New direction

Three years in, an ambitious experiment to improve the odds for kids at one elementary school is scaling back

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Tennyson Knolls students return to school after a ribbon-cutting ceremony on school grounds in September.

Blocks of Hope was once envisioned as a pint-sized version of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

The project would provide an array of educational and social services to young children and families living within the boundaries of one high-poverty Adams County school — in the process, changing not only the lives of individual children but also the community around them.

But after three years, the Westminster-based nonprofit that spearheaded Blocks of Hope is scaling back its ambitions.

While the project won’t disappear entirely, the nonprofit’s leaders say they’re no longer focusing services and staff so tightly on the school’s boundary zone and may eventually stop using the Blocks of Hope name.

“We’re starting to question whether it’s the right strategic direction for the organization,” said Karen Fox Elwell, the new president and CEO of Growing Home, which launched the project in 2014.

The shifting shape of Blocks of Hope — originally framed as a 20-year effort intended to change the trajectories of children 0 to 9 within the Tennyson Knolls Elementary School enrollment zone — is a disappointment for some advocates who’d hoped this “placed-based” approach would not only be successful, but also possibly serve as a model for other Colorado communities.

A raft of issues have prompted the changes, including greater-than-expected mobility among the school population, fundraising challenges, and the tension that came from devoting resources to the 2.25-square-mile project zone while also trying to serve the broader Adams County community.

“It was hard to find that balance to do both well,” said Fox Elwell, who joined Growing Home in January.

Organizers knew when they started that the community was changing, but gentrification pushed out families faster than they expected. About a quarter of Tennyson Knoll’s students left the school in 2015-16.

Leaders said that was one reason it was tricky to track child outcomes that would demonstrate the project’s impact — a hallmark of successful place-based work.

Fox Elwell said there’s more stability among residents in the Harlem Children’s Zone because of rent-controlled housing.

“So families are really staying in that community for years upon years,” she said. “With Blocks of Hope, it’s just not the case.”

Fox Elwell said the board and staff will determine the future of Blocks of Hope during the group’s upcoming strategic planning process starting in late spring.

Teva Sienicki, the former president and CEO of Growing Home and the project’s original champion, said significant evidence supports the place-based strategy that underpinned Blocks of Hope, but didn’t want to second-guess the decisions of Growing Home’s current leaders.

“I really do wish them the best,” said Sienicki, who left Growing Home last summer.

Even at the outset of the project,  Sienicki acknowledged that changing demographics and funding challenges could alter the long-term course of the project. Still, she was optimistic, projecting a gradual expansion that would bring two to three other elementary schools in the Westminster district under the Blocks of Hope umbrella, and increase the number of employees dedicated to the project from two to 70.

In addition to improving family functioning, the project’s goal was to boost school attendance, kindergarten readiness, and third-grade reading scores, and reduce the number of children referred for special education services. This year, 85 percent of Tennyson Knolls students are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, a proxy for poverty.

One of the essential ideas behind place-based efforts like Blocks of Hope and the Harlem Children’s Zone is to flood a carefully defined geographic area with services in the hopes of touching a critical mass of residents, usually around 60 percent. By reaching such a large proportion of a population, proponents say such efforts create a kind of tipping point that pushes the whole community to adopt the norms and aspirations of those who receive services.

But Blocks of Hope never got close to that tipping point.

While certain components of the project, such as backpack and school supply giveaways, reached a large number of families, others, such as parent programs, never got above 15 percent, said Fox Elwell.

Aside from high mobility, the fact that many students ride the bus to Tennyson Knolls — instead of getting dropped off by their parents — made it harder to connect with parents than organizers anticipated.

The nonprofit’s limited budget was also a factor. Spending on the project was originally set at $250,000 annually, with eventual plans to reach $3 million if it expanded to other schools.

The nonprofit’s actual spending on Blocks of Hope has been around $100,000 a year, said Fox Elwell. In addition, a grant that Growing Home leaders hoped would pay for an evaluation of the project never came through.

“There were some incredible hopes to grow the budget and deeply invest in the community,” she said. “And maybe it was more challenging to fundraise than we anticipated.”

There are still several Blocks of Hope programs at Tennyson Knolls this year, including backpack giveaways, holiday gift and meal help, and two parenting classes. The school also houses a boutique with used children’s clothing and gear.

An after-school tutoring program was discontinued after last school year because it wasn’t effective, leaders said. Another program aimed at grandparents raising grandchildren was slated to launch this spring, but will not because school leaders felt they had too much going on.

A community organizer originally hired to work with Blocks of Hope families to advocate for affordable housing has expanded her territory to include other neighborhoods.

“There’s a lot of need just a little bit south and a little bit east of those (school) boundaries,” said Leslie Gonzalez, a Growing Home board member.

Residents in some of those areas began to assume they were no longer eligible for any of the nonprofit’s services as Blocks of Hope ramped up. That wasn’t true, but the project sent some “unintended negative messages,” she said.

Despite looming questions about the future of Blocks of Hope, leaders at Growing Home and Tennyson Knolls say the project has helped families, sparked welcome changes to the nonprofit’s case management strategy, and built community at the school.

