opting out

Amid Colorado’s push to get child care providers to seek higher ratings, some say, ‘No thanks’

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Loveland's Teaching Tree Early Childhood Learning Center was one of the first two centers in the state to get a Level 5 rating in the Colorado Shines rating system.

Dede Beardsley says she’s always received rave reviews about the Montessori preschool and kindergarten program she’s led in Boulder for nearly four decades.

Parents and state licensing representatives have complimented her on the way the classrooms run and the teachers’ high levels of education, she said.

On paper, however, Mapleton Montessori School is not a high-quality program. It has the lowest possible rating on the state’s child care rating scale — a Level 1.

All Colorado preschools and child care centers get a score on the state’s five-level rating system, called Colorado Shines. But providers are not required to seek higher marks and some — including Beardsley — say the effort is not justified.

“I run this school by myself,” she said. “I don’t spend my time jumping through hoops that I don’t feel really benefit us.”

That well-regarded operators choose to accept the lowest rating is an early challenge for Colorado Shines, a two-year-old system meant to better inform parents and lift the quality of child care in Colorado. Some providers balk at costs associated with pursuing a higher rating, underscoring the broader problem of a lack of funding in the early childhood system.

Currently, 53 percent of Colorado’s 4,264 child care providers carry a Level 1 rating on Colorado Shines. That rating means they are licensed by the state and meet basic health and safety standards.

Providers can stay at Level 1 indefinitely, but they may not look as good to parents who search provider ratings in the state’s online database. Without contacting providers individually and doing other research, it’s impossible to tell which Level 1 sites may be providing lower caliber care and which ones offer excellent care but have decided not to climb the ratings ladder.

Experts say measuring child care quality — and helping lower-quality programs improve — is important because high quality programs help prepare kids, especially those from poor families, for kindergarten.

“Low quality settings are actually harmful,” said Susan Hibbard, executive director of the BUILD Initiative, a national organization that helps states develop early childhood systems.

“If you care about all the children in the state you have to care about increasing the level of quality and making sure that public dollars go where they’re needed the most.”

All in

Up until a couple years ago, Colorado’s child care rating system was voluntary and only a fraction of the state’s providers chose to participate. Then, with a surge of Obama administration money for early childhood efforts, the state launched the mandatory Colorado Shines system in 2015. Now, every licensed provider in the state — with some limited exceptions — has a rating.

Currently, about 30 percent of Colorado providers have Level 2 ratings, which means they’ve taken some steps to improve, but are not yet considered high quality. Level 3, 4 and 5 ratings are all considered high quality, requiring a site visit by a specially trained evaluator and evidence of everything from parent engagement to sound business practices. Providers typically say reaching one of the top three rating levels takes months of work.

Stacey Kennedy, the state’s child care quality initiatives director, said via email that she expects more providers to earn ratings of Level 2 or higher “as the system matures and market drivers, such as parent demand for quality, also increase.”

But Hibbard cautions that relying on parents to drive demand for quality— one of the original goals of quality rating systems nationwide — is still far from reality.

“It’s a lovely little idea,” she said, but doesn’t acknowledge that that high quality care is often inaccessible to families because it’s too pricey or far away.

“Really the role that (quality rating and improvement systems are) playing in many states now is defining a quality framework around which the state can organize its resources,” she said.

Not interested

Providers decide to stick with Level 1 ratings for many reasons. Some private programs have long waiting lists and will be packed no matter their rating.

“They, from their perspective, really don’t need to go through the ratings process and … demonstrate anything,” said Nicole Riehl, director of programs and development at Denver’s Early Childhood Council.

Other providers fear the rating won’t accurately reflect their quality or worry about the time and expense involved. Beardsley, who believes most visitors would guess her school is a Level 5, falls into that category. One of her concerns is that Colorado Shines criteria don’t always accommodate approaches like Montessori, where class size or other features may be different from mainstream programs.

“I think they’re looking at (quality) through very limited lenses,” she said.

