Fall into the gap

Coalition: Colorado making progress to close racial gaps in health, education but more work remains

PHOTO: Judy DeHaas/The Denver Post
Dayanna Brown, 9, a student at Denver's Stedman Elementary, tries to focus on a mock state exam in 2010.

Black and Latino students in Colorado still lag behind their white peers in academic performance and healthiness, but the gaps separating the different groups have shrunk in the last three years, according to a new report.

The 2017 Race for Results report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation highlights state-level disparities between different racial and ethnic groups — white, black, Latino, Native American and Asian/Pacific Islander — based on a variety of factors. Those measures include the number of children with a normal birth weight, how many fourth graders are reading proficiently, graduation rates and household incomes.

A coalition of child advocacy, social justice and education groups used the report’s release to call on state lawmakers to do more to help level the playing field for all Colorado students.

“In national rankings of child well-being, Colorado often shows up as average,” Kelly Causey, president and CEO of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said in a statement. “But our state’s average ranking hides the wide disparities we see in child well-being when we look at outcomes by race and ethnicity.”

In the study, each racial or ethnic group receives a composite score from 1 — the lowest score — to 1,000.

Here are the scores for Colorado’s students received in 2014 compared to 2017.

Because some of the data reporting has changed during the last three years, such as with graduation rates, the report cautions comparing scores year to year. However, comparing the change in the size of the gaps between groups is appropriate.

The gaps measured by the new report follow a similar pattern in the state’s annual testing data. Earlier this fall Chalkbeat looked at gap in achievement data by race, class, special education needs and whether is learning English as a second language.

Local officials said the gaps narrowed in Colorado in part because fewer black children are living in poverty, low teen birth rates, and conditions improved for young women of all racial and ethnic groups, but they improved faster for young women of color.

The report, the second of its kind, put special emphasis on children from immigrant families. Those children often face additional barriers such as separation from parents. The report’s authors are recommending comprehensive immigration reform that keeps immigrant families together, expanded early childhood programs in communities with high numbers of immigrant families and more economic opportunities for parents.

In Colorado, the Children’s Campaign and its partners will ask state lawmakers during the 2018 legislative session to renew the state’s child care contribution tax credits credit, remove barriers to school lunches and reduced-price lunch shaming, rethink how the state generates revenue and allocates tax dollars to schools.

Lawmakers will also be asked to reconsider a bill that would reform the state’s suspensions and expulsion laws for the state’s youngest students.

“While it’s promising to see those gaps are closing, Colorado has more work to do to remove barriers for children of color and kids living in immigrant families,” Causey said, “which ultimately will benefit all of Colorado’s children.”

No lunch-shaming

After a spike in unpaid school lunches last year, Denver takes steps to prevent a reprise

PHOTO: JGI/Tom Grill | Getty Images

A year after Colorado’s largest school district instituted a policy guaranteeing all students a school lunch whether or not they have the money to pay, Denver district officials are planning new measures to prevent the unexpected debt that accrued last year.

Those efforts include ensuring that parents fill out applications for free and reduced-price meals at the start of the year, clarifying how schools should communicate with families about unpaid debt, and establishing new rules for charter schools that participate in the district’s school lunch program.

After the new policy to prevent so-called “lunch shaming” took effect last August, debt from unpaid lunches soared to $356,000, up from $13,000 the year before. It’s just a fraction of the district’s $44 million food service budget, but the amount caught administrators by surprise and figured into their mid-year decision to add snacks students pay for, such as Doritos and Rice Krispies Treats, to elementary school cafeterias to recoup some of the loss.

Denver Public Schools Chief Operating Officer David Suppes said more than one-third of the total debt last year came from charter schools that contract with the district to get school meals for their students.

Omar D. Blair Charter School had the highest lunch debt among Denver schools last year at $11,500.

Suppes also noted that the jump in lunch debt from 2016-17 to 2017-18 may not have been as large as it seemed. That’s because before the lunch-shaming policy, many district schools maintained separate accounts to cover meal costs for students who couldn’t pay. While the district didn’t track the total meal costs covered by those special accounts, it would have pushed the total debt above the $13,000 that was left districtwide at the end of the 2016-17 year.

After the lunch-shaming policy took effect, most schools eliminated their separate accounts to cover unpaid lunches, sending more meal debt to be covered at the district level than in years past.

“Clearly there was growth, probably significant growth in unpaid debt, but it’s hard to tell how much” since all the separate school-based accounts that had paid it before didn’t exist anymore, said Suppes.

Nearly one-third of the district’s lunch debt last year came from families who were eligible for free or reduced-price meals, but signed up part-way into the school year, after their children had already received free school lunches. The federal government covers lunch costs for students eligible for free lunches and part of the cost for students who qualify for reduced-price lunches. For elementary school students in Colorado (and starting this year for middle-schoolers), the state covers the remaining cost of reduced-price lunches.

