Early Childhood

Ballard's education plan praised for boldness

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Preschoolers at Shepherd Community Center last year.

Mayor Greg Ballard won praise today for his $50 million plan to combat crime with programs that aim to get kids in school sooner and keep them there longer.

Under his proposal, city and private dollars would aim to send 1,300 more poor children to preschool, while also studying ways to reduce class time older students lose to suspension, expulsion or by dropping out of school.

But even with strong support — his office sent out statements written by 10 community leaders of groups ranging from free market-focused Friedman Foundation to the Urban League, which advocates on issues of race and poverty  — the changes he proposed are complex and leave unanswered questions.

Among them:

  • Can school districts afford his plan? Tax changes to fund Ballard’s plan could cost Marion County schools more than $3 million in revenue. He argues it will offer support for their preschoolers and future students.
  • Should the state play a bigger role? If enacted, Indianapolis’ preschool program would dwarf a small statewide pilot that Gov. Mike Pence just celebrated as his signature 2014 legislative accomplishment.
  • Can the city’s preschool system even support the plan? More preschools will have to earn high ratings to accommodate 1,300 new preschoolers Ballard hopes to serve.
  • Will it put concerns about discipline of black boys on the agenda? A series of recent studies suggest black children, especially boys, are disciplined more often and more severely than their peers, but efforts to address the problem stalled earlier this year.
  • Will a $50 million investment in children make a difference? Ballard is banking that, in the long run, better educated children will become more productive citizens, and that will pay off in lower crime rates.

Even with those challenges, preschool advocates praised Ballard for thinking boldly.

“The plan is really big, and it moves us beyond that pilot stage into a full implementation,” said Ted Maple, executive director of Day Nursery Association. “We’ll reach a critical mass of children.”

Costs raise concern

First Ballard needs to get the plan approved by the City-County Council, and council President Maggie Lewis is among those who want more information about its costs and how they will be paid.

“It’s important the mayor sit down with council leadership and talk this through,” she said. “I’ve been a strong advocate for quality preschool. But I am concerned that this plan will take dollars away from our existing education structure.”

Indeed, Ballard’s plan to raise funds for preschool by eliminating the homestead tax credit would trigger a cascade of effects to the county’s tax structure that could result in an estimated loss of more than $3 million to its school districts.

But Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth argued that Ballard’s plan is actually the best case scenario for schools when compared to several other proposals in recent years to cut the homestead credit and use the money for other city priorities.

“At some point the homestead tax credit is going to be eliminated and it won’t benefit school districts when it does,” Kloth said.

Most of the school districts in the city serve children from low-income families, who will come to them better prepared if they have attended high quality preschool, he said. Also, Kloth said, school districts, such as Indianapolis Public Schools, that offer preschool can directly benefit from the program. When new students from low-income families are enrolled, a share of the $50 million can be used as matching funds to support them.

Districts with preschool can also apply for grants to help raise the quality ratings of their preschool programs.

“Most school districts are going to more than make up for it in revenue through the program,” Kloth said.

IPS has been rapidly expanding its own preschool offerings, and Superintendent Lewis Ferebee praised Ballard’s proposal.

“I am pleased to hear that Mayor Ballard is proposing a variety of plans to curb the culture of violence, including pre-kindergarten scholarships for families challenged by poverty,” he said. “Indianapolis Public Schools is aware of the positive impact early childhood education can have as it sets students up for a more successful future; that’s why we’re proud to expand our pre-k program again this year.”

State’s pilot program starts up

Marion County is one of five Indiana counties named recently to receive funds from the state’s first-ever pilot program to do just what Ballard proposes to do: offer direct aid to poor families to enroll their children in preschool. If everything goes as planned, the state pilot and the city’s support for preschool would both launch in the 2015-16 school year.

The difference is the statewide program is just $15 million in public and private money, less than a third the size of Ballard’s proposal. Indianapolis’ share of financial support for poor preschoolers from the state pilot program isn’t likely to exceed $3 million.

But with the state’s biennial budget session coming in January, there is optimism that the pilot could soon get more money and serve more kids.

“I do believe in the next budget we will have more money in it for preschool,” said Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, the chairman of the House Education Committee.

In fact, Ballard’s approach of encouraging public and private partnership to expand preschool mirrors the state pilot — which will match $10 million in state funds with $5 million in privately-raised funds.