(The Colorado Shines database shows that a number of Montessori preschools in the state have achieved Level 3 and 4 ratings.)

A study underway of Colorado Shines by the nonprofit research group Child Trends included an invitation earlier this month to Montessori providers to give their feedback. Study results are due out this summer and will help guide improvements to the rating system, state officials said.

Providers who speak a language other than English make up another group that stays at Level 1, Riehl said. While there have been efforts to translate some Colorado Shines materials into Spanish or give Spanish-speaking providers alternative routes to higher ratings, challenges remain.

They’re “not going to have equitable access to the materials and the (online) platform,” Riehl said.

Giving it a try

Hiwet Ogbazion, who runs a licensed child care program out of her home in Denver’s Montbello neighborhood, was initially unsure about the rating system. She recalled attending a meeting about Colorado Shines a couple years ago and hearing other providers, say, ‘“No, we don’t need to join this. We don’t need to do this.”

Ogbazion, a former middle school teacher in the east African country of Eritrea, was confused. She called Denver’s Early Childhood Council the next day and a staff member explained the system’s process and benefits.

She took a number of online trainings available through Colorado Shines and earned her Level 2 rating in 2016.

“They really helped me in order to improve myself and (understand) how to work in the daycare…how to interact with the kids,” she said.

Ogbazion, who someday hopes to open a child care center, said the higher rating allowed her to get a grant that helped buy a slide and water table for her yard, and blocks and music CDs for inside the house.

Worth their while

While many parents make child care decisions based on cost, or proximity to their home or job, some providers worry low ratings could eventually affect enrollment.

Beardsley, of Mapleton Montessori, said she’s never had a parent ask about her Colorado Shines rating, but has no way of knowing if anyone’s steered clear after looking it up online.

While top ratings may help attract families, programs have a variety of other incentives for earning higher ratings. These include special quality improvement grants, and for providers with one of the top three ratings, higher reimbursement rates for serving low-income kids who qualify for state child care subsidies.

Advocates say getting providers to go for higher ratings can also provide valuable data to organizations that provide training and support.

Staff at Denver’s Early Childhood Council realized that many providers were scoring low in the business administration category as they sought higher ratings, Riehl said. The council subsequently developed a six-session training on basic financial practices. The first group enrolled in that course recently finished.

Riehl recounted how one provider said, “For the first time ever I have a budget and I know how much money I made from enrollment.”

Nature's classroom

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
A girl plays during a Worldmind Nature Immersion School class at Matthews/Winters Park in Jefferson County.

A 2½-year-old boy named Ben was ankle-deep in a Jefferson County creek when suddenly he lost his footing and plopped onto his bottom in the cold shallow water. The fall didn’t faze him. Neither did his dripping shorts. He got up and kept playing.

About a dozen children frolicked in or near the creek that day — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, building dams with sticks and mud, or inspecting bugs that flitted nearby.

It was a typical day at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, one of a growing number of programs where toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergarteners spend all their time outside — no matter the weather.

“When children look like they’re playing in nature, huge amounts of learning is taking place,” said Erin Kenny, founder of the American Forest Kindergarten Association and the co-founder of a pioneering outdoor preschool program in Washington state.

Established first in Scandinavia, such “forest schools” occupy a steadily expanding niche in the American early-childhood landscape. But even with the movement’s popularity, advocates wonder if it can reach beyond the homogenous slice of families — mostly middle-class and white — it now serves.

Advocates like Kenny lament the academic push found in many traditional preschools and say that young children thrive outdoors — developing independence, resilience, and other valuable social-emotional skills.

Parents say their kids like the expansive space, non-stop play, and dearth of rules in outdoor classes. And as long as they’re dressed for the conditions, they take rain, snow, or frigid temperatures in stride.

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Megan Patterson, the founder of Worldmind Nature Immersion School, pretends her preschool students are penguin chicks.

“I think it’s great to come in bad weather,” said Denver parent Tracy Larson, who has two children in the Worldmind class. “It makes us go outside when we’re at home in bad weather too … You’re not afraid of it.”

