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.”

Starting early

Colorado’s state preschool program doesn’t serve English learners well, report finds

PHOTO: energyy | Getty Images
Preschool children doing activities.

Colorado’s public preschool program fails to meet most targets for effectively serving young English learners, according to a new state-by-state report released today.

Besides having just two of nine recommended policies in place for serving such youngsters, Colorado also doesn’t know how many of the 22,000 preschoolers in its state-funded slots speak a home language other than English.

These findings come from the “State of Preschool 2017” report put out by the National Institute for Early Education Research, or NIEER, at Rutgers University. This year, in addition to the organization’s usual look at state preschool spending, enrollment, and quality, the report includes a section on how states are serving English learners. Nationwide, 23 percent of preschool-aged children fall into this category.

Colorado fared about the same as last year — average or below average — on the criteria examined annually in the preschool report. It ranked 25th among 43 states and Washington, D.C., for 4-year-old access to preschool, 10th for 3-year-old access and 39th for state preschool funding. It also met only five of 10 benchmarks measuring preschool quality, worse than most other states.

Colorado’s state-funded preschool program, called the the Colorado Preschool Program, provides half-day preschool to 3- and 4-year-olds who come from low-income families, have parents who didn’t finish high school, or other risk factors. Seven states, mostly in the West, have no public preschool programs.

Colorado isn’t alone in having few provisions focused on preschoolers learning English. About two-dozen other states also met two or fewer of the report’s nine benchmarks, which include policies such as allocating extra funding to English learners, and screening and assessing them in their home language.

Only three states met eight or nine of the benchmarks: Texas, Maine, and Kansas.

Colorado education department officials said the NIEER report could help spur changes in the Colorado Preschool Program.

“This actually might be an opportunity for us to look at these more specific indicators of high quality practices [for] dual-language learners, to help drive improvements in our program,” said Heidi McCaslin, preschool director at the Colorado Department of Education.

To alter the program or its data collection requirements, she said the state legislature would have to change the law or the State Board of Education would have to change rules.

Authors of the new report say supporting English learners is important, especially early in life.

“For all children, the preschool years are a critical time for language development.” said Steve Barnett, senior co-director of the institute. “We know that dual-language learners are a group that makes the largest gains from attending high-quality preschool. At the same time they’re at elevated risk for school failure.”

Colorado earned credit for two of the study’s English-learner benchmarks: for allowing bilingual instruction and having policies to support families of young English learners. Those policies include providing enrollment information and communicating with the child’s family in the home language.

McCaslin mentioned one Colorado preschool initiative focused on dual-language learners. It’s a training to help preschool teachers distinguish between children who have speech problems because of a disability and those who have speech delays because they are learning English and another language at the same time.

Data dive

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

PHOTO: KIdStock | Getty Images
Boy standing near school bus.

Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates in school districts across Colorado. Some rural districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state. And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up.

These are a few of the findings from a new Chalkbeat analysis of three years of data on out-of-school suspensions given to students in kindergarten through second grade. Chalkbeat obtained the district- and state level data — some of it disaggregated by race and gender — from the Colorado Department of Education through a public records request.

Last year, rural district leaders and the lawmakers who represent them beat back a bill that would have limited the use of suspensions in the earliest grades. This year, advocates decided not to bring forward a new version after struggling to find common ground with opponents. At the same time, at least three large metro Denver districts have recently launched their own efforts to reduce the number of small children sent home for misbehaving — but not without some trepidation from teachers.

Amidst these discussions, we wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado’s public schools.

Supporters of policies that limit suspensions of young children say such discipline doesn’t work to change students’ behavior, harms them educationally, and disproportionately affects boys and children of color. Opponents of such policies say suspension is a tool sometimes needed to help restore classroom order, ensure student and teacher safety, and focus a family’s attention on the problem.

Young children are suspended for a variety of reasons, including hitting, biting, fighting, and chronically disrupting their classrooms.

It’s important to note that we examined the number of suspensions given out in each district, not the total number of students who were suspended. In some cases, individual students receive multiple suspensions during a school year. (Suspension numbers are self-reported by each school district and not independently verified by the state.)

Colorado districts handed out more suspensions to young students last year than they did the year before (or the year before that).

Even as local and national groups have recently spotlighted the harm caused by suspending young children from schools, Colorado schools have handed out more suspensions.

Even as the statewide population of kindergarten to second grade students has shrunk over the last three years, schools have handed out more suspensions to this age group.

Last year, districts statewide gave approximately three suspensions per 100 kindergarten to second grade students, up from 2.6 in 2014-15. The state education department first began disaggregating suspension data by grade level three years ago.

Three-year trends in Colorado’s K-2 suspension rates

This chart shows the number of suspensions given per 100 kindergarten through second grade students in rural districts, small rural districts and all Colorado districts over the last three years.

The highest-suspending districts are rural. (So are the lowest-suspending districts.)

Of the state’s more than 140 rural districts, several use suspensions in the early elementary grade at higher rates than any large district. For example, the 980-student Trinidad district in southern Colorado, posted the state’s highest rate last year, giving out 65 suspensions to students in kindergarten through second grade — a rate of 27 suspensions per 100 students.

