'class of 2031'

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

Caroline Hiskey, a preschool teacher at KIPP Northeast 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 Northeast 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 Northeast Elementary School in Denver.

Lindsey Lorehn, the school leader at KIPP Northeast 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 Northeast 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 Northeast, 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.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to KIPP Northeastern Elementary. It is KIPP Northeast Elementary. 

leading the state

Three things we heard at a gubernatorial candidates forum on early childhood

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat
Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate for Colorado governor, and Lang Sias, the Republican lieutenant governor candidate, spoke at forum on early childhood issues.

Stark differences in how Colorado’s two would-be governors plan to tackle early childhood issues were clear at a candidate forum Monday evening.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, the Democratic nominee, envisions free full-day preschool and kindergarten for all Colorado children — a sweeping and pricey expansion of what’s currently available.

Republican lieutenant governor candidate Lang Sias, who stood in for gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton, said Republicans would focus public funds on narrower programs that benefit the poorest children.

Currently, Colorado funds early childhood programs for some of its young children. The state provides half-day preschool to 4-year-olds with certain risk factors, but the program covers only some of those who qualify. In addition, the state reimburses districts for just over half the cost of full-day kindergarten, leaving districts to pay for the rest or pass on the cost to families through tuition. Last spring, lawmakers expanded the state income tax credit for child care costs, but most families still need to come up with hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month.

Monday’s event at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science represented a rare opportunity to hear candidates address early childhood issues, which are often overshadowed on the campaign trail by topics such as housing, roads and health care. While the forum highlighted some of the big early childhood ideas championed by each campaign, it also left plenty of unanswered questions.

Stapleton, Colorado’s state treasurer, was originally slated to speak at the forum, but backed out citing family obligations. Sias, a state representative from Arvada and a member of the House Education Committee, spoke in his place.

Polis and Sias didn’t debate each other at Monday’s forum, or otherwise interact. Polis went first, giving a short statement about his early childhood platform then answering several questions posed by moderator Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign. Sias followed suit.

The event was sponsored by Constellation Philanthropy, a group of funders focused on early childhood issues. (Constellation is a Chalkbeat funder.)

Here are three things we learned from the forum:

The candidates have different ideas about which young children need help and how to provide it

In discussing his plans to create universal full-day preschool and kindergarten, Polis talked about using a public-private financing mechanism that’s sometimes called “social impact bonds.”

In this kind of financing — also called “pay for success” — private investors or philanthropists pay up front for social programs and get repaid with interest if those programs save public money by reducing 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.

Polis said if he wins in November, he’ll immediately “work out how to partner with philanthropy to create more early childhood education for all income levels.”

Currently a version of social impact bonds is being used to pay for full-day preschool for some students in the Westminster school district north of Denver, a fact Polis mentioned Monday. Still, the financing mechanism is relatively untested in Colorado’s education sphere and it’s unclear how it might be scaled to pay for something as ambitious as statewide full-day preschool and kindergarten.

When talking about the Republican ticket’s early-education priorities, Sias described early childhood education as “incredibly important” but “very inequitably distributed.”

“We want to focus our public spending on those who are least able to afford it on their own,” he said.

He cited a proposal for education savings accounts that allow families to set aside money tax-free for educational expenses, including early childhood education.

“We realize that is more focused on middle-class and above families,” he said, “but by targeting that money using that program, we feel we will have more available to target the folks at the bottom of the spectrum who really cannot avail themselves of that opportunity.”

Education savings accounts don’t typically work for low-income parents because they have no extra money to set aside for future expenses.

The candidates would take different approaches to strengthening the early childhood workforce

In a field marked by low pay and tough working conditions, recruiting and retaining qualified teachers is a chronic problem. The candidates had ideas about how to bulk up the workforce.

Sias advocated for a residency program to help turn out new early childhood teachers, similar to what he’s previously proposed to help address the K-12 teacher shortage. He said such programs are data-driven, helping retain teachers for longer periods and improving student results.

He also floated the idea of recruiting midlife career-changers to early childhood work — “folks north of 50” — and hinted that they would work in the low-paid field.

“Is that an opportunity to tap into … folks who would like to fill those spots who maybe don’t have the same set of issues that millennials do in terms of how long they want to stay and how long they need to be committed, and frankly how much they need to be paid?”

While some middle-aged people do enter the field, mediocre pay, a maze of state regulations, and the growing push to boost providers’ education levels could make it a tough sell.