Forest schools nationwide face significant regulatory and logistical barriers to expanding their footprint — and serving students of color and those from low-income families.

“This movement is not going to move forward or it’s going to be stigmatized if we don’t rapidly move the needle from white middle-class to all-inclusive,” said Kenny.

Perhaps the most immediate problem is that states have no rules for outdoor-based programs that serve young children and thus, no way to grant them child care licenses. Besides signaling that programs meet basic health and safety rules, a license opens the door to state subsidies that help low-income families pay for child care.

In Colorado, the inability to get licensed means that forest schools can only have up to four young children in a class or, as is the case at Worldmind, must require parents to stay for each session. But licensing rules here could soon change. The same is true in Washington state, where there are dozens of outdoor preschool programs.

Government officials in both states are working with outdoor preschool providers as part of pilot programs that could lead to creating a child care license for outdoor preschools. The idea is to ensure children’s safety without stamping out the creek-wading, tree-climbing sensibilities that make the programs what they are.

Kenny said there are now around 50 forest preschools in the U.S. and another 200 “nature schools,” which put a major emphasis on outdoor learning but have buildings, too. Colorado and Washington are the only ones she knows of that are actively exploring special licensing classifications for outdoor preschools, but hopes their pilot programs will build momentum nationally.

“I used to feel I was riding the crest of a wave,” she said. “Now I feel the wave has crashed and it’s moving in ripples everywhere.

Testing the model

In Colorado, two providers — Worldmind and a Denver-based program called The Nursery School — are participating in the state pilot program. It starts this month for the Nursery School and in August for Worldmind. Both providers will be allowed to serve up to 10 children ages 3 to 6 during half-day sessions without parents present. The schools must adhere to a staff-student ratio of 1 to 5 — stricter than what is required in a traditional preschool.

They’ll also have to abide by other rules, including keeping tree-climbing children within arm’s reach and seeking indoor shelter in extreme weather.

In addition, both programs will track heaps of data, ranging from hourly weather changes to the circumstances behind any wildlife encounters or potty accidents. State licensing officials will also visit each program regularly. The pilot will run through February — to capture all kinds of Colorado weather — with a licensing decision possible in the summer of 2019.

Matt Hebard, a former preschool teacher and early childhood school district administrator, launched The Nursery School with Brett Dabb last fall at Denver’s Bluff Lake Nature Center. In recent weeks, the handful of children enrolled there have spotted newly hatched goslings and mule deer, and made “snowmen” with fluff from cottonwood trees.

The two men first conceived of the school in 2013 during their time in an early childhood leadership program and soon after discovered the long, bureaucracy-laden road to state recognition. There were waiver applications, denials, a hearing before the state attorney general, and even a look at whether state legislation would further the cause of outdoor preschools in Colorado.

“It’s been slow going,” but worthwhile, Hebard said. “It’s going to allow other practitioners to open outdoor preschools … It’s going to give parents another option.”

A child plays in the limbs of a tree at Matthews/Winters Park in Jefferson County.

Megan Patterson, a former elementary school teacher in Alaska and Colorado, launched Worldmind in 2015 — complying with state rules by offering “child and caregiver” classes at local parks and botanical gardens in Boulder County and metro Denver.

“I studied urban ecology in Boston and after that I realized … how important it is to connect kids to places around where they live,” she said. “I finally found the type of education I believe in 100 percent.”

State officials say they have been approached by other outdoor preschool providers interested in the pilot, but don’t plan to expand it beyond the two programs, and the roughly 40 children they’ll serve during the pilot period.

“We feel the model needs to be even more rigorous in the state of Colorado,” said Erin Mewhinney, director of the state’s early care and learning division in the office of early childhood.

She said while forest schools are popular in United Kingdom — where leaders of Worldmind and The Nursery School have both attended special teacher training courses — Colorado weather and terrain pose different challenges

“We all love the outdoors, but we all know how dangerous it is and we’re trying to strike a balance with that license type,” she said.