Meanwhile, about 70 rural districts suspended no students at all last year. These include a few that are around the same size as Trinidad, including East Grand, Weld RE-9, and Telluride.

As a group, small rural districts — those with less than 1,000 students — are suspending early elementary children at about the same rate as non-rural districts — giving just over 3 suspensions per 100 students. Rural districts — somewhat bigger than “small rurals” but still under 6,500 students — suspend less frequently, giving out 2 suspensions per 100 students.

The state’s highest-suspending districts

A look at which rural school districts suspend young students at the highest rate. Rates reflect the number of suspensions given per 100 kindergarten through second grade students in 2016-17. Note: The state education department classifies Expeditionary BOCES as a “small rural” district, but it’s a single school located in Denver that pulls students from several area districts.

El Paso County is home to three of the five highest-suspending large districts.

Three of the large districts that used suspension in lower elementary grades most often last year are in El Paso County: Harrison, Colorado Springs and Widefield. One of the other two is in metro Denver and the other is in Greeley.

The three El Paso County districts have larger proportions of students from low-income families than some of their lower-suspending counterparts in that county — Falcon or Academy, for instance. However, other large districts, including Denver and Aurora, serve similar or greater proportions of students in poverty as the high-suspending El Paso County districts, yet have lower suspension rates.

Large districts with the highest suspension rates

This chart shows the five districts of Colorado’s 30 largest with the highest suspension rates in 2016-17. Rates reflect the number of suspensions given per 100 kindergarten through second grade students.

Large districts with the lowest suspension rates tend to be more affluent and white.

The five districts with the lowest suspension rates among the state’s 30 largest, are scattered geographically and range in size, but generally have fewer students from poor families and fewer students of color than high-suspending large districts.
One exception is the 7,000-student Eagle County district, which has the lowest suspension rate among the five. Students of color make up 55 percent of enrollment and 37 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, a proxy for poverty.

Large districts with the lowest suspension rates

This chart shows the five districts of Colorado’s 30 largest with the lowest suspension rates in 2016-17.

Suspension rates are dropping in Denver, and climbing in the state’s other four largest districts.

Of Colorado’s five largest districts, which educate about 75,000 students in kindergarten through second grade, Jeffco had the highest rate of early elementary suspensions last year, followed by Aurora. While the rates increased for both districts compared to the previous year, each has recently embarked on new efforts to prevent student suspensions.

Denver, which for years has emphasized restorative discipline practices and this year launched a policy limiting suspensions of preschool through third grade students, was the only one of the five largest districts to post a decrease in its early childhood suspension rate last year. Cherry Creek saw a jump last year, and Douglas County saw a smaller uptick.

Trends in Colorado’s five largest districts

A look at changing suspension rates in the state’s five largest districts over three years. Rates reflect the number of suspensions given per 100 kindergarten through second grade students.

Young black boys are disproportionately suspended nationwide. Colorado is no exception.

While black boys make up up only about 2.3 percent of the state’s kindergarten to second grade students, they receive almost 10 percent of suspensions given in that age group. Such disparities exist in all 14 of the state’s 30 largest districts for which data was available.

The Denver district, which educates more young black students than any other in Colorado, was close behind the three districts with the highest levels of disproportionality. Last year, black boys made up about 6 percent of Denver’s kindergarten through second grade population, but received 29 percent of suspensions given in that age group.

(In 16 large districts, suspension data broken out for black male K-2 students was unavailable because privacy rules require some data to be suppressed when group sizes are very small.)

Disproportionate suspensions given to black boys

Among the state’s 30 largest districts, these three gave out a particularly disproportionate number of suspensions to black boys in kindergarten through second grade in 2016-17.

Young Hispanic boys receive a disproportionate number of suspensions in many Colorado districts — but not all.

At the state level, Hispanic boys make up 17 percent of the kindergarten through second grade population, but receive 29 percent of suspensions. At the district level, the picture varies. Seven of the state’s 30 large districts, including two with relatively high suspension rates overall, did not suspend a disproportionately large number of Hispanic boys last year. Those include Colorado Springs 11 and Harrison — the two highest suspending large districts — as well as Aurora, School District 27J, Fountain, Pueblo 70, and St. Vrain Valley.

In the 19 large districts that showed some disproportionality in suspending young Hispanic boys, the severity ranged widely. Two districts with very low overall suspension rates — Poudre and Douglas County — had high levels of disproportionality. In contrast, Falcon and Widefield had relatively low levels of disproportionality.

(In 4 of the 30 largest districts, suspension data broken out for Hispanic male K-2 students was unavailable because privacy rules require some data to be suppressed when group sizes are very small.)

Disproportionate suspensions given to Hispanic boys

Among the state’s 30 largest districts, these three gave out a particularly disproportionate number of suspensions to Hispanic boys in kindergarten through second grade in 2016-17.

Look up your district’s 2016-17 K-2 suspension rate in the chart below.