Quality quest

Coaches in the classroom: How Colorado preschools are upping their teaching game

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Sandi Polasek, a preschool teacher at a Sewall Child Development Center site in far northeast Denver, finger paints with a student.

Teacher Sandi Polasek was startled by the feedback she received after a classroom coach watched her hold a reluctant toddler by the arm and guide him to the bathroom.

“I want to let you know the way you were holding his arm wasn’t really respectful of him as a person,” the coach told her later.

A longtime child care teacher with a warm personality, Polasek never meant to disrespect one of her small charges. She and the coach talked about strategies for encouraging resistant children to follow her direction and even how to position her hand and body to avoid the controlling arm grip.

“It totally reframed my thinking,” said Polasek.

That incident, which took place a few years ago, provides a glimpse into the role one-on-one coaching plays in helping early childhood teachers improve. In a field where the long-term benefits of high quality child care and preschool are well known — but workers’ education and credentials vary widely — it’s an increasingly common tool.

Lynn Andrews, director of strategic initiatives at the Denver-based nonprofit Clayton Early Learning, said very few child care programs in Colorado used coaching when she got into that work nearly two decades ago.

“There’s been an upward trend,” she said. “There have been a number of studies that show it can improve teaching practice.”

In Colorado, the coaching trend was helped along by an Obama era grant program — Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge – that awarded the state $45 million for a variety of early childhood efforts. While that money recently ran out, other government, philanthropic, and private programs continue to support coaching for early childhood staff in Colorado and elsewhere. Recently, Head Start, a federally funded preschool program for low-income children, began requiring coaching.

The Denver Preschool Program, which is funded through a city sales tax, will spend about $600,000 on coaches this year — for Polasek and about 700 other preschool teachers, assistant teachers, and child care administrators in the city. While the program is best known for providing tuition assistance to Denver’s 4-year-olds, leaders say improving preschool quality is a key priority and coaching is one way to do that.

One knock on coaching is that it’s expensive compared to other forms of professional development. The Denver Preschool Program, which contracts with Clayton Early Learning and Denver’s Early Childhood Council for coaches, typically pays for six to 12 hours of coaching per person at a cost of $780 to $1,560. The hours are spread out over several months.

Jennifer Landrum, president and CEO of the Denver Preschool Program, said coaching, combined with other quality improvement initiatives, is worth it.

“A one-shot training with 100 people in the room is not going to be individualized,” she said. “The coaching really augments that classroom training to help that teacher put whatever they learned into practice.”

Andrews said the high cost of coaching is already spurring a greater use of technology — say, in the form of videotaped observations instead of in-person visits — that could make it more affordable. In addition, she expects more child care centers will begin using in-house coaches, another trend that could lower costs.

Denver Preschool Program officials say besides paying external coaches to work with preschool teachers as they have since the organization’s inception in 2007, they’ve launched a new effort this year to help some Denver child care teachers earn a state coaching credential so they can mentor their co-workers.

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Sheryl Robledo, an early childhood coach, plays with preschool students at a Sewall Child Development Center site in far northeast Denver.

Clayton coach Sheryl Robledo, who’s working with Polasek this winter, said 90 percent of the teachers she’s coached like the experience. For the 10 percent who don’t, the problem is usually scheduling logistics, she said.

“The biggest thing I try to hit home is I’m not here to fix you,” she said. “You’re not getting this because you’re a bad teacher.”

Polasek, who heads a preschool classroom at a Sewall Child Development Center site in far northeast Denver, said coaching helps her grow professionally.

“It’s fun, and I learn so much about myself,” she said. “I love the feedback … that not only tells me what I’m doing right, but tells me, ‘Here’s another way you can do this.’”

Polasek, who has gotten coaching twice previously when she worked at other centers, has a coach this year in part because the preschool where she works will soon be rated through the state’s early childhood quality rating system, Colorado Shines.

