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.”

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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