Threes please

As 4-year-old preschool programs become the norm, Denver looks to reach 3-year-olds next

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat

The Denver Preschool Program, most well-known for providing millions of dollars to help the families of 4-year-olds pay for preschool, is expanding its scope.

Starting this month, the nonprofit will put a share of its funding from a citywide sales tax toward improving preschool classrooms for 3-year-olds — something it has long done in 4-year-old classrooms. Those improvements could take the form of teacher training or coaching, teacher scholarships for educational programs, or new blocks and playground equipment.

The $700,000 initiative pales in comparison to the $15 million that the Denver Preschool Program will spend on tuition assistance for the city’s 4-year-olds this year. Still, it’s another sign of growing recognition that investments in younger children help amplify the benefits of widespread and politically popular 4-year-old prekindergarten programs.

The push to serve more 3-year-olds can be seen around the state and nation. Colorado’s two largest school districts — Denver and Jeffco — both plan to add new preschool seats for 3-year-olds if tax measures for education pass in November.

Last year, New York City school leaders began phasing in free universal preschool for the city’s 3-year-olds, an expansion of the city’s ambitious Pre-K for All program, which served about 70,000 4-year-olds in 2017-18. In 2008, Washington, D.C., passed a major preschool overhaul law, which helped make it one of the few places in the country where a large majority of 3-year-olds attend free preschool.

Jennifer Landrum, president and CEO of the Denver Preschool Program, said when city voters first passed a sales tax in 2006 to fund the program, the ballot language specifically earmarked the proceeds for 4-year-olds. But in 2014, when voters approved a 10-year extension of the sales tax, they also OK’d language that allowed spending on 3-year-olds.

The expanded age range fit with the shifting national policy conversation at the time, which increasingly emphasized the importance of starting with children younger than 4, said Landrum.

Research shows that early childhood programs can produce huge long-term gains for children, particularly those from low-income families. But there’s a caveat: The programs must be high-quality.

That’s part of the reason the Denver Preschool Program will focus its new 3-year-old funding on boosting quality.

“It’s such a logical next step when you can see the gains 4-year-olds can make in that one year of high-quality preschool,” said Landrum. “It just makes sense.”

The improvement efforts will focus on the preschool classrooms of about 3,400 Denver 3-year-olds.

Unlike the city’s 4-year-olds, those 3-year-olds will not get tuition help from the Denver Preschool Program. There’s not enough money for that, said Landrum.

In Colorado, a fraction of 3-year-olds attend publicly funded preschool through Head Start or the Colorado Preschool Program, a statewide program that pays for preschool for young children with certain risk factors. Some 3-year-olds also qualify for free preschool because they have disabilities.

Denver district officials say they hope to add 500 new preschool seats for 3-year-olds if the statewide ballot measure, Amendment 73, passes in November. Right now, there are long waitlists for that age group.

In Jeffco, which serves 3- and 4-year-olds together in the same classrooms, expansion plans also hinge on the outcome of November’s election. A proposed district bond measure would help renovate 70 classrooms for the preschool set, for a total of about 1,100 additional seats. Currently, the district serves about 3,500 preschoolers — about half of them 3-year olds.

And if Amendment 73 or the district’s mill levy override  — or both — pass, district officials say it would allow them to convert more half-day preschool slots to full-day slots, hike teacher pay, and improve the qualifications of early childhood staff.

leading the state

Three things we heard at a gubernatorial candidates forum on early childhood

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat
Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate for Colorado governor, and Lang Sias, the Republican lieutenant governor candidate, spoke at forum on early childhood issues.

Stark differences in how Colorado’s two would-be governors plan to tackle early childhood issues were clear at a candidate forum Monday evening.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, the Democratic nominee, envisions free full-day preschool and kindergarten for all Colorado children — a sweeping and pricey expansion of what’s currently available.

Republican lieutenant governor candidate Lang Sias, who stood in for gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton, said Republicans would focus public funds on narrower programs that benefit the poorest children.

Currently, Colorado funds early childhood programs for some of its young children. The state provides half-day preschool to 4-year-olds with certain risk factors, but the program covers only some of those who qualify. In addition, the state reimburses districts for just over half the cost of full-day kindergarten, leaving districts to pay for the rest or pass on the cost to families through tuition. Last spring, lawmakers expanded the state income tax credit for child care costs, but most families still need to come up with hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month.

