Early Childhood

Panel: Partnerships, big and small, are key to preschool progress in Indianapolis

Despite a strong new push to expand preschool in Indianapolis, the only way a large number of children can arrive for kindergarten better prepared is if schools, policymakers, families, communities, businesses and many others work together, local experts said today.

Preschool educators and policymakers gathered today at Butler University to talk about the future of preschool in Indianapolis at an event hosted by Chalkbeat in partnership with WFYI public media and Butler’s College of Education and sponsored by Kroger. Panelists included Indianapolis’ Deputy Mayor for Education Jason Kloth; Ted Maple, president of Early Learning Indiana; Ena Shelley, dean of Butler University’s College of Education; and Shalonda Murray, director of the Flanner House Child Development Center.

Some of the most promising or effective methods of serving young children are partnerships, they said.

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s $40 million, five-year public-private preschool program, which earned final City Council approval last month, is an example. Smaller partnerships also are making a difference, such as those between Butler’s lab preschool at Indianapolis Public School 60, or a new partnership between Early Learning Indiana and two local charter schools.

“I think partnerships like that are a lot of what our programs are based on,” Maple said. “And I think it’s working. There are shared costs, there are shared goals, there are shared kids. Partnerships only work if it’s not one-sided, and there’s certainly benefits to both, and we want to see more partnerships like that.”

But partnerships aren’t only about managing costs. They also are about building trust with families, Murray said.

“Providers have to take in all of those different facets of the neighborhood and the community,” Murray said. “We are looking at teacher compensation, family engagement, community engagement and also engaging other community programs for the families that will eventually benefit the child as well.”

Only preschool providers who have earned a level three or level four quality rating from the state can qualify for Ballard’s program or a new state pilot program, both of which provide aid to poor children to pay for preschool. Those higher ratings mean the programs are both safe environments for children and provide academic lessons.

Between the city and state, about $55 million will be funneled into Indianapolis preschools over the next five years, Kloth said, but until more preschools earn the higher ratings, there won’t be enough space for the children to attend qualifying programs. Of about 800 preschools in the city, only about 53 are level three or level four.

“One of the primary intentions of our programs is not only to get children and families into these schools, but it’s over that five-year window to change the supply of level three and four programs in the market,” Kloth said. “So when the state does expand it, there’s a supply of providers to take those resources. I’m not sure the market could take more.”

But a big barrier to better preschools is finding enough quality teachers  Shelley said the low wages for preschool teachers are in stark contrast to the certifications required to become a preschool teacher.

The state requires students seeking a license to teach preschool to take a total of 12 tests in various content areas and child development — more than an elementary school teacher is required to do, she said. That costs hundreds of dollars, Shelley said.

“You can’t ask students to pay what is expected of tuition and then go out and make minimum wage,” she said. “We have people who want to do the work, but the salary has to be such that they can do the work.”

Murray and Maple said they’ve encountered many potential teachers who are educated and have innovative ideas and enthusiasm, but they don’t have the required background in teaching. That either means programs have to train their employees, or the state should consider other pathways to a license.

“We are looking at people with the education, but not necessarily the experience,” Murray said. “So we are trying to recruit individuals who have the education as well as the experience, but at the same time, these individuals want to make a livable wage.”

And as far as funding, Murray argued that the state faces a difficult trade off: it can fund preschool now, or pay later for the long-term costs of children who continue in poverty as adults.

“A lot of these children that we are focusing on are in poverty now, and if we don’t make an impact now, they will be in poverty later as well,” she said.

State and city programs are already underway. Earlier this week, Gov. Mike Pence announced the state’s new preschool pilot would grow by about 600 more seats this fall. The city’s serves about 1,000 students. What will move things forward, Maple said, is more collaboration.

“I think what we really need to be working toward (is building) a cohesive system between schools, the community base, providers and others that really creates an early childhood system that’s worthy of investment from families and from parents,” he said. “One that is really high-quality and has enough seats to serve the kids in Indiana.”

A new floor

Colorado’s new minimum wage means raises for child care workers and tuition increases for parents

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Loveland's Teaching Tree Early Childhood Learning Center was one of the first two centers in the state to get a Level 5 rating in the Colorado Shines rating system.

Child care teachers and assistants absolutely deserve the raises that come from Colorado’s new minimum wage of $10.20 an hour, their bosses say, but the pay increases also mean that many providers will pass on the new expenses to tuition-paying parents already stretched thin by child care costs.

“I don’t know how much more parents can pay,” said Diane Price, who heads a nonprofit network of seven centers in Colorado Springs.

In some parts of the state, early childhood advocates also worry that the raises mandated by the minimum wage hike will cause some workers to lose public benefits by pushing their income just above the eligibility threshold — making it harder, not easier to make ends meet.

In a field working to professionalize its ranks, pay its workers more, and raise awareness about the educational and economic value of quality child care, many observers say the minimum wage increase is a step in the right direction.

“It’s an important move,” said Christi Chadwick, director of the “Transforming the Early Childhood Workforce” project at the nonprofit Early Milestones Colorado. “The thing I struggle with is we’re still not getting people out of poverty and paying them on par with the public school system.”

Price, the president and CEO of Early Connections Learning Centers, said, “Shame on us that we even have to have this discussion that early educators are in a category that pays minimum wage.”

The latest minimum wage increase, which took effect Jan. 1, is the second of four annual increases mandated by a ballot measure approved by Colorado voters in 2016. The last step of the phase-in process will boost the minimum wage to $12 in 2020.