Another 68 percent of Denver families with unpaid meal debt don’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Still, district officials said it’s impossible to determine how many of those families would qualify for subsidized lunches if they applied, how many struggle financially but just miss the cut-off for eligibility, and how many can afford to pay for school lunches but choose not to.

Of the $356,000 in lunch debt from last year, district officials paid off $100,000 with a grant. Suppes said the remaining $256,000 will likely be paid with money from the district’s general fund and from part of its food service budget not associated with the federally subsidized National School Lunch Program.

Suppes said the district is clarifying rules governing who is responsible for covering the cost of unpaid lunches — and may adjust the fees it charges charters that participate in its meal program.

“Nobody’s blaming anybody,” he said, but prior to the lunch-shaming policy, schools operated differently.

changing times

To close or evolve? As teen birth rates drop, school programs for teen parents face a new landscape

PHOTO: quavondo | Getty Images

There was just one student in the Boulder Valley School District’s teen parent program last year. She graduated in May, and and the district spent the summer turning the program’s nursery into a child care center for staff.

In the Englewood district just south of Denver there were no students in the teen parent program last year, and in the western Colorado city of Montrose, the long-standing charter school for pregnant and parenting teens was newly closed because of dwindling enrollment.

These are just a few examples of Colorado’s shifting educational landscape for teen parents and the school districts that serve them. As some programs downsize or close their doors, others have worked to adapt to the times — stepping up advertising, adding online offerings, or moving away from single centralized programs.

In part, these trends are driven by the state’s record-low teen birth rate, which mirrors national declines. Other factors that may be siphoning students away from teen parent programs include the option of virtual school, the fading stigma of teen parenthood, and the ease of getting a job in Colorado’s thriving economy.

For many advocates, the changing shape of teen parent programs is cause for both celebration and concern. On one hand, it’s a testament to the success of a state program — launched with private funding in 2008 — that provided long-acting birth control to low-income women.

At the same time, they worry that such public-health victories obscure the fact that nearly 3,000 Colorado teenagers are still having babies every year — circumstances that put them at high risk for dropping out of school.

“There’s still a need for programs like ours,” said Suzanne Banning, president and CEO of the Denver-based Florence Crittenton Services, which runs the state’s oldest high school for pregnant and parenting teens in partnership with Denver Public Schools.

“In the long run, without these programs being there, you’re going back to having these young moms not having a place to go and not graduating, and then their kids have a higher probability of becoming a teen mom or teen dad,” she said.

Sizing it up

It’s hard to get an exact picture of how many Colorado school districts offer teen parent programs and how many students enroll in them each year. For the most part, the state education department doesn’t track this.

It does tally enrollment for stand-alone schools for pregnant and parenting teens, but there are just two: Florence Crittenton and New Legacy Charter School in Aurora.

Credit: Sam Park

Meanwhile, some districts, such as St. Vrain, Westminster, and Mesa County Valley, house teen parent programs within larger alternative high schools and others, such as Aurora, serve teen parents with mobile teams that visit multiple schools. In both cases, state enrollment counts don’t distinguish teen parents from other students.

Pat Paluzzi, president and CEO of the national organization Healthy Teen Network, which promotes teen sexual and reproductive health, said there’s no clear-cut national data on teen parent programs either. Still, she’s heard plenty of anecdotal evidence pointing to a shrinking footprint.

Some teen parent programs, she said, closed down even before dramatic declines in the teen pregnancy rate, in part because federal funding streams dried up.

“Support for the teen parent in general has really waned over time,” Paluzzi said.

As separate programs for teen parents have dwindled, support for such students at traditional high schools sometimes ramps up, she said, but it varies widely by school and district.

For 16-year-old Alexia Alvarado, who became pregnant in September of her freshman year at Longmont’s Skyline High School in northern Colorado, it was a tough slog.

She said while her teachers were extremely supportive, her classmates were “weirded out” by her pregnancy.

“It was definitely awkward. I felt like a wild animal,” she said. “I get it they were curious, but the staring every day was very unnecessary.”

Alvarado, whose son Gabriel is now 15 months old, stayed at Skyline through her freshman year and transferred to the district’s teen parent program at the alternative Olde Columbine High School for her sophomore year.

It wasn’t her first choice, she said. She initially wanted to enroll in online classes, but soon realized her tendency to procrastinate and the distraction of her baby while she studied would derail her.

Although Alvarado had heard Olde Columbine was for “troubled kids,” her advocate at a local agency convinced her to give it a try. She has no regrets.

Alvarado likes having Gabriel in the same building — until January when he’ll age out of the on-site nursery — and loves the supportive vibe from staff and students. Occasionally, she’s had twinges of interest in returning to a mainstream high school so she can participate in time-honored traditions like prom, but she pushes those aside.

