(Very) early education

Michigan’s governor wants to catch young students before they fall behind

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Advocates say programs that work with babies and toddlers to address developmental challenges can save schools money by eliminating the need for special education services later.

Alesia Jackson noticed her two-year-old son Aaron could only speak about 50 words and wasn’t yet forming sentences. As a preschool teacher herself, she knew he was behind.  

Now, at 12, Aaron is thriving in middle school and his mother credits the benefits he got from the Early On Michigan program, which provides help for children from birth to three with learning disabilities or delays. Federal money currently pays for that program, but for the first time, Gov. Rick Snyder wants to add $5 million more in state funds to make it available to more families.

The money for EarlyOn is the only increase for special education proposed by the governor for next year’s budget. Some advocates were hoping for a more robust increase in special education funding following a report last year from Lieutenant Governor Brian Cally’s office blasting the state’s current funding formula for special education. However, Snyder said money for Early On ultimately would save costs for special education once children reach school age. That’s because children will start school better prepared and will be less likely to need further special education services.

“Specifically, this money is going to be very helpful for children with a less severe delay or disability,” said Robert Dorigo Jones, a spokesman for Michigan’s Children, a nonprofit policy and advocacy organization based in Lansing.

Lawmakers are expected to vote on Snyder’s budget recommendations in June. They have been skeptical of spending additional education money and are looking for ways to cut taxes in a crucial election year.

Christy Callahan, president of the Early On Michigan Foundation, which advocates for the program, said more money could dramatically enlarge and improve the program for the state’s youngest children.

“Reaching children when they are the youngest and supporting their families is our best chance to mitigate delays and support them for success in school, with friends, and for life, she said.”

The state receives more than $12 million every year in federal money for about 19,000 young children who need the mild special education services provided by Early On. But advocates believe the majority of families who need Early On are not receiving them.

That’s because the counties that distribute money to school districts supplement federal special education funding by using local millage dollars, which vary across the state.

Dollars spent on the program have saved money in the long run: The state saves cash every year for the estimated 37 percent of infants or toddlers who receive Early On services who did not later require special education services.

The program assesses children’s needs and provides help designed for their families. Some children are hearing impaired, others are developing more slowly than their peers. Some may have delays caused by underlying medical conditions such as autism, cerebral palsy or Down syndrome.

Alesia Jackson and her son, Aaron

Aaron received speech therapy and a chance to talk to other children his age. His parents were encouraged to increase time reading aloud to him, and learned techniques to help him refine his verbal skills. Specialists visited their westside Detroit home, and Aaron also attended classes at the closed Detroit Day School for the Deaf.

“It gave him the right interaction with other children,” she said. Aaron, now 12, attends a Harper Woods middle school.

“He had struggles, and he was able to start working on them. Without that help, it would have taken him much longer to improve.”

Preschool expansion

Could a new universal preschool program in a Colorado resort community help propel a statewide effort?

PHOTO: Jamie Cotten, Special to The Denver Post
Josiah Berg, 4, paints a picture at Mile High Montessori, one of more than 250 Denver preschools that are part of the Denver Preschool Program.

Back in 2006, Denver voters passed a sales tax to help the families of 4-year-olds pay for preschool. It was a first for Denver and the state, eventually growing into a nationally recognized program that has served nearly 51,000 students.

Summit County, a resort community 80 miles to the west, will soon offer the same kind of preschool assistance to 4-year-olds, using proceeds from a new property tax approved by voters in November. Local early childhood leaders say the new effort, called Summit PreK, will help prepare kids for kindergarten and make it easier for their parents to stay in the workforce.

“We really want to provide some financial relief to our low- and middle-income families,” said Lucinda Burns, executive director of Early Childhood Options, the early childhood council in Summit County.

On its face, Summit PreK is a small local victory poised to help a few hundred children and families a year in one pricey ski resort community. But some observers see it as the latest success in a broader movement that could eventually lead to statewide preschool-for-all.

“In Colorado, it feels like it’s going to be a community-by-community strategy until we reach a tipping point,” said Jennifer Stedron, executive director of the nonprofit Early Milestones Colorado, which worked with Summit County leaders on Summit PreK’s design and cost modeling.

She said gov.-elect Jared Polis, who championed free universal preschool throughout his campaign, may sense that the tide is slowly turning in favor of a statewide effort.

Still, he’ll face some big obstacles in making his vision a reality. Colorado voters have repeatedly expressed skepticism about statewide tax hikes for education, most recently rejecting Amendment 73, which would have earmarked money for preschool among other things.

A recent report from the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University dinged Colorado for lacking the political will to make progress on publicly funded preschool, citing the state’s limited education budget and the constraints of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, a constitutional amendment commonly known as TABOR.

Currently, the state funds half-day preschool for children from low-income families or with other risk factors, but there’s not enough funding to serve all eligible children. Most middle-class families, a group hit hard by child care costs and without access to most types of government assistance, don’t qualify.