While many factors figure into the ratings, preschools can earn extra points when teachers interact well with children — getting down on their level, asking open-ended questions, and encouraging new vocabulary.

These are exactly the kinds of goals Polasek has set for herself in working with Robledo.

On a recent morning, Robledo watched Polasek chat and finger paint with a little boy named Ethan.

“You’re putting that spoon in and scooping the paint,” Polasek told Ethan as he dropped a blob of yellow paint on his paper.

Robledo, who has a master’s degree and the highest of three coaching credentials from the state, praised the banter.

“Good parallel talk,” she said, referring to a practice where adults describe what a child is doing or seeing — building relationships and language skills in the process.

Later, in the whirlwind of children playing and a new student visiting with birthday cupcakes, Robledo nabbed Polasek for a 30-second conversation. Robledo had been playing with children in another part of the room and gave a quick rundown of how she had encouraged turn-taking when she and two boys cut up plastic vegetables with a toy knife.

“Thank you so much,” said Polasek, who’d asked how to promote turn-taking during a previous coaching session. “Thank you.”

Later, when all the children had been picked up, Robledo and Polasek sat in tiny wooden chairs at the finger-painting table for a 15-minute feedback session. Robledo gave Polasek a list of picture book suggestions and a laminated card to help her remember question prompts she could use with the kids.

She also asked Polasek if she liked how the visit had gone, seeing Robledo model and explain techniques as the morning activities unfolded.

“It was nice because you were able to show me right then and there,” Polasek said. “I’m a total in-the-moment person.”

hope on the horizon

With promise of new federal money, more low-income Colorado families could get help with child care

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

Thousands of additional Colorado families might be able to pay for child care if a federal spending bill due in March fulfills the pledge of a recently approved budget deal.

That’s because the deal, passed by Congress and signed by President Trump earlier this month, promised new money for a subsidy program that helps low-income parents pay for child care. In Colorado, the program is oversubscribed with more than 1,300 children on waitlists statewide.

While the spending bill won’t be finalized until March 23, advocates in Colorado say they think there’s a good chance the new child care money — $2.9 billion for the whole country over two years — will survive the negotiation process.

“I think that we will see this go through,” said Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

“I don’t think that child care and the block grant will be the major point of contention,” he said, referring to the federal grant that helps fund the subsidies.

(Trump’s own budget proposal, released three days after he signed the budget deal, doesn’t include increased child care block grant funding, but some observers say the budget deal holds more sway.)

If the two-year spending bill passes with the new child care funding included, Colorado could gain around $35 million, according to an estimate from the national anti-poverty group CLASP. That’s on top of the $150 million Colorado would get over the two-year period if the program’s funding simply stayed flat.

Practically speaking, the additional $35 million could mean child care subsidies for an additional 2,700 Colorado children over two years, according to a separate CLASP analysis.

State officials declined to comment on the federal budget proposal, saying in an email, “It is possible that, if approved, we could see an increase in services, but right now it’s all theoretical.”

Low-income parents who are working, looking for work, or in school make up the largest chunk of people eligible for child care subsidies, which are offered through the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program and administered by the state’s counties. About 31,000 children were served through the program last year.

In addition to child care subsidies, the federal block grant helps pay for a number of other programs, including child care licensing and the state’s child care rating system, Colorado Shines.

El Paso County officials say the new federal money could help them eliminate the waitlist for subsidies they had to start for the first time in January. There are 196 children on the list, and it’s growing steadily.

Julie Krow, executive director of the county’s human service department, said some parents may opt for unlicensed child care if they can’t get a subsidy, sending their children to stay with relatives or neighbors during the workday.

The quality of such care varies widely and is mostly unregulated by the state.

“We don’t want to see kids left in unsafe situations because of this,” Krow said, referring to the shortage of subsidies.

When early childhood programs are underfunded, she said, child abuse and neglect cases, which are also in her department’s purview, can rise.

