Public investment

This Colorado ski town had an early childhood education crisis. Here’s what local leaders did about it.

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

Greta Shackelford moved to Breckenridge 13 years ago on a whim. She was young and single at the time — a Virginia native enjoying life in a Colorado ski town.

Today, Shackelford is married with two young children and heads a local child care center called Little Red Schoolhouse. She’s also one beneficiary of Breckenridge’s decision a decade ago to pump hundreds of thousands of dollars annually into the town’s child care industry.

Back in 2007, she got a substantial raise when town officials boosted salaries for local child care teachers by 30 percent and today, she and her husband, a general contractor, get help covering preschool costs for their 3-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter. In addition, because the town helped pay off some centers’ mortgages, there’s a financial cushion in case the boiler breaks or the roof leaks at Little Red Schoolhouse.

The effort in Breckenridge is among a growing number of initiatives across the state that use public money — usually gleaned from local property tax or sales tax — to improve child care and preschool options. Beyond helping prepare young children for school, these initiatives can be a vital cog in the local economy, keeping parents in the workforce and businesses adequately staffed.

And more could be coming soon. Leaders in San Miguel County, where Telluride is the county seat, are gearing up for a November ballot initiative that would help expand child care facilities and boost teacher pay. In Estes Park, advocates are just beginning a process to determine the town’s child care needs and explore funding options.

“It’s because some child care deserts are seemingly insurmountable and entrenched that local leaders in early childhood are looking at all possibilities,” said Liz Houston, executive director of the Early Childhood Council Leadership Alliance.

Experts say local efforts can be a heavy lift for community leaders charged with galvanizing support for tax hikes or other publicly funded proposals. But when successful, they provide much-needed stability to an industry plagued by low pay, high turnover, a shortage of slots and wide variations in quality.

Leaders in Breckenridge say child care is just as critical as plowing snow.

“Just like we need to plow our roads so people can get to our ski area, … this is just as important,” said Jennifer McAtamney, the town’s child care program administrator. “If we lose our workforce, it’s a huge problem.”

Some early childhood leaders hope these locally-funded projects can serve as a stepping stone to more ambitious statewide efforts in the future. (The state already runs programs that provide half-day preschool to at-risk children and child care subsidies for low-income families, but demand far outstrips supply.)

“Support for early childhood education is probably going to be built community by community by community until there is enough of a groundswell for it to be something that is statewide or nationwide,” said Jennifer Landrum, president and CEO of the Denver Preschool Program.

Like in Breckenridge, government funded early childhood initiatives have existed for years in Denver, Aspen, Boulder County and Summit County. A couple others — in Dolores and Elbert counties — have launched more recently, according to a list maintained by the business group Executives Partnering to Invest in Children, or EPIC.

One of the factors that unites communities that have taken on locally funded early childhood initiatives is a sense that things were at or near a crisis point. In Colorado’s resort towns, where many describe the cost of housing and other basics as astronomical, this is especially true.

Early childhood advocates in these communities can rattle off numbers that illustrate just how hard it is to find quality child care: waitlists that run into the hundreds, towns with few or no licensed slots for babies, centers that can’t find child care workers to staff their classrooms.

Shackelford, the director of Little Red Schoolhouse in Breckenridge, said the town’s effort, which includes another cash infusion to boost salaries in 2018, has reduced employee churn. Her own experience is a case in point.

Without the town’s financial help — with both child care and housing — “we would never have been able to afford to stay in Breckenridge,” she said. “It makes it, not cheap, but manageable.”

Gloria Higgins, president of EPIC, expects the number of municipalities that take on locally funded early childhood efforts to go up over the next decade.

By then, she said, “those communities in the most distress will probably have something and those are the mountain resort communities … They’re going to lead.”

But she also expects cities like Pueblo and some in the Denver suburbs to hop on board, too.

Higgins is an enthusiastic evangelist for such efforts. They fit well with Colorado’s local control ethos and can be tailored to each community’s needs. Still, she cautions those interested that it takes about four years of planning to get the job done.

“It’s a big deal to get the taxpayer to say yes,” she said.

While voters are often called on to approve dedicated sales tax or property tax hikes, some communities have earmarked public money for early childhood in other ways.

In Breckenridge, for example, the town council initially allocated money for its early childhood program from the general fund, a move that didn’t require voter approval. Six years in, the town did ask voters for a property tax increase to support the program, but the measure failed.

The council subsequently decided to continue funding the effort as before.

In Elbert County, a partnership between early childhood leaders and county human services officials led to a special grant program that pays for preschool scholarships for low-income children stuck on the waitlist for state-funded slots.

Cathryn Reiber, coordinator of the Elbert County Early Childhood Council, said that in an ultra-conservative community where new tax increases would never pass, the county partnership has been a great solution.

Landrum, who heads the Denver Preschool Program, said it’s also important to win backing from the business community. After two defeats at the ballot box in the early 2000s, business leaders helped shape and endorse sales tax measures to fund the program in 2006 and in 2014.

In addition to providing preschool tuition assistance for the city’s 4-year-olds, the Denver Preschool Program provides training, coaching and materials for child care providers.

In some communities, funding for early childhood services is one piece of a broader package. In 2010 when the Great Recession was in full swing, Boulder County officials asked voters to approve a five-year property tax hike billed as a temporary safety net measure that would help families afford food, shelter and child care.

Voters said yes, and when officials came back to them in 2014 for a similar 15-year measure, they said yes again. The second time around, the campaign was called “Neighbors Helping Neighbors,” drawing on the community camaraderie that developed after the 2013 floods, said Bobbie Watson, executive director of the Early Childhood Council of Boulder County.

“You have to frame it so your community will bite,” she said.

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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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.”