Tennyson Knolls Principal Heather McGuire, who is the school’s third principal since Blocks of Hope began, said the project helped get parents involved at school, whether attending PTA meetings, taking Blocks of Hope classes, or attending “coffee with the principal” meetings.

She credits the project with giving rise to the school’s tagline, “We are TKE,” a reference to the school’s initials.

Gonzalez said, “We don’t view Blocks of Hope as a failure necessarily … Even though there were a lot of challenges, a lot of good came out of it, too, and we were able to meet even more families in that community we serve.”

Prize money

A million dollars, 570 hopefuls, and 15 winners: How a new competition aims to boost babies and toddlers

PHOTO: JGI/Jamie Grill | Getty Images
Boy displaying drawing.

A Colorado team is one of 15 winners to share in $1 million awarded by a Denver-based organization as part of a new contest recognizing innovative efforts benefitting children from birth to 3 years old.

The Boulder-based team will receive $80,000 for a project that helps little kids acquire language, thinking, and social-emotional skills using a cell phone app inside a stuffed animal.

Gary Community Investments, which gives grants and makes for-profit investments to benefit low-income children and families, announced the winners of the Early Childhood Innovation Prize on Tuesday afternoon. (Gary Community Investments, through the Piton Foundation, is a Chalkbeat funder.)

The Colorado team that won prize money developed a tool called MindScribe. It works like this. An adult slips a cell phone with a special application into the belly of a stuffed zebra. The app prompts the child to explain what they are doing or making and asks follow-up questions, such as “What happened next?” and “Why?”

MindScribe founder Layne Hubbard, a Ph.D. student in computer science at the University of Colorado Boulder, said her work as a teacher at Boulder’s Children’s House Preschool inspired the project.

“I thought back to storytelling and how powerfully the children’s original stories catalyzed growth, development, and connectedness,” she wrote via email. “I realized that I wanted to scale this opportunity to reach young children across diverse early childhood communities, especially those which are multilingual, low-income, or affected by trauma or disability.”

One little girl who stars in a MindScribe’s demonstration video describes her crayon drawing of a garden — and her fictional protagonist’s desire to change “boring weather” — to the MindScribe zebra for seven minutes.

But the girl, Mia, isn’t oblivious to the cell phone inside the paunchy stuffed animal. Instead, she’s delighted.

She explain how it works to her father, saying, “This is like the teacher but with a radio inside the teacher.”

Mindscribe, which is still in the pilot stage, began with three languages and is now available in 11.

The Early Childhood Innovation Prize, unveiled by Gary last fall, is distinctive because there are few contests that focus on very young children — despite a large body of evidence showing that high-quality care and education for this group yield significant financial and societal dividends.

Leaders at Gary invited prize submissions from teams with advanced ideas, early-stage ideas, and nascent concepts. Five advanced winners received $100,000 each, five early-stage winners received $80,000 each, and five beginning-concept winners receiving varying shares of $100,000. Gary also recognized seven teams, including one from a Colorado Springs-based network of child care centers, that didn’t win money but offered promising ideas.

The contest used an online platform that made each submission publicly viewable and allowed teams to get feedback from fellow candidates, and in some cases, mentoring from experts.

“We really wanted the prize to be an engaging opportunity for people in the early childhood field,” said Steffanie Clothier, Gary’s child development investment director.

Gary received 570 submissions, with winning ideas coming from nonprofit and for-profit groups, universities, city governments, and the National Head Start Association.

One winning team aims to eradicate book deserts by putting children’s reading materials in public spaces like barber shops and beauty salons. Another proposes classes on mindfulness to reduce child care providers’ stress levels. Several feature technology solutions — to improve child care business operations or promote early developmental screenings.

Clothier said although most of the prize winners are testing projects outside Colorado, their ideas could eventually be replicated here. She said the organization has not decided whether to hold the innovation competition again.

career prep

A growing Jeffco program trains future early childhood workers while they’re still in high school

Julian Salazar, 18, plays with preschool children at an internship that's part of his high school's early childhood pathway program.

Julian Salazar pushed preschoolers on swings, weaving deftly between them as the children careened back and forth. Earlier in the afternoon, the 18-year-old had worked mazes, played a number-themed card game, and snacked on Goldfish crackers with the 3- and 4-year-olds.

It was all part of Salazar’s weekly internship in a preschool classroom a couple miles away from his high school, Jefferson Junior/Senior High in the Denver suburb of Edgewater.

The internship, which ended in early May, is one component of a new early childhood career pathway offered at the high school. The year-long program also includes two early childhood classes and leads to an entry-level certificate from Red Rocks Community College that qualifies students to be assistant preschool or child care teachers.

Salazar — and students in similar concurrent enrollment programs around Colorado — represents one segment of the child care field’s next generation. With their professional lives just beginning, the students are laying the foundation to earn further credentials and become the lead preschool teachers and directors of the future. It’s a vision straight out of the state’s three-year plan to build a strong early childhood workforce. But in a field known for low pay and high turnover, keeping these students in the pipeline is no small task.

Julian Salazar, 18, helps a preschooler with his jacket during his internship.