Colorado is among 29 states — most in the northeast and west — that have set a minimum wage higher than the federal rate of $7.25 an hour, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Child care providers here say advance planning and clear communication with parents have helped them incorporate raises into their budgets.

Price, who raised tuition slightly at her centers last August, said she anticipates a budget hit of about $600,000 over the four-year phase-in period.

But that’s not just because her lowest paid staff members are getting raises to comply with the minimum wage law. Like many other child care directors, she’s giving raises across the board out of fairness to veteran employees.

Price said she didn’t want entry-level employees to catch up with those who already hav a Child Development Associate credential or an associate’s degree.

Heather Griffith, who leads the for-profit Young Peoples Learning Center in Fort Collins, is taking the same approach. Her whole staff, except two brand new employees, have received raises.

She’s already sent out a letter notifying parents that tuition will go up 6.5 percent on February 1 – that’s an additional $16 a week for a full-time preschool slot. It’s the second of three tuition hikes Griffith will institute during the minimum wage phase-in period.

While the higher costs are hard on parents, “it’s a lot tougher for these teachers to survive on non-livable wages,” Griffith said. “I’m 100 percent in support of this minimum wage hike.”

Griffith hasn’t gotten much pushback over the impending tuition increase. The thriving economy helps. Also, she said, parents like the care her centers provide and wouldn’t be able to find it for much less unless they switched to unlicensed care, which is mostly unregulated.

Anne Lance, who heads the non-profit Teaching Tree Early Childhood Learning Center in northern Colorado, said she began planning — and frontloading — wage increases for all staff shortly after the 2016 ballot measure passed.
Currently, her entry-level teaching assistants start at $10.50 an hour even though she’s only required to pay $10.20.

“I had to get way ahead of the game … so in a couple years when it gets closer to that $12, it’s not going to kill me,” said Lance, who operates one center in Loveland and one in Fort Collins.

While the center’s two sites serve many low-income children who qualify for state child care subsidies or state-funded preschool slots, there are some tuition-paying families in the mix, too.

It’s those parents who may feel the sting of the minimum wage increases over the next couple years. Lance said she’ll keep her tuition increases to a modest 3 percent this year, but may have to jump up to 5 percent in 2019 and 2020.

On average, lead teachers with several years of experience at Teaching Tree make about $13.50 an hour. While that’s above the minimum wage, it’s not much to live on for employees on their own or those who are single parents, Lance said.

In Colorado, about one-third of child care teachers qualify for some kind of public assistance to cover housing, food, health insurance, or child care costs, according to a 2017 survey of child care workers in the state.

Chadwick, of Early Milestones, said during visits last fall to the San Luis Valley and southeastern Colorado, early childhood leaders explained that some child care workers were quitting their jobs due to fears they would lose government benefits when minimum wage-related raises took effect.

To alleviate such concerns and make child care a profession that pays a living wage, more substantial raises are needed. But Chadwick and other leaders don’t expect further funding to come from a state-level effort.

Instead, they say it will be locally-funded initiatives — already underway in some Colorado communities — that pick up the slack.

“We have to pass things like mill levies and taxes that support early childhood,” said Griffith, of Young Peoples Learning Center. “We have to do it. We have to say yes to these things if what we want is a community that has educated kids ready to go into kindergarten.”

Early childhood literacy

How to make a good reader? Combine in-school tutoring with hundreds of books for toddlers and babies

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post
Fourth graders at College View Elementary in Denver.

A new literacy program for children from babies to third grade will focus on tutoring students and encouraging reading at an early age as it works with 100 families in the Munger Elementary-Middle School area.

The 3-year pilot program will combine the resources of 80 volunteers, the Munger school staff, and Brilliant Detroit, a social service organization. Brilliant Detroit will house a national program called Raising a Reader, which will ensure that the families receive as many as 100 books each over the next three years to read to babies and toddlers.

“We believe the city of Detroit is turning around,” said former state Supreme Court justice Maura Corrigan, who is spearheading the program. “But we understand that Detroit cannot turn around effectively if the schools don’t turn around, and that can’t happen unless the children learn to read.”

The program is part of a state-wide push to help more children learn to read before a new state law takes effect in 2020 that will force schools to hold back third-graders who aren’t reading at grade level. This year, fewer than 10 percent of Detroit students met that grade-level threshold.

Announced today, the program launches in January and has more than $20,000 in funding.

Munger Principal Donnell Burroughs said students who received the lowest reading test scores will likely be the ones who receive tutoring.

“Here at Munger we want our students to continue to grow,” Burroughs said. “We will identify certain families and students from preschool to third grade and they’ll work with individual tutors who come into the school every day.”

Students will work with a tutor in groups of three for 40 minutes a day.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley described another benefit of the program: helping students with disabilities.

“Perhaps an unintended consequence of the work that’s happening here is we can identify developmental delays and disabilities earlier for intervention.”

Calley, whose daughter has autism, is an advocate for people with disabilities. Studies have shown that early intervention improves outcomes.  

“We still have so far to go there,” he added. “This is a reading initiative, but it’s gonna have benefits beyond reading.”

Special education has been a pressing concern for education advocates in the state. The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren issued a list of recommendations for ways to improve Detroit schools in early December. Among them was a priority to fully fund special education.

Plans to continue or expand the program are unclear, and depend on the pilot’s success. The effort is supported by 15 local and state partners, including Gov. Rick Snyder and Raising a Reader.