Digging in

Pre-K proponents: Vanderbilt study will inform early learning programs, not dissolve them

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students at Bordeaux Early Learning Center in Nashville create and sculpt with Play-Doh.

Policymakers angling to dump pre-kindergarten programs in Tennessee might not be impressed initially with how 4-year-olds at Bordeaux Early Learning Center spent their first day back from fall break in Nashville: hip-hop dancing, painting with pine cones, and picking peppers in their school garden.

But pre-K advocates say such activities teach youngsters the academic and behavioral skills necessary for later grades. They say the resulting positive school environment also addresses many problems with Tennessee’s public pre-K classroom highlighted by a landmark study released last month by Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education.

The five-year study found that students who attended Tennessee’s public pre-K programs eventually did worse in elementary school than their peers who had no pre-K at all.

In the aftermath, Gov. Bill Haslam and lawmakers openly pondered divesting from the state program known as Voluntary Pre-K. Meanwhile, in Washington, a proposal before Congress would end a federal grant funding pre-K in school systems across the nation, including five districts in and around Nashville and Memphis.

Even so, early childhood educators and advocates in Tennessee are stubborn in their commitment to early learning programs.

They say the study’s findings were anticipated, and that changes have been implemented in the last two years to address weaknesses highlighted by the report. They also are helping to spread best practices to pre-Ks across the state.

"Things I thought were right were not developmentally appropriate, but I had no way to know they weren't."Danielle Norton, instructional coach

Danielle Norton, a career pre-K teacher now coaching younger teachers at Bordeaux, said it’s been a learning experience for everyone who’s committed to quality pre-K.

“The past year I’ve grown a lot,” she said. “Things I thought were right were not developmentally appropriate, but I had no way to know they weren’t. Now we have coaches and principals who know so much about early childhood  education. But before, we didn’t have that in Tennessee.”

Learning curve

Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K was spearheaded by Gov. Phil Bredesen in 2005, answering a call from researchers and educators to serve low-income students as 4-year-olds to get them on equal footing with their more affluent peers by kindergarten. Statewide enrollment jumped from 9,000 students during its pilot year to 18,000 within three years, a number that has since remained steady.

However, developing a high-quality pre-K program was not the initial focus. Pre-K teachers often were viewed more like babysitters than educators. And though state pre-K classrooms frequently are located in elementary schools, they were treated as separate entities. Researchers and pre-K teachers think that might be why any developmental gains made in pre-K were quickly lost.

“A lot of principals don’t understand early childhood [education],” Norton said. “They just think it’s cute. You pretty much got left alone. There was no one to support me or help me grow as an educator.”

In their study of the Voluntary Pre-K initiative, Vanderbilt researchers Dale Farran and Mark Lipsey found that children who went to pre-K did better than their peers in kindergarten, but that their academic performance flattened out by the second and third grades.

They noted that pre-K teachers often had wildly different approaches, so that best practices weren’t being shared and spread to make pre-K worth the public investment.

And even when pre-K teachers were guiding young learners in developmentally appropriate ways — letting them learn while playing, allowing constant movement, and letting students lead the way, rather than responding to teacher lectures — their counterparts in kindergarten through third grade often were not. Thus, many proponents of pre-K say a transition to mediocre early elementary school programs may be equally to blame for the Vanderbilt study’s disappointing findings.

“You absolutely have to have that bridge from kindergarten to third grade to keep that momentum,” said Dana Eckman, Metro Nashville’s director of early childhood learning. “You can’t look at one year as a silver bullet. Every year matters.”

Addressing quality

In the fall of 2014, Metro Nashville Public Schools launched three model pre-K centers, including Bordeaux, where Vanderbilt researchers offer feedback on what practices are helping children learn and what practices aren’t. District leaders then help disseminate that information to the 174 classrooms across the school system, 55 of which are Voluntary Pre-K classrooms, and 10 of which were part of the Vanderbilt study.

By design, there are few quiet moments at Bordeaux.

When children walk down the hall to learn hip-hop with the nonprofit Global Education, or go outside to garden with Plant the Seed, another nonprofit organization, they often are singing or snapping their fingers. That’s because of coaching that teachers receive to keep students engaged during transition times between activities. A simple activity like clicking fingers seems fun to 4-year-olds, and helps them develop fine motor skills.

A pre-K student at Bordeaux waters plants  — all the while learning about different vegetables, nutrition, the sun and water.
PHOTO: Grace Tatter
A pre-K student at Bordeaux waters plants while learning about vegetables, nutrition and agriculture.

The teachers also have been coached to speak with children in warm and friendly tones and to create more spaces that encourage kids to play together.

This year, all Nashville district pre-Ks are using The Creative Curriculum, which incorporates playtime as a way to learn and was piloted last year in the model pre-Ks.

And for the first time this year, all Nashville pre-K teachers have access to professional development and to 17 instructional coaches, such as Norton.

The Nashville district has used a federal pre-K grant, which will infuse $33 million into the program over the next four years, to hire six family services specialists, an extended learning coordinator and a data specialist to track pre-K students outcomes in later grades.

“We’re focusing not just on the school day, but the whole child,” Eckman said.

All of the changes have meant a paradigm shift for pre-K teachers, with a greater focus on assessing student skills — just by observing basics such as playing, counting, and how a child holds a pencil.

“They don’t know they’re being assessed. They’re playing,” said Kathy Daws, who has taught in Nashville for more than 30 years. “Everything is very intentional now.”

Planting their feet

Though federal and state pre-K funding is under threat, pre-K advocates are adamant that they’ll keep pushing and say they have a lot of support. Both Memphis and Nashville recently elected mayors who favor pre-K for all children, not just those who are from low-income families. At the state level, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen identifies early education as a priority in her strategic plan for the state. She also has named an Early Learning Council.

Nashville is luring early educators from across the country, including Eckman, who moved this spring from California, and Diana Lyon, the principal of the Bordeaux program, who relocated from Ohio.

In Memphis, Shelby County Schools is making changes that leaders hope will put pre-K on the map — and keep it in the budget.

“A lot of things are already happening in our pre-K classrooms that I think will reap results,” said Barbara Prescott, the city’s longtime pre-K advocate. “I think we have the ability to really make a positive difference.”

"A lot of things are already happening in our pre-K classrooms that I think will reap results."Barbara Prescott, pre-K advocate

In recent years, the Tennessee legislature has turned back cost-saving bills that would scale back pre-K to summer programs. However, such proposals are likely to resurface next year in the wake of the Vanderbilt study.

Still, Shannon Hunt, who heads the Nashville Public Education Foundation, says support for pre-K is strong in a city seeking to improve the quality of its schools and its workforce.

“In Nashville, we have made a real priority out of pre-K,” she said. “I don’t see that changing given the extraordinary high-need population we serve.”

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.