shaping up

New Colorado child care rules take aim at obesity

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
A preschooler at Clayton Early Learning created a makeshift telescope this fall.

New state rules governing child care centers will ban sugary drinks, establish strict limits on screen time and mandate 60 minutes of daily physical activity for young children in full-day programs.

Public health advocates have lauded the new rules on nutrition, exercise and screen time as an important step in curbing childhood obesity.

“This is a huge win for kids,” said Jake Williams, executive director of the advocacy group Healthier Colorado. “It puts our state on a healthier path.”

Nearly 20 percent of Colorado children aged 2-4 are obese and an additional 10 percent are overweight, according to state health department statistics. The health department has made reducing childhood obesity one of its top priorities in recent years.

The State Board of Human Services approved the new rules in a 5-1 vote last Friday as part of larger update to childcare regulations. The rules will affect about 1,350 licensed child care centers around the state, though some may already be in compliance.

Gerie Grimes, the president and CEO of the HOPE Center in northeast Denver, said its current practices already meet or exceed the new requirements.

For example, full-time preschoolers there currently get about an hour and 20 minutes a day of physical activity.

But some of the new rules, like those requiring meals to meet certain federal standards, could create a burden for some centers, she said

“Especially for smaller centers that are down to the meat, it’s another layer for them.”

A long process

The new rules emerged from a lengthy revision process that began in 2010 and included feedback from hundreds of childcare providers and advocates.

In addition to new language on meals, exercise and TV time, the 66-page update touches on a wide array of topics ranging from educator credentials to the accessibility of thumbtacks. (The changes won’t affect licensed home-based child care. A rule update for that group will begin in 2016.)

The new rules around obesity prevention replace older ones that were often vague and lacked measurable goals.

For example, the old physical activity rules mandated daily outdoor play, but didn’t specify how much children should get. Similarly, the old one-sentence screen time rule required parents give approval for television or video-viewing, but didn’t set any time limits.

Once the new rules take effect on Feb. 2, Colorado will be among a relatively small number of states that have taken such steps for child care centers. Six states currently have similar rules on sugary drinks, eight have similar physical activity requirements and 21 have similar screen time provisions, according to a 2012 brief from the National Center for Child Care Quality Improvement.

While Grimes said the new rules may help a little, she’s not sure how effective they’ll be in preventing childhood obesity if there’s no parental buy-in around healthy habits at home.

“I could not tell you when they walk out of this [center] what their meal might look like,” she said.

In addition, the lack of strong physical activity rules in Colorado’s K-12 system could weaken the impact of the new early childhood rules, she said.

“If we do it here, [then] they go to kindergarten and it’s not there, then we go back to the same thing.”

Rule Rundown

The new rules related to obesity prevention will:

  • Ban sugar-sweetened beverages including soda, fruit drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks and flavored milk;
  • Allow 100% juice to be served no more than twice a week;
  • Require meals served at child care centers to meet United States Department of Agriculture requirements for the Child and Adult Care Food Program;
  • Require 60 minutes of physical activity a day for preschoolers and toddlers in full-day programs;
  • Require 30 minutes of physical activity a day for preschoolers and toddlers in programs lasting three-five hours per day;
  • Require 15 minutes of physical activity a day for preschoolers and toddlers in programs lasting less than three hours a day;
  • Ban all television or video time for children under two;
  • Allow a maximum of 30 minutes per week of screen time (television, videos, tablets and computers) for children two and over, with exceptions for special occasions;

Gauging the reaction

For the most part, there was little opposition to the new rules on nutrition, physical activity and screen time. A few providers raised objects during the pubic comment process that the meal rules represented unwarranted government intrusion.

Williams said they “prescribe a simple balance between proteins, grains, fruits and vegetables,” similar to the federal school meal program for K-12 students.

To Heather Frenz, who has an 18-month-old daughter, the new rules represent simple steps that will help kids eat better and stay more active.

“I’m just so excited that they passed,” she said.

Frenz, the former director of the Qualistar program Healthy Child Care Colorado, said many parents are in the dark about how much exercise kids get or what types of food they eat at child care. The new rules help eliminate the guesswork.

“I think this will bring some relief to parents,” she said.

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.