“This is what we would like to see communities across the state do” Behning said, “leverage public and private resources to make a difference for kids.”

Investing in quality

A requirement of both the city and state programs is to ensure that children using the tuition aid they offer spend those dollars at high-rated preschool. The state has a voluntary four-step rating system called Paths to Quality. To receive public dollars, both programs require a 3 or 4 rating.

That’s because all preschool programs aren’t equal. High-quality programs meet stringent health and safety standards as well as provide engaging, age-appropriate curriculum for children that prepares them for kindergarten.

But only 15 percent of the city’s nearly 800 providers currently are considered high-quality.

“If we’re not investing in high-quality programs, this isn’t going to have the impact we want,” Maple said.

The scholarships will make an immediate impact on already high-quality providers that have spots available. What’s stopping them now from serving more children is that their programs are cost-prohibitive, Maple said.

About $10 million, a fifth of the mayor’s program, will go toward grants creating more space in schools that already have strong ratings, helping existing preschools improve and creating more high-quality options.

“You’ll see a lot of providers step up to higher levels of quality,” Maple said.

Keeping kids in school

Another education-related phenomenon that Ballard suggested leads to crime is at the other end of the spectrum — older kids who are out of school, either due to discipline or because they dropped out.

“We are talking about hundreds of mostly teens who are cast into the streets,” Ballard said. “And we wonder why we have crime in our neighborhoods.”

To try to combat that problem, he proposed a study to examine the root cause of the most serious kinds of school discipline, which disproportionately affect black students. Ballard said 1,800 students in Indianapolis were expelled or dropped out of school last year, many of whom are black and from low-income families.

Mark Russell, education director for the Indianapolis Urban League, said the proposal is a step in the right direction.

“The discipline disparities, frankly, are obnoxious,” he said.

Ballard said he wants the study to be presented to a legislative study committee, which will likely meet in September. Proposed changes to state law aimed at addressing school discipline earlier this year were shelved to allow more time for lawmakers to research the issue.

Behning, the House education chairman, said Ballard is right to tackle the issue.

“The truth is, when you are looking at the population Ballard is talking about and dealing with crime, sometimes exactly what they want is to suspend or expel them or to put them out into the street,” Behning said.

Karega Rausch, a research associate at The Equity Project at Indiana University, agrees this study is a good first step. Keeping kids engaged and in school is important to the community, as is altering discipline systems in a way to ensure schools are both safe and productive.

But Russell and Rausch said they hoped the study would also address a problem with how discipline data is categorized: rather than choose one of 17 state categories for schools to explain severe discipline, the reasons many students are suspended or expelled is often listed as simply “other.”

Discovering the real reasons why kids face serious discipline should prompt schools to reconsider their policies, said Jamal Smith, executive director of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission.

“We think that it is an issue and has been an issue for quite some time,” Smith said. “Statistically, all the data has built up over the years, and as they say on ESPN, the numbers don’t lie.”

The civil rights commission, Smith said, is already investigating racial disparities in discipline, which he said could eventually result in lawsuits on behalf of young people.

Schools might blame rapid demographic shifts, Smith said, but the problem is not a new one in many places, and schools must be held accountable.

“Unfortunately it not only speaks to the roles of education, specifically for young black boys, but it speaks to, indirectly, how it affects the community as a whole in a negative way,” Smith said.

Discipline disparity  is a problem that’s been overlooked for too long, said Rausch, who previously served as the city’s charter school director under Ballard.

“There’s something about race we have to figure out as a community together,” he said.

Will it make a difference?

When Pence jumped on board and helped push through the state pilot program earlier this year, it was a long delayed victory for advocates of public support for preschool.

The United Way was the agency most at the center of that push in recent years.

“The attention was really all on K-12,” Executive Director Ann Murtlow said. “No one was focused on birth to five-year-olds. In those early years, if the neural connections are not made, it’s not as simple as kids coming into kindergarten without knowledge. It impacts their physiological ability to be lifelong learners.”

Support for preschool has grown, especially in the business community.

“The attention on early childhood education really creates a good long term focus on improving our community,” Murtlow said. “When you’re working with young children, it’s going to be a long time before they are adults, but we’re providing the foundation for success.”

The more robust preschool system that Ballard envisions will have a trickle-up effect in the city’s schools, Maple said.

