financial pressure

Closure of Clayton Early Learning center in far northeast Denver exposes pain points in early childhood care

Preschoolers play at Clayton Early Learning in 2015.

When the news broke last week that Clayton Early Learning planned to shutter its child care center in Denver’s Green Valley Ranch neighborhood, dozens of parents voiced anger and surprise as they scrambled to line up new child care arrangements.

Behind the scenes, local and national early childhood advocates also took note.

Suddenly, one of the most well-respected names in early childhood education was downsizing. After just four years, Clayton was leaving an underserved city neighborhood, ending service for middle class tuition-paying families and retreating from its aspiration to provide quality child care to a mixed-income population.

“That is not a decision that we wanted to have to come to,” said Clayton’s President and CEO Charlotte Brantley. “We don’t believe it’s the right way to go to segregate kids based on their race, income or anything else.”

The move, however, illustrates just how financially tenuous the child care business can be — even for the biggest players in the game.

“It is concerning for Clayton, being a really well-known, high-functioning provider, to not be able to make it work,” said Emily Bustos, executive director of Denver’s Early Childhood Council.

Clayton, whose flagship school in northeast Denver is part of the national Educare network of child care centers serving at-risk children, doesn’t look like a place with money worries. Stately buildings dot its 20-acre campus, which long ago housed a boys orphanage and school. The organization also owns the 155-acre Park Hill Golf Club, which brings in about $650,000 a year after expenses.

Still, Clayton leaders and industry experts say top-notch child care is extremely expensive — costing tens of thousands of dollars a year per child. And help from government coffers is lagging.

“It’s an example of how underfunded high-quality programs in early childhood are,” said Cheryl Caldwell, director of early childhood education for Denver Public Schools.

Said Brantley: “The industry runs on an absolute shoestring budget.”

While Clayton is closing its far northeast Denver location, many of the approximately 100 children served there will be allowed to transfer to Clayton’s flagship campus on Martin Luther King Boulevard because they qualify for federally funded Head Start or Early Head Start. By combining Head Start funds with Denver Preschool Program funds and state money available to low-income families, the school can cover the cost of those slots more easily.

Up to 43 children, half of them infants or toddlers, will lose their spots at Clayton after Aug.18. They include 25 tuition-paying children at the main campus, three tuition-paying children at the far northeast site and possibly up to 15 low-income children at both sites who currently get state child care subsidies. Some of 15 children may be eligible for Head Start, which would allow them to stay at Clayton.

The closure will hit families with infants and toddlers particularly hard because there’s a chronic shortage of quality care for children that age in Denver.

While displaced preschoolers will probably be able to find other arrangements, “The infants and toddlers … they have basically nowhere to go,” Brantley said.

Some tuition-paying parents expressed their frustration at Clayton officials for not having being more proactive in addressing the financial challenges.

“You are the caretaker for the families because we don’t work with the budget,” Nate Paul, who has a 17-month-old in care at the main campus, and is expecting a baby who is already on the Clayton waitlist, told school officials at a recent meeting. “We don’t know what the cost per head is. We don’t have our hand on the gears and levers. You do. Your job is to make Clayton sustainable.”

Ryan Walsh, a father of two children served at Clayton’s main campus, said, “We’re not just a bunch of noise-making, smear campaign kind of people. We actually advocate for early childhood education, and this situation doesn’t benefit the community as a whole when we’re talking about early childhood and education funding advocacy in general.”

Brantley said about 30 staff members at the far northeast location will be able to transfer to jobs at the main campus, though some may take on somewhat different roles.

After operating its flagship campus for decades, Clayton Early Learning opened its second location in a building called Z Place in the Green Valley Ranch neighborhood in early 2013.

The additional space allowed both sites to begin accepting tuition-paying families. They had access to the same raft of benefits that Clayton’s Head Start families and those eligible for state child care subsidies did— small class sizes, extensive special services and lots of parent support.

But tuition — currently about $1,000 a month for full-day preschool and about $1,200 a month for full-day infant/toddler care — never covered the true cost of all that was provided, Brantley said.

Clayton covers $200,000 to $300,000 each year to close the gap between what tuition covers and what the program actually costs, Brantley said.

School officials launched the new location knowing that, but they hoped that more public funding would be coming to the early childhood field. At the time, a campaign was underway for a statewide ballot initiative that would raise millions for education, including preschool and full-day kindergarten. Voters soundly rejected the measure in November 2013.