A sense of freedom

The recent Worldmind class where 2-year-old Ben plopped in the creek took place at Matthews/Winters Park in Golden on a warm, sunny May morning. While Patterson offered some general structure to the dozen kids in attendance — a snack break, a brief discussion of a picture book they’d read, and a chance to feel animal pelts, the kids were mostly free to do what they wanted.

Their parents lingered nearby, chatting with each other, chasing after younger siblings, or joining their kids in the creek or on a green tarp laid out nearby. It felt like a big, free-flowing playdate in the woods.

To be sure, there were the usual little-kid frustrations. One small girl, after repeatedly scrambling up the bank of the creek without much trouble, was reduced to tears once her hands went from merely dirty to muddy.

Worldmind’s upcoming pilot program class will look similar to the child and caregiver class, though without the parents. It will take place at Denver’s City Park, with the adjacent Denver Museum of Nature and Science serving as a backup in case of extreme weather.

Several parents who attended the recent class at Matthews/Winters Park said they planned to send their children to the pilot program. They often used the same word to describe why they liked the outdoor classes: Freedom.

Brittany Courville, of Lakewood, said she brought her 5-year-old daughter Siena to her first Worldmind session after the family relocated to Colorado from Texas a few years ago. The move had been jarring for the then 2-year-old, but the outdoor class seemed to restore her spirits.

“She loved it … It was freezing and she didn’t want to leave,” said Courville. “You know, you go to library story times — ‘Sit down. Do this. Do that’ — and she came here and there were other kids she could play with and also be herself and just explore.”

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent “forest school” class.

Brit Lease, a Denver resident and the mother of 2-year-old Ben, has friends who are excited that their daughter’s preschool has pledged she’ll be reading on a first-grade level by the time she starts kindergarten. But Lease doesn’t want that for Ben.

“What social-emotional learning did they miss out on or interpersonal kinds of things did they miss out on because they were so focused on learning how to read?” she asked.

While she talked, Ben growled like a tiger and showed off his “sword” — fashioned out of two thin branches bound together with black cord.

“My theory right now is just let them be kids as long as they can because it does start sooner,” Lease said. “Kindergarten is no joke anymore.”

A bigger tent

While Patterson launched Worldmind with a primary focus on getting kids outside, she’s lately shifted her goals. The organization is revamping its mission to aim for racial and ethnic, socioeconomic, cultural, and ability diversity.

If Worldmind becomes licensed, she also plans to accept state child-care subsidies. Tuition for four half-days of forest school during the fall semester of the pilot project runs about $2,900.

But like other outdoor preschool providers, Patterson knows the typical part-day forest school schedule doesn’t work for everybody.

In part to accommodate working parents, Patterson hopes by the fall of 2019 to open a brick-and-mortar child care center that would still focus on outdoor learning, while enabling Worldmind to serve infants and toddlers, and offer full-day care for children up to age 6.

Megan Patterson, the founder of Worldmind Nature Immersion School, talks with two children while others play nearby.

Hebard said he doesn’t plan to accept child-care subsidies because they come with requirements he thinks don’t apply to an outdoor preschool model. These include evaluating students using a state-approved assessment tool.

Still, he would eventually like to raise money for a scholarship program. But with only a handful of tuition-paying families enrolled now and much of his extra time spent working nights at UPS Inc., that reality could be a ways off.

“It would be nice to have a broader demographic,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity for any child.”

Nationally, some forest preschools have come up with creative ways to open their doors to a wider slice of their communities. For example, the Forest Freedom School, based in Oakland, gives students of a color a 30 percent break on tuition. It’s billed as the “Struggle Is Real” discount.

Aside from financial obstacles, there can be cultural barriers that make outdoor preschools perplexing or unthinkable for some families. These may include worries that children will get sick if they spend time in the rain and cold or simply the sense that school isn’t an outdoor activity.