“It’s going to mean a lot for the city to have an education system that’s built on a stronger foundation,” he said.

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.”

safe haven

Colorado could get its first 24/7 child care facility for families in crisis

PHOTO: Jamie Grill | Getty Images
Mother rubbing forehead while holding baby son.

Last fall, Lisa Rickerd Mills, a medical social worker in Grand Junction, worked with a single mother who needed inpatient mental health treatment.

The problem was child care. The woman had no one to watch her two small children during her stay and bowed out of treatment.

It’s exactly the kind of scenario a group of advocates hope to prevent with a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week child care facility for families facing emergencies or periods of high stress.

The center, to be called the Grand Valley Crisis Nursery and set to open in late 2018, would provide free care for children 0 to 5 years old for periods ranging from a few days to 30 days. The idea is to give parents a safe place to leave their youngest children when they’re facing a crisis — a period of homelessness, an emergency medical procedure, domestic violence, or the threat of job loss. It’s meant to prevent child abuse and neglect and keep kids out of the foster care system.

While there are around 70 crisis nurseries nationwide, the one planned for Grand Junction would be the first of its kind in Colorado. It could pave the way for a new type of state child care license and perhaps crisis nurseries elsewhere in the state. The project is unfolding amidst a broader push in the western Colorado community to improve child and family outcomes by dramatically expanding child care options over the next three years.

Kaleigh Stover, a former pharmaceutical sales representative who moved to Grand Junction from Sacramento last summer, is leading the charge on the crisis nursery. Prior to her move, the 26-year-old volunteered at the Sacramento Crisis Nursery, which runs two of five crisis nurseries in California and, like many such facilities, relies heavily on volunteers to care for the children.

“I’m like that girl in the grocery store who will offer to hold your baby,” she said. “I have a soft spot for babies and moms and helping those people who are experiencing hard times.”

When she first arrived in Grand Junction, Stover called around to several nonprofit organizations and was surprised to learn there wasn’t a crisis nursery in town.

She said local advocates told her, “We don’t have anything like this … but we need it.”

Child abuse cases — and hotline calls about suspected child abuse — have steadily risen over the last few years in Mesa County. The western Colorado county also faces numerous other challenges: higher than average rates of child poverty, foster care placement, and teen pregnancy.

The community’s transience also means that parents of young children often arrive without a circle of family and friends to help out in a pinch, said Rickerd Mills, a member of the crisis nursery’s board.

That can mean parents leave their kids in the care of people they don’t know well or enlist older siblings to watch them.

In addition to providing licensed overnight care for young children, crisis nurseries have case managers who work to connect parents with community resources and get them back on their feet.

While there are a host of typical housing, job, and medical problems that prompt parents to use crisis nurseries, parents with a child care problem outside the usual list won’t be turned away at the Grand Valley center, Stover said.

“We let families define the crisis,” she said, adding that parents using the center would be required to check in with case managers regularly.

Over the past six months, Stover has steadily made progress on the nursery — holding a community town hall, recruiting board members, and finding a local nonprofit to serve as the nursery’s fiscal sponsor. She’s currently in the process of finding a location for the nine- to 12-bed center and will soon begin fundraising.

Stover expects the first-year costs to be around $455,000 if the group purchases a building, with operations costing $150,000 in subsequent years. About 80 percent of the nursery’s funding will come from individual and corporate donations and 20 percent from grants, she said.

In what might be the nursery project’s biggest victory so far, Stover got a preliminary nod in February from the state’s child care licensing advisory committee, which agreed to consider giving the crisis nursery a waiver from state licensing rules.

If the waiver is granted, it could set the stage for a new kind of child care license in Colorado — a cross between a typical child care center license, which doesn’t allow 24-hour care, and a residential child care facility license, which allows 24-hour care but doesn’t permit care for children under 3 years old.

“Having a new license type is kind of nightmare, but it changes the whole state if we can make it happen,” Stover said.

Ebony White Douglas, program manager at the 22-year-old Sacramento Crisis Nursery, praised Stover’s persistence in pursuing the project. She said she routinely consults with people in other states interested in launching crisis nurseries and has seen many such projects sidelined because of complex licensing logistics or daunting fund-raising requirements.

Rickerd Mills said she was heartened to hear about the positive reception from the state’s licensing advisory committee.

“I think it just goes to show the need in this community and the state,” she said.