prek debate

How a computer program designed for home-based preschool in Utah could get a piece of Indiana’s education budget

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

Indiana lawmakers are moving ahead with a proposal that would spend several million dollars over the next two years expanding preschool. But $2 million of that wouldn’t be spent on classrooms, teacher salaries or picture books.

Instead, it would give parents access to software that claims to get kids ready for kindergarten in “just 15 minutes a day.”

The unusual proposal — which might not survive the contentious budget-writing process — is part of an ongoing debate about how to expand education for Indiana’s youngest students. Indiana already grants low-income families vouchers to use at preschools in five counties, including Marion County. But that program serves fewer than 1,600 kids, and demand far exceeds supply.

To help, Senate lawmakers are discussing how to add funding for both traditional preschool and an online program. But educators and preschool advocates say they aren’t convinced that any software will meet the needs of the poor children that Indiana says need preschool most.

“I can see how a good online program, guided by family in the home, can supplement high-quality pre-K, but it certainly is not a substitute,” said Ted Maple, president of Early Learning Indiana, a non-profit child care provider and advocacy organization. “A skilled preschool teacher would design activities that encourage children to work together, learn how to be part of a classroom community.”

Read: What makes a preschool great: 4 things parents should look for

Upstart, a software program developed by the Utah Department of Education and the nonprofit Waterford, is at the center of the proposal. The program’s website claims that Upstart “prepares children for kindergarten in just 15 minutes a day, 5 days a week.”

Parents and children work for a year with the software, which adapts its instruction based on a child’s progress. The focus is on literacy: letters, vocabulary, basic grammar and sounding out words. Upstart also provides people to check in with the family if they have questions or if attendance falls below a certain level.

Utah, South Carolina, and Floyd County in southeastern Indiana already make the software available. Idaho is also considering the program.

According to Utah’s report from 2016, when a little more than 5,000 kids used Upstart, those kids made gains on literacy tests over peers who didn’t use the program. But the children participating were overwhelmingly white, native English-speakers from educated, two-parent households. Half of the Utah families studied made more than 200 percent of the federal poverty rate, which is $48,500 per year for a family of four.

That raises questions about whether its effectiveness will translate to other environments, Maple said, though Upstart says its program has proved effective with a wide range of students. To qualify for Indiana’s preschool program, a family of four can’t earn more than $30,861 annually, and the state has made poor children its top priority as it began subsidizing early education in recent years.

But Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, chairman of the budget-writing Senate Appropriations Committee, said the $2 million investment in “in-home education” would allow Indiana to reach 1,000 more students, potentially in rural areas where preschool options are more limited.

Across the state, just 36 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds are in preschool at all. And nine Indiana counties do not have a preschool provider that is deemed “high quality,” so residents couldn’t participate in the state voucher program even if it was expanded.

Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, noted that the online option would also come at a lower cost. If families already have access to computers, the program would cost the state $1,000 per year, or $2,000 if a computer needed to be provided. That’s far less than the $6,800 full-day and $2,500 half-day preschool grants that the state’s current program typically doles out.

But Holdman also said that the online program doesn’t align with Indiana’s specifications for safety and academics for high-quality preschools.

During an impassioned debate on the Senate floor on Wednesday, Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, voiced extreme skepticism about the online program given research showing the benefits of preschool.

“We’re funding (preschool) at a $4 million increase,” Stoops said. “But then we’re taking $1 million of that and we’re applying that to a really untested, kind of strange, virtual homeschool program.”

Kenley, just as strongly, disagreed.

“Your argument that we have studied this to death and we know with absolute certainty that this is the silver bullet that solves all of our problems,” he said. “I don’t think is a foregone conclusion.”

The Senate’s proposal also comes as schools across the country continue to struggle with online education. Kenley himself acknowledged there were issues with virtual schools when he presented his budget plan late last month, which limited funding for virtual schools serving older students compared to the House’s plan.

Today, the Indiana Senate passed its version of the two-year budget, which will head to conference committee for more debate. If the online preschool plan makes it into a final bill, it’s unclear if it will be opposed by Gov. Eric Holcomb, who has said he is “open-minded” about the online education option. But he wants to make sure that the state is investing money in traditional options as well, he said.