Monday’s event at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science represented a rare opportunity to hear candidates address early childhood issues, which are often overshadowed on the campaign trail by topics such as housing, roads and health care. While the forum highlighted some of the big early childhood ideas championed by each campaign, it also left plenty of unanswered questions.

Stapleton, Colorado’s state treasurer, was originally slated to speak at the forum, but backed out citing family obligations. Sias, a state representative from Arvada and a member of the House Education Committee, spoke in his place.

Polis and Sias didn’t debate each other at Monday’s forum, or otherwise interact. Polis went first, giving a short statement about his early childhood platform then answering several questions posed by moderator Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign. Sias followed suit.

The event was sponsored by Constellation Philanthropy, a group of funders focused on early childhood issues. (Constellation is a Chalkbeat funder.)

Here are three things we learned from the forum:

The candidates have different ideas about which young children need help and how to provide it

In discussing his plans to create universal full-day preschool and kindergarten, Polis talked about using a public-private financing mechanism that’s sometimes called “social impact bonds.”

In this kind of financing — also called “pay for success” — private investors or philanthropists pay up front for social programs and get repaid with interest if those programs save public money by reducing the need for costly services such as special education or reading remediation. If a project doesn’t yield the hoped-for savings, the investors lose some or all of their money.

Polis said if he wins in November, he’ll immediately “work out how to partner with philanthropy to create more early childhood education for all income levels.”

Currently a version of social impact bonds is being used to pay for full-day preschool for some students in the Westminster school district north of Denver, a fact Polis mentioned Monday. Still, the financing mechanism is relatively untested in Colorado’s education sphere and it’s unclear how it might be scaled to pay for something as ambitious as statewide full-day preschool and kindergarten.

When talking about the Republican ticket’s early-education priorities, Sias described early childhood education as “incredibly important” but “very inequitably distributed.”

“We want to focus our public spending on those who are least able to afford it on their own,” he said.

He cited a proposal for education savings accounts that allow families to set aside money tax-free for educational expenses, including early childhood education.

“We realize that is more focused on middle-class and above families,” he said, “but by targeting that money using that program, we feel we will have more available to target the folks at the bottom of the spectrum who really cannot avail themselves of that opportunity.”

Education savings accounts don’t typically work for low-income parents because they have no extra money to set aside for future expenses.

The candidates would take different approaches to strengthening the early childhood workforce

In a field marked by low pay and tough working conditions, recruiting and retaining qualified teachers is a chronic problem. The candidates had ideas about how to bulk up the workforce.

Sias advocated for a residency program to help turn out new early childhood teachers, similar to what he’s previously proposed to help address the K-12 teacher shortage. He said such programs are data-driven, helping retain teachers for longer periods and improving student results.

He also floated the idea of recruiting midlife career-changers to early childhood work — “folks north of 50” — and hinted that they would work in the low-paid field.

“Is that an opportunity to tap into … folks who would like to fill those spots who maybe don’t have the same set of issues that millennials do in terms of how long they want to stay and how long they need to be committed, and frankly how much they need to be paid?”

While some middle-aged people do enter the field, mediocre pay, a maze of state regulations, and the growing push to boost providers’ education levels could make it a tough sell.

Polis talked about creating partnerships with colleges to beef up the credentials of people who currently work in the early childhood field.

He said it’s important to “bridge the skills gap” for those whose hearts are already in the work. He didn’t address how he could dramatically expand preschool and kindergarten simply by focusing on the existing workforce, where turnover can be as high as 40 percent annually.

Neither candidate talked about how he would boost compensation for early childhood workers, whose median pay in Colorado is $12.32 an hour, Jaeger said.

Both candidates agree that Colorado can do much better by its youngest residents

When asked how Colorado is doing overall in supporting young children and their families, both candidates agreed that the state has a long way to go.

Sias emphasized that low-income children continue to be left out. Polis talked about the lack of uniform access to full-day kindergarten.

Both candidates expressed interest in working with bipartisan coalitions on solutions.

“There’s so many people in our state who want to do right by their kids,” said Polis. “It’s really going to take folks from across the spectrum coming together.”