Polis talked about creating partnerships with colleges to beef up the credentials of people who currently work in the early childhood field.

He said it’s important to “bridge the skills gap” for those whose hearts are already in the work. He didn’t address how he could dramatically expand preschool and kindergarten simply by focusing on the existing workforce, where turnover can be as high as 40 percent annually.

Neither candidate talked about how he would boost compensation for early childhood workers, whose median pay in Colorado is $12.32 an hour, Jaeger said.

Both candidates agree that Colorado can do much better by its youngest residents

When asked how Colorado is doing overall in supporting young children and their families, both candidates agreed that the state has a long way to go.

Sias emphasized that low-income children continue to be left out. Polis talked about the lack of uniform access to full-day kindergarten.

Both candidates expressed interest in working with bipartisan coalitions on solutions.

“There’s so many people in our state who want to do right by their kids,” said Polis. “It’s really going to take folks from across the spectrum coming together.”

Sias, who argued for a combination of business-minded acumen and public money for early childhood, asked the audience to partner with lawmakers in finding what programs work.

He said he and Stapleton are “more than willing to work across the aisle with folks that we like and respect, and have knowledge in this area.”

Threes please

As 4-year-old preschool programs become the norm, Denver looks to reach 3-year-olds next

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat

The Denver Preschool Program, most well-known for providing millions of dollars to help the families of 4-year-olds pay for preschool, is expanding its scope.

Starting this month, the nonprofit will put a share of its funding from a citywide sales tax toward improving preschool classrooms for 3-year-olds — something it has long done in 4-year-old classrooms. Those improvements could take the form of teacher training or coaching, teacher scholarships for educational programs, or new blocks and playground equipment.

The $700,000 initiative pales in comparison to the $15 million that the Denver Preschool Program will spend on tuition assistance for the city’s 4-year-olds this year. Still, it’s another sign of growing recognition that investments in younger children help amplify the benefits of widespread and politically popular 4-year-old prekindergarten programs.

The push to serve more 3-year-olds can be seen around the state and nation. Colorado’s two largest school districts — Denver and Jeffco — both plan to add new preschool seats for 3-year-olds if tax measures for education pass in November.

Last year, New York City school leaders began phasing in free universal preschool for the city’s 3-year-olds, an expansion of the city’s ambitious Pre-K for All program, which served about 70,000 4-year-olds in 2017-18. In 2008, Washington, D.C., passed a major preschool overhaul law, which helped make it one of the few places in the country where a large majority of 3-year-olds attend free preschool.

Jennifer Landrum, president and CEO of the Denver Preschool Program, said when city voters first passed a sales tax in 2006 to fund the program, the ballot language specifically earmarked the proceeds for 4-year-olds. But in 2014, when voters approved a 10-year extension of the sales tax, they also OK’d language that allowed spending on 3-year-olds.

The expanded age range fit with the shifting national policy conversation at the time, which increasingly emphasized the importance of starting with children younger than 4, said Landrum.

Research shows that early childhood programs can produce huge long-term gains for children, particularly those from low-income families. But there’s a caveat: The programs must be high-quality.

That’s part of the reason the Denver Preschool Program will focus its new 3-year-old funding on boosting quality.

“It’s such a logical next step when you can see the gains 4-year-olds can make in that one year of high-quality preschool,” said Landrum. “It just makes sense.”

The improvement efforts will focus on the preschool classrooms of about 3,400 Denver 3-year-olds.

Unlike the city’s 4-year-olds, those 3-year-olds will not get tuition help from the Denver Preschool Program. There’s not enough money for that, said Landrum.

In Colorado, a fraction of 3-year-olds attend publicly funded preschool through Head Start or the Colorado Preschool Program, a statewide program that pays for preschool for young children with certain risk factors. Some 3-year-olds also qualify for free preschool because they have disabilities.

Denver district officials say they hope to add 500 new preschool seats for 3-year-olds if the statewide ballot measure, Amendment 73, passes in November. Right now, there are long waitlists for that age group.

In Jeffco, which serves 3- and 4-year-olds together in the same classrooms, expansion plans also hinge on the outcome of November’s election. A proposed district bond measure would help renovate 70 classrooms for the preschool set, for a total of about 1,100 additional seats. Currently, the district serves about 3,500 preschoolers — about half of them 3-year olds.

And if Amendment 73 or the district’s mill levy override  — or both — pass, district officials say it would allow them to convert more half-day preschool slots to full-day slots, hike teacher pay, and improve the qualifications of early childhood staff.