“This is a worthy discussion that the Senate has put forward, the in-home option,” Holcomb said. “We need to be increasing the quality facilities that we have throughout the state.”

All over the map

What do children need to know when they start kindergarten? You might be surprised.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

How many letters should kids recognize when they enter kindergarten? Should they be able to cut with scissors? How long should they be able to sit still?

Such basic questions seem like they should come with clear-cut answers, but parents and teachers — and even Colorado state standards — differ widely in their expectations for entering kindergarteners

Early childhood leaders in Larimer County discovered just how much variation exists after they surveyed 800 local parents, preschool teachers and kindergarten teachers in 2015.

“The answers were all over the map,” said Bev Thurber, executive director of the Early Childhood Council of Larimer County. “A lot of times it was way above what research says is developmentally appropriate.”

Such findings spotlight the lack of consensus about what it means to be ready for kindergarten. The survey found parents and preschool teachers generally had higher expectations for youngsters than kindergarten teachers or state standards, suggesting that some parents and preschool teachers may be focusing too much energy on teaching academic skills to young children.

“Our concern is not only do you have this variability, but also this pressure on the academic side … when that’s really not the most important thing, especially at this young age,” said Thurber.

To help parents sort it all out, Thurber and a team of early childhood teachers and advocates created a new eight-page parent guide called “Ready Set Kindergarten.” Available in English and Spanish, the whimsically illustrated booklet gives parents tips for building academic and social-emotional skills — things like simple counting, recognizing the letters in a child’s name, naming feelings and taking turns. It also includes a month-by-month schedule for the pre-kindergarten year highlighting logistical details like registration windows and meet-the-teacher opportunities.

All three Larimer County school districts, — Poudre, Thompson and Estes Park — have agreed to use the guide, which is being distributed through preschools, elementary schools, doctors’ offices and libraries.

But some experts say too much emphasis on getting children ready for kindergarten relieves schools of their obligation to serve students regardless of their background or experience.

“It’s critical for schools to take responsibility for being ready for children – not the other way around,” said Sherry Cleary, executive director of the New York Early Childhood Professional Development Institute at the City University of New York.

Cleary reviewed the guide and worried that it would create unneeded stress for families and set up teachers to have unrealistic expectations for kids.

Thurber said many teachers and parents already have unrealistic expectations for entering kindergarteners, according to survey results. The guide scales those back, she said, and offers a more reasonable list of activities that are based on state standards and Colorado’s early learning and development guidelines.

“This is what experts have said is developmentally appropriate,” Thurber said.

“I completely buy in that schools have to meet kids where they are at,” she said. ”However, within that, there is a certain anxiety among families when you have all these differing expectations.”

Karen Rattenborg, executive director of the Colorado State University Early Childhood Center and an assistant professor at the university, saw the disparity in expectations when she analyzed the survey data.

Take letters, for example. State standards say kids should recognize at least 10 letters when they start kindergarten, specifically the letters in their name. Survey results showed most parents and preschool teachers believed entering kindergarteners should recognize more than 20 letters. Kindergarten teachers opted for a lower 11-20 range.

The same dynamic held true for counting — about half of parents and preschool teachers thought kids should be able to count higher than 20 while state standards say 10 is enough.

In some cases, both preschool and kindergarten teachers placed a high value on tasks that state standards and other common benchmarks don’t mention. Both groups rated cutting with scissors as the second most important fine motor skill for entering kindergarteners, but state standards and the state’s early learning guidelines are silent about scissors.

“It’s things like that where we had these a-ha moments,” said Rattenborg.

In some cases, there was agreement. For instance, the vast majority of both preschool and kindergarten teachers said the ability to communicate needs and wants was the top communication skill kindergarteners need.

Rattenborg said the diversity of views made one thing clear.

“We realized having a common guide throughout Larimer County would be helpful for virtually everyone involved,” she said.

Diane Umbreit, a kindergarten teacher at Kruse Elementary School in Fort Collins and a member of the committee that conceived the guide, agreed.