The new federal child care dollars would help reduce or eliminate subsidy waitlists across Colorado, but wouldn’t completely satisfy the need. That’s because the number of children on waitlists represents only a fraction of those eligible for subsidies but not served.

For now, Krow is hopeful the new money will be approved and sent quickly to states and then to counties.

“It’s a program I really believe in,” she said. “As soon as those federal dollars come out, I’m hoping the state has a plan and they are out the door.”

testing ground

A giant leap: How one Colorado community plans to double its child care spots in three years

It sounds a little like a car race, but it’s more like a care race.

Child Care 8,000 is one Colorado county’s ambitious new effort to create thousands of new licensed child care slots and significantly improve the quality of its child care programs over the next three years.

The initiative in Mesa County has drawn interest and praise from early childhood leaders around the state, with some hoping it could serve as a model for other Colorado communities. At the same time, there are questions about the feasibility of such a lofty plan in a county that has lost scores of child care slots over the last year and that isn’t enjoying the same economic surge as the state’s Front Range.

One thing everybody agrees on is that child care is hard to find in the western Colorado county where Grand Junction is the county seat.

A national group that has examined child care supply in 22 states, including Colorado, has designated large swaths of Mesa County as a child care desert. That means the number of small children far exceeds the number of licensed child care slots.

For local leaders, Child Care 8,000 is also a way to tackle other pressing problems in the 150,000-resident county — everything from low elementary test scores and high suicide rates to workforce churn. The fix, they believe, is high quality early education.

On one hand, it makes sense. Some of the most respected researchers in the field have found that top-notch early childhood programs yield a better return than the stock market by improving children’s long-term education, health, and employment outcomes.

“This is a community that’s stepping out and saying we need to address this now,”
said Kathryn Harris, president and CEO of the Denver-based nonprofit Qualistar Colorado. Harris has worked with project leaders to develop the plan.

“I think a big county push like this that is putting quality at the forefront … is critical,” she said.

Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said, “Boldness attracts enthusiasm, and it’s certainly a bold goal.”

Practically speaking, Child Care 8,000 is a heavy lift. Half of its two-part goal is to increase licensed child care slots from the current 4,200 to 8,000 by the end of 2020. That means hundreds of new providers must be enticed into a field known for low pay, high turnover, and a raft of regulation.

While the project’s current focus is on creating new slots for children from newborns to 5 years old, creating new slots for school children ages 6-12 is also part of the plan. About half of the 3,800 new slots envisioned will be for the older age group.

Jeff Kuhr, executive director of the Mesa County Public Health department and a chief architect of Child Care 8,000, said the 8,000 slots represent about 60 percent of the county’s population of children ages 0-12 — the approximate proportion who need child care either because both parents work or their household is led by a single parent who works.

The second part of the Child Care 8,000 goal calls for 30 percent of providers caring for young children to earn ratings in the top three tiers of the state’s quality rating system. This means dozens of providers — both existing and new ones — will need to undertake an improvement process that has been described as time-consuming and onerous by some who’ve gone through it.

Currently, only 10 percent of Mesa County providers have ratings in the top three levels of the rating system, Colorado Shines.

Kuhr said his vision for the project grew out of a longtime interest in the potential for child care to improve many aspects of child and family well-being, and by extension, community well-being.

The project, “is truly addressing social determinants,” he said. “This ends up in a healthier community.”

Having spent the last few months pitching the project, Kuhr knows there are some doubts.

“We have some people say, ‘Well, that’s an impossible goal,’” he said. “You can always adjust, but you have to start somewhere … In my book, if you’re making progress, the goal is secondary.”

Word of the project is still trickling out. Some early childhood providers in the county said this week they hadn’t heard about it.

One of them was Kathy Laro, a licensed provider who watches four children in her Clifton home and leads the Mesa County Family Child Care Home Association. When told about the initiative, she laughed and said, “I didn’t know what that’s even about.”

