Funding gap

Families scramble as highly regarded Clayton Early Learning closes center, limits program eligibility

A preschooler builds a toy robot at Clayton Early Learning (Photo by Ann Schimke)

Clayton Early Learning, which has gained national attention for providing quality early childhood education to low-income families, will close its center in far northeast Denver and limit enrollment at its flagship school to families who receive federal assistance through Head Start.

The changes mean that about 30 tuition-paying families and a dozen families who rely on a state child care subsidy will need to find other options by Aug. 18, officials said.

Clayton first began operations in Denver in the 1980s, and began receiving Head Start and Early Head Start federal funding to serve low-income communities the next decade. At the invitation of private investors, the nonprofit opened its second location on a campus with multiple schools in the far northeast Green Valley Ranch neighborhood at the start of 2013.

“We felt like it was going to be another very strategic location, and that we could make very visible what high-quality learning and care looks like for all children,” said Charlotte Brantley, the Clayton president and CEO.

Brantley said Clayton’s public and private funding did not cover the cost of its operations when the program first expanded to its second school, but hoped more public funds would become available over time to help the program succeed.

The funding gap did not close significantly, she said, and last week Clayton’s board of trustees voted to close the Green Valley Ranch center, and for tuition-paying families and families receiving state Child Care Assistance Program subsidies at both locations. Clayton will continue to operate for families enrolled in Head Start and Early Head Start at its original school, at 3751 Martin Luther King Boulevard in northeast Denver.

The changes will affect a handful of tuition-paying families and nearly a dozen families receiving the state subsidy at the Green Valley Ranch campus, and will affect 29 tuition-paying families at the flagship center.

Head Start and Early Head Start families at the Green Valley Ranch school will have the option to enroll at Clayton’s original school, or enroll in Clayton’s home-based program where instructors work with the child in their home a few times a month, Brantley said.

Amber D’Angelo Na, whose three-and-a-half year old son is enrolled at Clayton’s flagship campus and three-month-old is on the waitlist, said she was informed of the changes Wednesday by her child-family educator, who is a designated liaison between Clayton and its families. Na, a tuition-paying parent, said she was “completely blindsided” by the news.

“Of course we would have been open (to paying more) if they said, ‘We’re struggling and raising tuition,’” she said. “We would’ve expected that.”

Brantley said the board considered raising tuition, but said “very few parents … could afford the full cost” of Clayton’s comprehensive programming. Clayton, which offers care for infants starting at six weeks of age, provides extensive staff training, in-depth assistance for parents and has very low staff-child ratios.

Keith Valentine, also a tuition-paying parent of two children, said he heard “through the rumor mill” that his children would no longer have access to Clayton’s services. With six weeks’ notice, both Valentine and Na said it will be near-impossible to find comparable early childhood care.

“I’ve never, ever expected my two sons to get an ounce more than anybody else,” Valentine said. “I come from Clayton’s target community (and) my wife is a refugee from Ethiopia. Struggling is nothing new to us. All I’ve ever wanted was equal treatment and to have my kids be able to have the same access to the quality that Clayton provides.”

Brantley said Clayton was “upset” to part ways with the families, especially some whose children had been involved with Clayton for several years.

Down the line, Brantley said she hopes that the program will be able to reopen to families who rely on the state subsidies or pay tuition — if Clayton can seek the additional funds it needs to reestablish those spots.

“We very intentionally decided to have mixed income kids in our classrooms,” she said. “We firmly believe that we shouldn’t be segregating children based on incomes … so there’s a lot of this that we are not happy about, either. But it was becoming an untenable situation.”

Many of the 27 staff members at the Clayton center closing in far northeast will get a chance to move to the flagship center, Brantley said. She said Clayton has held off on filling 21 openings at that campus to give the affected staff members a chance to say they’d like to move there.

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.

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