Starting early

Report says Tennessee’s pre-K program needs consistent monitoring and more rigor to get better

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

All parents look for a quality program when they send their children off to preschool.  But in Tennessee, parents may have to look a little longer and harder than families in many other states.

Tennessee met only five of 10 quality benchmarks designed by a national research institute that released its annual preschool report last week. The report criticized the state for its lack of both a rigorous curriculum and a system that measures improvement in classroom quality.

Children enrolled in privately funded programs were not included in this data.

The quality benchmarks range from professional development to classroom size to curriculum. Only three state-funded pre-K programs met all 10 of the new standards — Alabama, Michigan, and Rhode Island.

The report also showed that funding for Tennessee’s preschool program — known as the Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K — has been largely stagnant since 2010.

These findings come from the “State of Preschool 2017,” a report released last week by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. The annual report looks at state spending, enrollment, and quality in the 43 states and Washington D.C. that provide state-funded preschools.

Tennessee responded that the state has moved toward improving quality, but doesn’t have a plan in place yet for measuring outcomes.

“We are currently considering our next steps for monitoring quality, but currently do not have the infrastructure for site-based monitoring of these quality indicators,” state Education Department spokeswoman Sara Gast said in a written statement.

However, the state recently contracted with 15 educators and experts to review and help select higher caliber pre-K curriculums that will be taught in state-funded classrooms starting in the 2018-19 school year.

But the founder of the institute that led the study said that to really make progress, Tennessee has to first start measuring and tracking the quality of its classrooms.

“It all comes back to this — there’s nobody at the state level that’s engaged and paying attention to the system to first, identify problems and second, to fix them,” Steven Barnett, co-director and founder, told Chalkbeat.

When analyzing Tennessee, the report pulled from a 2015 study by Vanderbilt University that showed the benefits of Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program faded by the second grade — and that students who attended eventually performed worse than their peers.

At the time, the state pledged to shore up quality of pre-K teachers and offer more professional development for them.

In the current report, Tennessee’s ratings fell in the middle of the pack — ranking 27th for 4-year-old access to preschool, 25th for 3-year-old access and 23rd for state funding.

The report said Tennessee’s stagnant funding has kept enrollment hovering near 18,500 pre-K students since 2010 — or 22 percent of 4-year-olds and one percent of 3-year-olds.

Gast said in her statement that the state is filling 90 percent of available pre-K seats with 4-year-olds from low-income families.

Tennesseans for Quality Early Education, a statewide advocacy group, said they want to see the state shore up program quality before adding new seats.

“Quality pre-k works, but program quality is inconsistent across the state,” said Lisa Wiltshire, policy director at the advocacy group. “Tennessee should stay the course and double down on pre-k quality improvement efforts… so that pre-k gains can be sustained.”

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.