For now, local initiatives hold the most promise in helping Colorado families across the economic spectrum pay for preschool. Besides Summit PreK and the Denver Preschool Program, Jeffco school district voters recently passed two tax measures that will help the district expand preschool programming, and in 2017, voters in the southwestern Colorado county of San Miguel passed a tax measure to improve local child care. More than a dozen other Colorado cities, counties, and school districts also earmark taxpayer money for early childhood efforts.

Growing interest in local early childhood tax measures could usher in a new state law next year. Cody Belzley, who leads the Denver-based Common Good Consulting, said that discussions among leaders in the Roaring Fork Valley have spurred plans to introduce a bill to create early childhood special districts.

Such districts would allow multiple municipalities or counties to join together to seek ballot initiatives for early childhood efforts. The bill died last spring after being introduced late in legislative session, but Belzley is optimistic the measure will win support next time.

In Summit County, the new preschool effort will draw heavily on the Denver Preschool Program model, both awarding tuition assistance on a sliding scale based on family income and giving extra money when families choose programs with higher ratings.

Burns, of the early childhood council, said tuition credits through Summit PreK will range from around $300 to $1,100 per month per child. The money will go directly to participating preschools.

Summit PreK will limit eligible preschool programs to those that have earned a rating of Level 2,3,4 or 5 on the state’s rating system, called Colorado Shines. Level 1 programs won’t be eligible to participate, though they will get help to improve their ratings.

Currently, 22 of 27 of Summit County’s licensed preschool programs have a rating of Level 2 or higher.

Unlike in Denver, where preschool funding came out of a narrow single-issue ballot measure — after two broader versions failed — funding for Summit PreK was part of a larger property tax measure that also included money for mental health, wildfire preparedness, recycling, and building improvements. The package passed easily.

Burns said both the county and its county seat, Breckenridge, have a track record of supporting early childhood efforts with public money.

She noted the average rent for a family of four in the county is $2,300 a month, the average cost of preschool is $1,300 a month and the average cost of health insurance is $500 a month.

“We call that the trifecta,” she said.

Tamara Drangstveit, who heads a family resource center in Silverthorne and co-chaired the campaign for Summit County’s ballot initiative, said, “Most of our voting block really understands the struggle of our working families.”

She’s personally familiar with the issue as the mother of an 8-year-old and of 3-year-old twins. She said she’ll be one of the parents applying for preschool tuition assistance through Summit PreK, which will roll out on a small scale this spring and more broadly next fall.

“It’s also not lost on me that, as a mom of twins, I’m spending more on their child care than [I will] on their college education,” Drangstveit said.

early childhood

New early learning initiative brings Sesame Street lessons into Memphis classrooms

PHOTO: Jacinthia Jones
Five-year-old Tailor Jackson can barely stay in his mother's lap when Elmo enters the room. The furry, red-haired monster was on hand Tuesday as early education leaders in Memphis announced a new partnership with Sesame Street in Communities.

Dozens of grown-ups crowded into a meeting room Tuesday at an early childhood center in Memphis to celebrate a new partner in educating the city’s youngest learners: Elmo and Sesame Street.

Officials with Porter-Leath, which provides early education to hundreds of children in the city, and ACE Awareness Foundation, which provides support and spreads awareness about adverse childhood experiences, announced the new collaborative with Sesame Street in Communities.

“Our vision here is to be the leader in early childhood, and what could be better than to have the national leader in early childhood education?” Sean Lee, president of Porter Leath, said referring to Sesame Street.

Increasing access to early childhood education has been a priority for Shelby County Schools and Shelby County elected officials. A growing body of research shows high-quality early childhood programs nurture brain development, enhance school performance and boost the likelihood of graduating from college and earning higher incomes.

PHOTO: Jacinthia Jones
Elmo was in Memphis Tuesday for the launch of a new partnership between Sesame Street in Communities and Porter-Leath, the city’s largest provider of early education services, and ACE Awareness Foundation, which provides support and spreads awareness about adverse childhood experiences or childhood traumas.

Through the partnership, Lee said that lessons and content from Sesame Street will be incorporated into its pre-kindergarten classes, and parents will receive take-home materials to reinforce the classroom learning. Additionally, he said, the collaboration will allow them to expand teacher training beyond traditional preK settings, including day care centers and family day homes.

Jeanette Betancourt, a senior vice-president at Sesame Workshop, said the national initiative embeds in existing programs to add support and resources from its research-based materials on early education, trauma experiences and school readiness.

In pursuing its mission to help kids grow smarter, stronger, and kinder, Betancourt said that Sesame Workshop realized they couldn’t just simply “place things on the screen, but we also had to be in communities.”

Sesame Street in Communities operates in seven other cities outside Memphis. The goal is to expand into 35 communities throughout the U.S. in the next five years, said Betancourt.

“I truly believe that having that [Sesame Street] title, having those connections will draw more parents and grandparents and childcare givers to the work that we’re doing,” said Renee Wilson-Simmons, executive director for ACE Awareness.

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris said that the Sesame Street initiative dovetails into one of the county’s priorities to expand quality, needs-based pre-K programs throughout the county.

“We are working really hard to implement a plan to make sure that every child regardless of their income has access to a pre-K program,” he said.