Still, organizers of the Jeffco school district’s early childhood pathway are optimistic. Enrollment in the program at Jefferson is set to more than double from 19 this year to 43 next year, and plans are in the works to expand to two other district high schools — McLain Community and Arvada West — by 2020.

The district offered similar early childhood training programs at certain district high schools in the past, but they fizzled out. One had targeted teen moms enrolled at McLain, for example, but many of the students weren’t ready for college-level work, said Janiece Kneppe Walter, who leads the early childhood education program at Red Rocks and helped the district set up the pathway program.

A few years ago, Kneppe Walter and her colleagues won a grant to revamp the two introductory early childhood classes. Then in the fall of 2016, teacher Nicole Kamman launched the pathway program at Jefferson with eight students. At first, it was just a sequence of two college courses modified for a high school audience. This year, leaders decided to add the 22-hour internship to give students more hands-on practice.

While Jefferson is one of the lower performing high schools in the district, it has posted improved graduation rates and test scores in recent years. The vast majority of its students are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, a proxy for poverty.

Kamman sees the early childhood program as a way to give these students valuable experience in a field where qualified workers are in high demand.

“Any opportunity to get them career-ready … I knew I had capacity to promote that,” she said.

At the same time, local preschoolers in Edgewater and nearby areas get the chance to see teenage role models from their own communities, many of whom speak Spanish, as they do.

On a spring day in Kamman’s classroom, her high school students discussed nine child temperament traits and then acted them out as classmates tried to guess the characteristic.

When it was Salazar’s turn, he mimed sweeping the floor, not giving up even after repeatedly fumbling with the broom and dustpan.

“Persistence,” a classmate guessed correctly.

Of the eight Jefferson students who completed the early childhood pathway program last year, four landed jobs at local preschools or child care centers, Kamman said, and a fifth enrolled at Red Rocks seeking a degree in early childhood education.

But for some students, perhaps even a majority, the pathway program is a stepping-stone to something else.

“I don’t think they necessarily see early childhood as their endpoint,” Kamman said.

One of her students hopes to become a pediatrician, so the early childhood classes are a useful stop in a longer journey.

Salazar, a self-assured teen who was as comfortable helping kids with stubborn jacket zippers as playing chase on the playground, described his internship in the preschool classroom at Jefferson County Open School as “amazing.” Asked if he planned to pursue early childhood education, he said he could see working as a teaching assistant for a short time, but not necessarily long-term.

“I’m looking more or less for a ‘now’ thing,” he said.

Another student in the pathway program, senior Sonya Hernandez, felt the same way. She plans to study event management at Metro State University next year, but enrolled in the pathway program to improve her short-term job prospects.

“For me, it was more so about having the opportunity to get a better job after high school rather than working a regular minimum wage job at a fast food place or retail,” the 17-year-old said. “I figured I might as well do it and also get the college credits.”

Kamman said the field’s wages are a bit higher than minimum wage and therefore competitive for teenagers just starting out. Nationwide, the median wage of early childhood workers is $10.60 an hour, according to a 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Education. Colorado’s minimum wage is $10.20 this year and will rise to $11.10 in 2019.

The shortage of early childhood workers is a perennial problem in the state. A recent survey of Colorado child care providers found an average annual turnover rate of 16 percent for lead teachers and 22 percent for assistant teachers. In addition, 70 percent of directors reported difficulty in finding teachers for vacant positions.

Early childhood pathway programs like the one at Jefferson Jr./Sr. High represent only a partial solution to the early education workforce crunch. But to Kneppe Walter, that’s OK. If some pathway students use early childhood jobs to work their way through college in unrelated majors, she doesn’t see that as problem.

“They’re still walking away with some great life skills,” she said. “If they could contribute for two to five years, I’d be tickled pink.”

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Ariadna Santos, a student at Jefferson Junior/Senior High School reads to preschoolers during her internship.

Ariadna Santos, a soft-spoken high school junior who also interned at Jefferson County Open School, may well fit this profile.

The 16-year-old, who said she has no younger siblings and has never worked as a babysitter, said the internship made her more comfortable with young children. On a recent day, she sat at a knee-high table and read a picture book about animals to a half-dozen preschoolers. As one little boy repeatedly touched his neighbor’s arms and shoulders, she calmly said, “Let’s not grab other people. Keep your hands to yourself.”

It was the kind of episode Santos found daunting at the beginning. Early in the internship when two children got in a sandbox fight, she had no idea what to do and the lead teacher had to intervene.

“Nowadays, it’s just easier to calm them down and get them to work with each other,” said Santos, whose other career interests include architecture and interior design.

“I don’t really know what I want to do as a career yet so I just really wanted to take this class as an opportunity to see what one of the options could be,” she said.

Even if Santos doesn’t stay in the early childhood workforce permanently, Kneppe Walter is hopeful that the pathway experience will be formative for others in the program.

“What’s lovely about early childhood is it’s got this strong core of social justice to it,” she said. “If students resonate with that idea, ‘I want to be empowered. I want to make a difference,’ then it’s not such a hard sell to go into early childhood.”