colorado districts over the last three years.

The highest-suspending districts are rural. (So are the lowest-suspending districts.)

Of the state’s more than 140 rural districts, several use suspensions in the early elementary grade at higher rates than any large district. For example, the 980-student Trinidad district in southern Colorado, posted the state’s highest rate last year, giving out 65 suspensions to students in kindergarten through second grade — a rate of 27 suspensions per 100 students.

Meanwhile, about 70 rural districts suspended no students at all last year. These include a few that are around the same size as Trinidad, including East Grand, Weld RE-9, and Telluride.

As a group, small rural districts — those with less than 1,000 students — are suspending early elementary children at about the same rate as non-rural districts — giving just over 3 suspensions per 100 students. Rural districts — somewhat bigger than “small rurals” but still under 6,500 students — suspend less frequently, giving out 2 suspensions per 100 students.

The state’s highest-suspending districts

A look at which rural school districts suspend young students at the highest rate. Rates reflect the number of suspensions given per 100 kindergarten through second grade students in 2016-17. Note: The state education department classifies Expeditionary BOCES as a “small rural” district, but it’s a single school located in Denver that pulls students from several area districts.

El Paso County is home to three of the five highest-suspending large districts.

Three of the large districts that used suspension in lower elementary grades most often last year are in El Paso County: Harrison, Colorado Springs and Widefield. One of the other two is in metro Denver and the other is in Greeley.

The three El Paso County districts have larger proportions of students from low-income families than some of their lower-suspending counterparts in that county — Falcon or Academy, for instance. However, other large districts, including Denver and Aurora, serve similar or greater proportions of students in poverty as the high-suspending El Paso County districts, yet have lower suspension rates.

Large districts with the highest suspension rates

This chart shows the five districts of Colorado’s 30 largest with the highest suspension rates in 2016-17. Rates reflect the number of suspensions given per 100 kindergarten through second grade students.

Large districts with the lowest suspension rates tend to be more affluent and white.

The five districts with the lowest suspension rates among the state’s 30 largest, are scattered geographically and range in size, but generally have fewer students from poor families and fewer students of color than high-suspending large districts.
One exception is the 7,000-student Eagle County district, which has the lowest suspension rate among the five. Students of color make up 55 percent of enrollment and 37 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, a proxy for poverty.

Large districts with the lowest suspension rates

This chart shows the five districts of Colorado’s 30 largest with the lowest suspension rates in 2016-17.

Suspension rates are dropping in Denver, and climbing in the state’s other four largest districts.

Of Colorado’s five largest districts, which educate about 75,000 students in kindergarten through second grade, Jeffco had the highest rate of early elementary suspensions last year, followed by Aurora. While the rates increased for both districts compared to the previous year, each has recently embarked on new efforts to prevent student suspensions.

Denver, which for years has emphasized restorative discipline practices and this year launched a policy limiting suspensions of preschool through third grade students, was the only one of the five largest districts to post a decrease in its early childhood suspension rate last year. Cherry Creek saw a jump last year, and Douglas County saw a smaller uptick.

Trends in Colorado’s five largest districts

A look at changing suspension rates in the state’s five largest districts over three years. Rates reflect the number of suspensions given per 100 kindergarten through second grade students.

Young black boys are disproportionately suspended nationwide. Colorado is no exception.

While black boys make up up only about 2.3 percent of the state’s kindergarten to second grade students, they receive almost 10 percent of suspensions given in that age group. Such disparities exist in all 14 of the state’s 30 largest districts for which data was available.

The Denver district, which educates more young black students than any other in Colorado, was close behind the three districts with the highest levels of disproportionality. Last year, black boys made up about 6 percent of Denver’s kindergarten through second grade population, but received 29 percent of suspensions given in that age group.

(In 16 large districts, suspension data broken out for black male K-2 students was unavailable because privacy rules require some data to be suppressed when group sizes are very small.)

Disproportionate suspensions given to black boys

Among the state’s 30 largest districts, these three gave out a particularly disproportionate number of suspensions to black boys in kindergarten through second grade in 2016-17.

Young Hispanic boys receive a disproportionate number of suspensions in many Colorado districts — but not all.

At the state level, Hispanic boys make up 17 percent of the kindergarten through second grade population, but receive 29 percent of suspensions. At the district level, the picture varies. Seven of the state’s 30 large districts, including two with relatively high suspension rates overall, did not suspend a disproportionately large number of Hispanic boys last year. Those include Colorado Springs 11 and Harrison — the two highest suspending large districts — as well as Aurora, School District 27J, Fountain, Pueblo 70, and St. Vrain Valley.

In the 19 large districts that showed some disproportionality in suspending young Hispanic boys, the severity ranged widely. Two districts with very low overall suspension rates — Poudre and Douglas County — had high levels of disproportionality. In contrast, Falcon and Widefield had relatively low levels of disproportionality.

(In 4 of the 30 largest districts, suspension data broken out for Hispanic male K-2 students was unavailable because privacy rules require some data to be suppressed when group sizes are very small.)

Disproportionate suspensions given to Hispanic boys

Among the state’s 30 largest districts, these three gave out a particularly disproportionate number of suspensions to Hispanic boys in kindergarten through second grade in 2016-17.

Look up your district’s 2016-17 K-2 suspension rate in the chart below.