Sias, who argued for a combination of business-minded acumen and public money for early childhood, asked the audience to partner with lawmakers in finding what programs work.

He said he and Stapleton are “more than willing to work across the aisle with folks that we like and respect, and have knowledge in this area.”

Teach preschool for America

With preschool teachers in short supply, Colorado’s Teach For America is pulled into early childhood market

PHOTO: Christine Krall | Sewall Child Development Center
Teach For America corps member Ariel McPherson just began her preschool teaching job with Sewall Child Development Center in one of their satellite locations, the Dahlia Center for Health and Well Being in the North Park Hill neighborhood of Denver.

Hiawatha Davis III, a 21-year-old Seattle native who majored in Africana studies in college, someday hopes to practice civil rights law. Ariel McPherson, 22, who grew up in a low-income family in Colorado Springs, sees education as a way to break down systems that oppress people. LeAnn Walker, 22, who comes from a tiny Missouri town, eventually wants to have a hand in education policy-making, but for now is happiest working with children.

All three are newly minted Denver preschool teachers, part of Teach For America’s inaugural foray into Colorado’s early childhood sector. After a six-week summer training course in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and another six days of training in Denver earlier this month, they and five other corps members have begun teaching 3- and 4-year-olds around the city.

Teach For America’s expansion into preschool here has prompted both enthusiasm and trepidation. Some advocates say the move will help bulk up the state’s spindly pipeline of early childhood teachers — a longstanding problem in Colorado, driven by the field’s low pay and the common misconception that early childhood workers are low-skill babysitters.

But Teach For America’s preschool initiative also raises familiar critiques about the 27-year-old nonprofit, which generally has supplied beginning teachers to low-income K-12 schools. Does the summer training regimen adequately prepare teachers for demanding posts teaching the youngest students? Is the two-year commitment too short in a field already plagued by high turnover?

Kathy Schultz, dean of the school of education at the University of Colorado Boulder, voiced concern on both counts.

“Teach For America has a lot of political power and access to fundraising, and I would prefer them to use that for long-term changes rather than short-term stopgap solutions,” she said. “If they really want to make a difference, it’s not just slotting teachers in for two years.”

Schultz, who once served as faculty director of Teach For America at the University of Pennsylvania, believes the organization should be pushing for bigger systemic fixes — things like higher teacher salaries or universal full-day kindergarten.

Officials at Denver’s Teach For America office agreed that such work is important and said they recently hired a full-time staff member to work on systems-level early childhood issues, possibly including preschool quality and teacher pay.

They also noted that local early childhood leaders encouraged them to expand their scope to preschool.

“We didn’t push into the (early childhood education) market. We were sort of pulled into it,” said Damion LeeNatali, executive director of the Colorado region of Teach for America.

He said the Denver-based Gary Community Investments, which gives grants and makes for-profit investments to help low-income children and families, funded a feasibility study to determine whether Teach for America should try early childhood placements. (Gary Community Investments, through the Piton Foundation, is a Chalkbeat funder.)

The study delivered a favorable conclusion and Gary subsequently awarded Teach for America a grant of nearly $800,000 to launch a two-year pilot program.

“Getting the stamp of approval … opened a lot of doors that wouldn’t have necessarily been open to us otherwise,” LeeNatali said.

Testing the waters

About a half-dozen of Teach For America’s 51 regions, including New York, Chicago and Indianapolis, already place teachers in preschools, but it’s a relatively new and narrow slice of the organization’s work.

In Colorado, there are eight early childhood corps members this year in contrast to 132 who are either in their first or second year teaching in K-12 classrooms. The format of the new early childhood track is similar to the K-12 track in that corps members receive about a month and a half of summer training and are considered lead teachers on Day One in the classroom. Next summer, five more early childhood corps members will join the first eight.

While the new early childhood corps members generally have bachelor’s degrees in subjects not directly related to early childhood education, the training they receive through Teach For America makes them eligible to teach preschool in Colorado. It’s one of several routes to becoming a qualified preschool teacher and fits with the state’s 2017 early childhood workforce plan, which prioritizes alternative pathways into the profession. There are other pathways that do not require a bachelor’s degree or an associate’s degree.