A few minutes later, she said, “If they want more of us, they’re not doing their best to encourage it.”

Laro cited the red tape of licensing rules and what she and other veteran providers sometimes feel is disrespect from licensing specialists or other authorities.

At its heart, Child Care 8,000 is a collective impact effort — an approach to complicated social problems that relies on collaboration by numerous public and private groups. In Mesa County’s case, partners include county agencies, the school district, the local university, the early childhood council, community groups, businesses, and some statewide leaders.

Kuhr and other local leaders plan to deploy a wide range of strategies to increase child care slots and raise quality. These include expanding and subsidizing training for prospective providers, streamlining the licensing process, increasing provider wages, and making back-office tasks, such as purchasing and accounting, easier for providers. While some of these efforts are underway, many are still in the planning stages.

What’s not clear is how much it will cost to jump-start a large crop of what are essentially new small businesses. Leaders will apply for some grants, but for now, they say there are no plans to pursue the kind of voter-approved tax measures that have underpinned efforts to support early childhood programs in Denver, Boulder, and San Miguel County.

For years, a Denver sales tax has funded preschool subsidies for 4-year-olds, and a Boulder County property tax has funded a variety of safety net programs, including child care subsidies for low-income families. Last November, voters in San Miguel County in southwestern Colorado approved a property tax that will create new slots for infants and toddlers, fund child care scholarships, and boost pay for child care workers.

Mary Anne Snyder, who leads Colorado’s Office of Early Childhood, said in an email that state officials are excited about Child Care 8,000 but can’t provide financial resources to support it. (Some state early childhood funds already flow to Colorado’s counties, including Mesa.)

A big slice of Child Care 8,000 hinges on getting local businesses to invest in child care — possibly by subsidizing child care for employees, creating on-site child care facilities, or donating money to communitywide child care efforts.

This kind of push for business community involvement has gained traction in Colorado and elsewhere as child care is increasingly framed as a critical cog in employee recruitment, retention, and productivity.

Bernie Buescher, a former Colorado attorney general who is working with Kuhr and other local leaders on the project, said business owners are feeling the effects of the county’s child care shortage.

“They are coming to the realization that in Mesa County one of the things their employees struggle with is their kids not having child care, and that means sometimes parents can’t make it to work,” said Buescher, who leads the Mesa County chapter of the business group Executives Partnering to Invest in Children.

But Buescher and other project leaders also know that recognizing the problem isn’t enough.

Tracey Garchar, director of the county’s human services department, said getting active involvement from business leaders will be a major challenge.

It’s critical to find partners who are “willing to see the value in this and step forward from the business community,” he said. “If we’re successful in this, it could help everybody. There’s nobody who loses from having adequate, accessible child care in Mesa County.”

Since Kuhr came up with the concept of Child Care 8,000 about a year ago, the county has lost more than 100 licensed child care slots.

A few child care centers have closed, but more troubling to some early childhood advocates is a new state law governing how many children unlicensed providers can legally care for in their homes. The 2017 law raised the cap to four, prompting some home-based providers to let their licenses lapse, allowing them to continue doing what they’re doing mostly free of state regulation.

Holly Jacobson, co-coordinator of the early childhood council in Mesa County, said at least a half-dozen home-based providers have not renewed their licenses in recent months or are considering it specifically because of the new law.

Laro, the provider who cares for four children in Clifton, considered letting her license lapse but decided against it because moving to unlicensed status would reduce the daily payment she receives for one of her charges — a child in foster care who Laro watches more than 10 hours a day — from the current $32 to as little as $9.

While the number of licensed providers in Mesa County who have decided not to renew because of the new law isn’t large — a handful of providers representing maybe two dozen slots — it’s unclear whether the problem will intensify.

Despite such obstacles, Jacobson said Child Care 8,000’s aspirations are necessary.

“We’re shooting high” she said. “But we need to shoot high because there is significant need in our community.”