Hebard said a colleague at another organization told him about concerns voiced by parents about plans to replace the preschool’s brightly colored plastic play equipment with a nature-themed playground. Some of the parents worked outside all day and were put off by the idea of their children playing in the dirt at school.

Overcoming those perceptions will take parent education and outreach to local groups that work with communities of color, forest school leaders say.

Kenny said programs must be aggressive about serving all kinds of families. And it’s not just tuition help that’s needed, she said. Because children are outside in all kinds of weather, families may need help ensuring their children have access to high-quality clothing and gear.

“It’s incumbent on these schools to offer some kind of assistance because right now the government’s not doing it, nobody’s doing it,” she said.

Prize money

A million dollars, 570 hopefuls, and 15 winners: How a new competition aims to boost babies and toddlers

PHOTO: JGI/Jamie Grill | Getty Images
Boy displaying drawing.

A Colorado team is one of 15 winners to share in $1 million awarded by a Denver-based organization as part of a new contest recognizing innovative efforts benefitting children from birth to 3 years old.

The Boulder-based team will receive $80,000 for a project that helps little kids acquire language, thinking, and social-emotional skills using a cell phone app inside a stuffed animal.

Gary Community Investments, which gives grants and makes for-profit investments to benefit low-income children and families, announced the winners of the Early Childhood Innovation Prize on Tuesday afternoon. (Gary Community Investments, through the Piton Foundation, is a Chalkbeat funder.)

The Colorado team that won prize money developed a tool called MindScribe. It works like this. An adult slips a cell phone with a special application into the belly of a stuffed zebra. The app prompts the child to explain what they are doing or making and asks follow-up questions, such as “What happened next?” and “Why?”

MindScribe founder Layne Hubbard, a Ph.D. student in computer science at the University of Colorado Boulder, said her work as a teacher at Boulder’s Children’s House Preschool inspired the project.

“I thought back to storytelling and how powerfully the children’s original stories catalyzed growth, development, and connectedness,” she wrote via email. “I realized that I wanted to scale this opportunity to reach young children across diverse early childhood communities, especially those which are multilingual, low-income, or affected by trauma or disability.”

One little girl who stars in a MindScribe’s demonstration video describes her crayon drawing of a garden — and her fictional protagonist’s desire to change “boring weather” — to the MindScribe zebra for seven minutes.

But the girl, Mia, isn’t oblivious to the cell phone inside the paunchy stuffed animal. Instead, she’s delighted.

She explain how it works to her father, saying, “This is like the teacher but with a radio inside the teacher.”

Mindscribe, which is still in the pilot stage, began with three languages and is now available in 11.

The Early Childhood Innovation Prize, unveiled by Gary last fall, is distinctive because there are few contests that focus on very young children — despite a large body of evidence showing that high-quality care and education for this group yield significant financial and societal dividends.

Leaders at Gary invited prize submissions from teams with advanced ideas, early-stage ideas, and nascent concepts. Five advanced winners received $100,000 each, five early-stage winners received $80,000 each, and five beginning-concept winners receiving varying shares of $100,000. Gary also recognized seven teams, including one from a Colorado Springs-based network of child care centers, that didn’t win money but offered promising ideas.

The contest used an online platform that made each submission publicly viewable and allowed teams to get feedback from fellow candidates, and in some cases, mentoring from experts.

“We really wanted the prize to be an engaging opportunity for people in the early childhood field,” said Steffanie Clothier, Gary’s child development investment director.

Gary received 570 submissions, with winning ideas coming from nonprofit and for-profit groups, universities, city governments, and the National Head Start Association.

One winning team aims to eradicate book deserts by putting children’s reading materials in public spaces like barber shops and beauty salons. Another proposes classes on mindfulness to reduce child care providers’ stress levels. Several feature technology solutions — to improve child care business operations or promote early developmental screenings.

Clothier said although most of the prize winners are testing projects outside Colorado, their ideas could eventually be replicated here. She said the organization has not decided whether to hold the innovation competition again.