This year’s eight early childhood corps members will work at five preschools across the city — three operated by Mile High Early Learning and two operated by Sewall Child Development Center, which serves students with disabilities and typically developing children together.

The six corps members at Mile High locations will earn $18.50 an hour and the two at Sewall sites will earn around $17 an hour — in both cases less than corps members working in Denver’s K-12 schools.

Leaders at Mile High and Sewall say they’re optimistic about the partnership with Teach For America.

Pamela Harris, president and CEO of Mile High Early Learning, said, “I like that it’s people interested in education and interested in social justice … We feel like we offer a great opportunity for (them) to work in a quality setting with our most vulnerable children.”

Harris, who routinely loses about 30 percent of her staff annually, also said the two-year commitment required of corps members is “a bit of a relief.”

Heidi Heissenbuttel, Sewall’s president and CEO, said the program’s biggest benefit is the promise of qualified staff amid the state’s shortage of early childhood workers.

“It’s incredibly difficult to hire right now with the 2 percent unemployment rate in Colorado in general,” she said.

A 2017 survey of Colorado child care providers found that half of directors said they often had to fill positions with unqualified teachers.

While Heissenbuttel acknowledged concerns that Teach For America’s training program is abbreviated, she said, “It’s a start. It’s more than other people (have) coming in with the way the hiring goes.”

Schultz agreed that it may be better than what some preschool teachers get, but said “it doesn’t mean that’s where we have to settle.”

Both Heissenbuttel and Harris said corps members will get significant on-the-job training and coaching from their organizations during the Teach For America term.

Teach For America’s pilot program will launch a second early childhood pathway in 2019-20 with a fellowship program consisting of 20 corps members — all either Colorado natives or current residents. These “Launch Fellows” will spend a year in preschool classrooms working under master teachers while also receiving outside-the-classroom training on early childhood policy issues.

The idea behind the fellowship track, which LeeNatali describes as a “longer on-ramp” to early childhood work, is both to cultivate homegrown talent and groom future early childhood leaders.

It’s especially important now as many child care center directors near retirement, he said.

Diving in

PHOTO: Gerardo Frederico
Hiawatha Davis III, a Teach For America corps members, works on an assignment at a recent training at the organization’s Denver office.

On a recent summer morning, in a seventh-floor conference room at Teach For America’s Denver office, a trainer led Davis, McPherson, Walker and their five classmates through a discussion about how to include students with disabilities in early childhood classrooms.

L.J. Werner, a trainer and coach, asked the students how they might benefit from working with special needs children.

Davis, sitting at a table sprinkled with laptops, water bottles and thick handouts, said, “You’re going to grow because it’s going to push you out of your comfort zone.”

Werner agreed, recounting her anxiety the first time she worked with a young student who used a wheelchair and had a feeding tube.

“You have to lean into your fear,” she said.

Both McPherson and Walker are now working at Sewall preschools, one in the North Park Hill neighborhood and one in Green Valley Ranch.

McPherson, who majored in psychology and women’s and ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, said she learned about Teach For America at a job fair last year.

During a lunch break at the recent training, she said she was “super-excited” to start.

“The little ones, I just think they’re absolutely brilliant,” she said.

McPherson, who envisions herself someday as a school psychologist or counselor, got her first taste of teaching preschoolers during the six-week summer training in Tulsa.

Davis, who’s working at a Mile High Early Learning preschool, also got some firsthand experience in Tulsa, though there were only three children in the class.

“I don’t think it prepared me in the way I would have liked to be prepared,” he said.

Davis learned about Teach For America from his older sister, formerly a corps member in Chicago, and said he was drawn to early childhood because it’s the critical first stage in life.

At the same time, he wants to help shake up the status quo, particularly when it comes to the diversity of the teaching force and curriculum.

“I haven’t found myself represented in my education, whether that’s in what I’m learning or the people who are teaching me these things,” he said.

Davis said he had only one teacher during his entire educational career who was black and male like him.

“Especially for students of color or students who find themselves isolated in certain instances,” he said, “I … want to make them feel more included and try to push the education system to help include them.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that Teach For America Colorado is working on statewide early childhood policy issues and is not only providing teachers for preschool classrooms.