paycheck parity

How a rural preschool overcame an industrywide challenge and paid teachers more

PHOTO: Marcia Walter
Marcia Walter, a teacher and the director at Dragon's Wagon Preschool, reads to her students.

Marcia Walter has worked at Dragon’s Wagon Preschool in the small town of Holyoke in northeastern Colorado for more than 25 years — starting as a teacher’s aide and working her way up to director.

In August, she got some news that made her cry: She was getting a raise.

It wasn’t a modest cost-of-living raise. It was a whopping 44 percent increase that bumped her annual salary from $32,000 to $46,000. At the same time, the preschool’s board approved increases for other staff members, and for the first time, put in place a salary schedule.

The changes came out of a years-long process by the 10-member board to better match staff salaries with those of local school district employees. The effort represents a unique victory in a field where low wages are the norm and some child care employees earn so little they qualify for public assistance. It also provides a glimpse into the complicated funding puzzle that many preschools and child care centers face when it’s time to build their budgets.

“I’m proud of where we’ve come from and where we are now,” said Tracy Stegg, a Dragon’s Wagon board member. “They deserve it.”

On average, early childhood workers nationwide earn $10.60 an hour, according to a 2016 report put out by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Those with at least a bachelor’s degree earn $14.70, about half of what other kinds of workers with bachelor’s degrees earn.

At Dragon’s Wagon — where the classroom walls are painted with rolling green hills, kite-flying bunnies and shoe-nibbling puppies — the board began talking about raises a couple years ago. Aside from Walter, the preschool’s other employees had all turned over in the space of four years, said board member Deb Williamson, who is vice president of the local bank.

“It opens your eyes,” she said. “Maybe we need to look at why we’re losing people.”

The board began to think harder about the importance of consistency for the 67 children who spend four half-days a week at Dragon’s Wagon and the ease with which Walter, a lead teacher, could find better-paying work if she wanted to.

She was nurturing and dedicated. She’d gone back to school to get her bachelor’s degree at the board’s urging. And like all of the preschool’s employees, Walter didn’t get employer-provided health insurance.

To help settle on a new compensation system, the board looked at the salaries offered by the local school district as well as a handful of other child care providers in the region. In addition to Walter’s $14,000 raise, they decided to raise the salary of the assistant director, who’d been at the preschool for two years, from $26,000 to $32,000. Teacher’s aides also got a boost, moving from $8.50 an hour to $10.

So, how did they come up with more than $20,000 to increase staff pay?

There was no magic bullet. Board members said they’d accumulated a small “nest egg” by squirreling away money in years there was a budget surplus. In addition, they relied on grants, tuition money, fundraising dollars from the school’s annual spaghetti supper and auction, and state money they received for serving at-risk students and those with special needs.

Asked how other preschools or child care centers might achieve such salary improvements, Stegg said a proactive board and careful planning helps.

Walter, who started working at Dragon’s Wagon in 1989, said community buy-in is critical. Residents — many of whom work at nearby hog farms, the local grain elevator or the hospital — have relied on and supported the preschool for years.

Kathy Miller, a regional support specialist for the state’s Colorado Preschool Program, said she considers the salary increases a “beautiful example” but expressed concern that the changes can’t be easily replicated elsewhere.

“I think it’s a model,” said Miller, who works with child care sites, including Dragon’s Wagon, within an eight-school district region. “I just don’t know if it’s possible in all communities.”

There are tight state and school district budgets to contend with, the public misconception that early childhood teachers are glorified babysitters and the fact that busy preschool directors may not be forging close connections with local business leaders, she said.

For Dragon’s Wagon, the challenge ahead will be sustaining the raises.

“I hope they can keep that up,” Miller said.

Tuition, which has remained at $80 a month for the last eight years, may eventually increase, Williamson said. Preschool leaders are also highlighting the new pay structure in grant applications, after learning that some foundations are eager to know about such improvements.

For her part, Walter is confident that the board has done its due diligence. She’d been privy to conversations about staff salaries for years. In fact, back in August, she knew she’d be getting a raise herself— she just didn’t know how big it would be.

“It made me realize that they do appreciate everything we do and that we’re worth it,” she said.

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.”

Enter to win

Denver organization to launch national prize for early childhood innovation

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

A Denver-based investment group will soon launch a national contest meant to help scale up great ideas in the early childhood field — specifically efforts focused on children birth to 3 years old.

Gary Community Investments announced its Early Childhood Innovation Prize on Wednesday morning at a conference in San Francisco. It’s sort of like the television show “Shark Tank,” but without the TV cameras, celebrity judges and nail-biting live pitch.

The contest will divvy up $1 million in prize money to at least three winners, one at the beginning stages of concept development, one at a mid-level stage and one at an advanced stage. Gary officials say there could be more than one winner in each category.

The contest will officially launch Oct. 25, with submissions due Feb. 15 and winners announced in May. (Gary Community Investments, through the Piton Foundation, is a Chalkbeat funder.)

Officials at Gary Community Investments, founded by oilman Sam Gary, say the contest will help the organization focus on finding solutions that address trouble spots in the early childhood arena.

The birth-to-3 zone is one such spot. While it’s an especially critical time for children because of the amount of brain development that occurs during that time, it’s often overshadowed by efforts targeting 4- or 5-year-olds.

Steffanie Clothier, Gary’s child development investment director, said leaders there decided on a monetary challenge after talking with a number of other organizations that offer prizes for innovative ideas or projects.

One foundation they consulted described lackluster responses to routine grant programs, but lots of enthusiasm for contests with financial stakes, she said.

“There’s some galvanizing opportunity to a prize,” she said.

But Gary’s new prize isn’t solely about giving away money to create or expand promising programs. It will also include an online networking platform meant to connect applicants with mentors, partners or investors.

“We’re trying to figure out how to make it not just about the winners,” Clothier said.

.