leveling the playing field

Amid questions and confusion, DPS axes advanced kindergarten program in bid for greater equity

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

Denver Public Schools is eliminating the kindergarten program it offers advanced students because of declining enrollment in the program and because it serves disproportionate numbers of white and higher-income students.

The end of the advanced kindergarten program at seven schools is part of the district’s ongoing efforts to address racial and socioeconomic segregation at schools and within programs. In recent years, district officials have made changes meant to include more students of color in programs for highly gifted students and International Baccalaureate tracks, and in June, the district launched a citywide committee charged with finding ways to better integrate district schools.

District officials said the elimination of advanced kindergarten not only ties in with their focus on equity among students but will also free up money to train kindergarten teachers districtwide on strategies for serving advanced learners.

The move left some parents confused.

“This all sounds so nuts,” one commenter said in a Facebook thread after DPS announced the end of advanced kindergarten on its website last week.

Rumors circulated that even though the district will no longer test 4-year-old students for advanced status in the fall before their kindergarten year, certain schools would continue to do so.

Enrollment in advanced kindergarten programs at seven DPS schools has declined in recent years.

But that’s not true, said Rebecca McKinney, the district’s director of gifted and talented education, on Thursday.

Instead, she said, families with children entering kindergarten in 2018 will go through the district’s school choice process in the spring — this time with no advanced kindergarten option. Then, next fall, all kindergarten students will take the same routine assessments. For those who meet the criteria to be designated as advanced, their schools will decide how to best meet their needs.

In practice, that could mean separate classrooms if there are enough advanced kindergarteners in a given school, McKinney said. It could also mean that advanced students join first grade classes for certain subjects or that kindergarten teachers adjust lessons to match the students’ advanced skills.

“It allows more of our kids to be looked at as advanced learners,” McKinney said. “It’s not, ‘Did my parents get the application in on time?’ ”

Among the five large metro area districts, only DPS currently offers an advanced kindergarten option. It’s for students who enter school at the usual kindergarten age, but are academically advanced.

The seven Denver schools offering advanced kindergarten this year are Gust, Stedman, Palmer and Edison elementaries, Bill Roberts School, and two early childhood centers: Escalante-Biggs Academy and Stephen Knight Center for Early Education. After steady declines in advanced kindergarten enrollment since 2012, only 143 students are enrolled this year.

(An eighth school — Polaris at Ebert Elementary, a magnet program for the highly gifted — eliminated advanced kindergarten after last year because it gave kindergarteners an unfair advantage in gaining access to the school’s higher grades.)

Launched in 2004 at a time when the district was concerned about declining enrollment, the advanced kindergarten program eventually grew to enroll more than 200 students — most of them white and from middle- or upper-income families. In contrast, about two-thirds of students districtwide come from low-income families and three-quarters are students of color.

One of the reasons for the disparity was the admissions process for advanced kindergarten. It required parents to apply for testing almost a year before their children would enter kindergarten. There was also a fee to get children tested, although it was based on a sliding-scale system that provided discounts and even free testing.

“There is a lot of privilege wrapped up in the current model and knowing when the deadline comes,” said Keely Buchanan, co-founder of Preparing for Denver Kindergarten, a service that helps parents navigate Denver’s school choice system.

In theory, she said, she understands district officials’ instinct to eliminate the handful of dedicated programs for advanced kindergartners and make sure those students are served at all district schools.

As news of the change began swirling around last week, some parents feared that advanced kindergarten classrooms would continue in an under-the-radar way at a few of the district’s most sought-after and best-funded schools, creating even more inequity than there is now.

Kelly Dulong, the mother of an advanced kindergartener at Bill Roberts School, worried about that prospect. Yet, she said, she believes grouping students by skill levels can make it easier on teachers.

“I think there’s a real value in having a cohort that meets a certain threshold,” she said. “The reality is there’s 27 kids in the classroom and it’s really hard to differentiate.”

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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