“To me the most important thing is my future,” said Alvarado, who wants to go to a four-year college and become a neonatal nurse.

“If I went to regular high school I would just be another student. At Olde Columbine, teachers you don’t even have know your name.”

End of an institution

For nearly two decades, Montrose had a stand-alone school for pregnant and parenting teens, Passage Charter School. It closed at the end of the 2016-17 school year.

Montrose Superintendent Stephen Schiell said, “The bottom line was they didn’t have enough students to stay open … It wasn’t feasible.”

He said there were fewer than 10 students at the school when it closed.

Sarah Fishering, who is on the Montrose school board but spoke to Chalkbeat as a private citizen, was initially upset because the school’s closing meant the loss of sorely needed child care spots in the rural community. At the end, her two young children were among those enrolled at the school’s nursery, which served both teen parents and community members.

Fishering worries the program’s demise leaves a massive void for teen parents in the region.

“I kept on hearing from people, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that we don’t need Passage Charter School anymore?’” she said. “However, in Montrose … and also in our neighboring county of Delta, there are particularly high rates of teen pregnancy.”

Credit: Sam Park

Both counties have rates well above the 2017 Colorado average of 16 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19. The rate was 32 births per 1,000 women in Delta County and 26 births per 1,000 in Montrose County. Last year, 58 babies were born to teens 15 to 19 in the two counties.

Even in Colorado’s populous urban areas, some teen parent programs have contracted in recent years.

Banning said until about 2012 Florence Crittenton High School served 300 or more pregnant and parenting teens a year. These days, it’s around 220.

As that dip occurred, she said, the school began advertising on bus benches and through spots on the Spanish-language television station Telemundo.

At New Legacy, which opened in 2015, school officials have seen a growing number of non-parents enroll — often siblings or cousins of teen parents.

Last year, about 30 of the school’s 100 students were neither pregnant nor parenting, up from about a dozen two years earlier, said Sarah Bridich, chairperson of the New Legacy board.

She believes interest from students who aren’t teen parents stems from the fact that New Legacy is a small non-traditional school that offers lots of personal attention — and isn’t a sign that there are too few teen parents to fill its seats.

Like Banning, she said it’s important for the school to actively recruit prospective students.

“It would be a great problem if we closed [because] there weren’t pregnant and parenting teenagers,” she said. “I don’t foresee that happening in the near future.”

Evolution and expansion

In some districts, declining enrollment in stand-alone teen parent programs has spurred officials to try something new. That’s how Boulder Valley leaders see the shift in their program, which was down to one student last year.

Joan Bludorn, principal of Arapahoe Ridge High School where the teen parent program used to be housed, said besides decreasing teen pregnancy rates, changing cultural norms have contributed to the evolution of the district’s teen parent programs.

“Many of the students want to stay in their home high school,” she said. “Pregnancy is not looked upon as it was 20 to 30 years ago when you [left] your building.”

Starting this year, the teen parenting class that used to be taught at Arapahoe Ridge will be available online, with the course’s longtime teacher supervising participants. While the high school’s nursery for teen parents has been repurposed as a staff child care center, Bludorn said there will still be spots for children of students if needed.

Mary Faltynski, coordinator of Boulder County’s GENESIS home-visiting program for teen parents, said when stand-alone programs shrink, it’s important for districts to think differently.

“We have to say, ‘OK, maybe we don’t have a school’s worth of students who need a special program, but we have to look at how to help students individually in their own schools.’”

In the Aurora school district, the teen parent program became stagnant several years ago, after the high school where it was housed relocated to a new building, shifted to an expeditionary learning model, and shed its alternative school reputation. Only a handful of teen parents remained in the program a couple years into the switch, said Anne Burris, a nurse who leads the district’s Young Parent Support Program.

That’s when the district created a mobile team that works with pregnant and parenting teens — both mothers and fathers — connecting them with child care, advocating for them in their schools, and helping them prepare for college or jobs. The team, made up of Burris and three advocates, served 261 students across the district last year.

Across the state in Grand Junction, the teen parent program continues to be housed in the alternative R-5 High School, but two years ago got a much-needed ingredient: more nursery space.

Before the expansion, “We’d start off with 30 parents and we were losing eight to 10 young parents because they didn’t have a place to put their toddlers,” said R-5 Principal Don Trujillo.

In 2016, the school relocated to a new building and added eight spots for toddlers on top of the eight it already had for infants. Now, more teen parents are staying at R-5 for the whole school year, he said.

The Fort Collins-based Poudre School District has similar plans for its teen parent program, which last year moved from one of the district’s comprehensive high schools to a K-12 hybrid school called Poudre Global Academy. There, students take on-site classes two days a week and work online the rest of the time. District officials plan to open an on-site nursery at the school as soon as next year.