Over the years, she’s seen plenty of confusion and anxiety among parents. Some push their kids hard to acquire new skills before kindergarten. Some want to do learning activities with their children, but aren’t sure where to start.

Others, she said, are “shocked that their child needs to know the letters in his name.”

Umbreit said of the new kindergarten guide, “Hopefully, it evens the playing field.”

Follow the money

In Denver school board races, incumbents outpacing challengers in campaign contributions

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver school board vice president Barbara O'Brien speaks at a press conference at Holm Elementary.
Donations to Denver school board candidates as of Oct. 12
    Barbara O’Brien, At-Large: $101,291
    Angela Cobián, District 2: $94,152
    Mike Johnson, District 3: $81,855
    Rachele Espiritu, District 4: $73,847
    Jennifer Bacon, District 4: $59,302
    Robert Speth, At-Large: $38,615
    “Sochi” Gaytán, District 2: $24,134
    Carrie A. Olson, District 3: $18,105
    Tay Anderson, District 4: $16,331
    Julie Bañuelos, At-Large: $7,737

Three Denver school board incumbents brought in more money than challengers seeking to unseat them and change the district’s direction, according to new campaign finance reports.

Board vice president Barbara O’Brien has raised the most money so far. A former Colorado lieutenant governor who was first elected to the board in 2013 and represents the city at-large, O’Brien had pulled in $101,291 as of Oct. 12.

The second-highest fundraiser was newcomer Angela Cobián, who raised $94,152. She is running to represent southwest District 2, where there is no incumbent in the race. The board member who currently holds that seat, Rosemary Rodriguez, has endorsed Cobián.

Incumbent Mike Johnson, who is running for re-election in central-east District 3, brought in far more money than his opponent, Carrie A. Olson. In a three-way race for northeast Denver’s District 4, incumbent Rachele Espiritu led in fundraising, but not by as much.

O’Brien, Cobián, Johnson and Espiritu had several big-money donors in common. They include former Denver Center for the Performing Arts chairman Daniel Ritchie, Oakwood Homes CEO Pat Hamill and Denver-based oil and gas company founder Samuel Gary. All three have given in past elections to candidates who support the direction of Denver Public Schools, which is nationally known for embracing school choice and collaborating with charter schools.

Meanwhile, teachers unions were among the biggest contributors to candidates pushing for the state’s largest school district to change course and refocus on its traditional, district-run schools. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association Fund gave the most money — $10,000 — to candidate Jennifer Bacon, a former teacher who is challenging Espiritu in District 4.

It gave smaller amounts to Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running against Cobián in District 2; Olson, who is challenging Johnson in District 3; and Robert Speth, who is running in a three-person race with O’Brien. Speth narrowly lost a race for a board seat in 2015. A supplemental campaign filing shows Speth loaned himself $17,000 on Oct. 13.

The two candidates who raised the least amounts of money also disagree with the district’s direction but were not endorsed by the teachers union and didn’t receive any union money. Tay Anderson, who is running against Espiritu and Bacon in District 4, counts among his biggest donors former Denver mayor Wellington Webb, who endorsed him and gave $1,110.

In the at-large race, candidate Julie Bañuelos’s biggest cash infusion was a $2,116 loan to herself. As of Oct. 11, Bañuelos had spent more money than she’d raised.

With four seats up for grabs on the seven-member board, the Nov. 7 election has the potential to shift the board’s balance of power. Currently, all seven members back the district’s direction and the vision of long-serving Superintendent Tom Boasberg. Mail ballots went out this week.

The new campaign finance reports, which were due at midnight Tuesday and cover the previous year, show that several of this year’s candidates have already raised more money than the candidate who was leading the pack at this time in the 2015 election.

O’Brien’s biggest contributor was University of Colorado president Bruce Benson, who gave $10,000. Other notable donors include Robin Hickenlooper, wife of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynne; and billionaire Phil Anschutz.

Several Denver charter school leaders, including Rocky Mountain Prep CEO James Cryan and KIPP Colorado CEO Kimberlee Sia, donated to O’Brien, Johnson, Espiritu and Cobián.

Political groups are also playing a big role in the election. The groups include several backed by local and state teachers unions, as well as others funded by pro-reform organizations.