There were other setbacks. In 2014, Colorado lost its bid for a federal grant that would have paid for new state preschool slots. Clayton would have been a partner in the effort.

Brantley said the state legislature’s perennial reluctance to increase education funding, combined with uncertainties about what will happen to federal early childhood funding under the Trump administration’s budget, also factored into the discussion to close the far northeast location.

In the midst of the deliberations, Clayton leaders learned that two separate grants that help fund other parts of the organization’s work — weekly “play and learn” groups for kids and caregivers, and coaching for other child care providers — would not be renewed.

“It’s this multitude of things that crashed together all at once,” said Brantley. “This was an incredibly difficult and disappointing decision to have to come to.”

Although Clayton owns the Park Hill Golf Club land and is in the midst of deciding whether and how to redevelop it, Brantley said it wouldn’t solve the problem of the far northeast site. For one thing, it will remain a golf course at least through the end of 2018, meaning no additional revenue is expected any time soon. In addition, any revenue from it would also need to support other aspects of Clayton’s large operation, which includes research, training and coaching.

Brantley said the fate of the seven classrooms at Z Place became clear in the spring as school leaders were developing the budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. The board voted to close the far northeast site in June.

Some of Clayton’s tuition-paying parents argued that they would have been willing to pay more if only school leaders had asked. But Clayton officials say the gap was too large.

Mike Burke, vice president of the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, a national Educare partner, said that he understands the parents’ instinct, but that it probably wasn’t a realistic request.

“An organization of Clayton’s caliber would have made it work if they could,” he said.

Educare programs have very robust staffing models “where you’re paying for degreed professionals, you’re paying for one, two, three teachers in the classrooms, family support workers, nurses, mental health consultants, speech and language consultants,” Burke said.

“When you start piecing it all together, you can see these cost-per-child averages raising, raising, raising.”

Burke said only a few of the country’s 21 Educare schools, including those in Miami, Maine and suburban Chicago, have classrooms that include children from tuition-paying families. But in most cases, it’s small-scale integration — only about 10 children.

Research on mixed-income preschool classrooms shows that such diversity has a positive influence on language development and social and emotional skills of low-income children. But Burke said early childhood financing structures aren’t set up to encourage socioeconomic integration because they come with strict eligibility requirements, often based on family income.

Locally, Mile High Early Learning, which like Clayton focuses on serving low-income families through Head Start and Early Head Start, draws around 7 percent of its 500 children from tuition-paying families.

But Pamela Harris, the organization’s executive director, knows how hard the balancing act is. Leaders there recently increased monthly tuition from $1,400 to $1,700 after a year of discussions.

That said, there’s still an invisible subsidy at work, Harris said — the discount that comes from paying child care workers a relatively low wage. Some in the field make so little they qualify for government assistance.

Overall, Harris believes there’s been progress on the early childhood front — gradual growth in Colorado’s state-funded preschool program, a new focus on early education in the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, and local efforts to connect the birth to five age span to the K-12 education system.

Against that backdrop though, Clayton’s plan to close its far northeast site “exposes the pain points that are still in early childhood,” she said.

New direction

Three years in, an ambitious experiment to improve the odds for kids at one elementary school is scaling back

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Tennyson Knolls students return to school after a ribbon-cutting ceremony on school grounds in September.

Blocks of Hope was once envisioned as a pint-sized version of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

The project would provide an array of educational and social services to young children and families living within the boundaries of one high-poverty Adams County school — in the process, changing not only the lives of individual children but also the community around them.

But after three years, the Westminster-based nonprofit that spearheaded Blocks of Hope is scaling back its ambitions.

While the project won’t disappear entirely, the nonprofit’s leaders say they’re no longer focusing services and staff so tightly on the school’s boundary zone and may eventually stop using the Blocks of Hope name.

“We’re starting to question whether it’s the right strategic direction for the organization,” said Karen Fox Elwell, the new president and CEO of Growing Home, which launched the project in 2014.

The shifting shape of Blocks of Hope — originally framed as a 20-year effort intended to change the trajectories of children 0 to 9 within the Tennyson Knolls Elementary School enrollment zone — is a disappointment for some advocates who’d hoped this “placed-based” approach would not only be successful, but also possibly serve as a model for other Colorado communities.

A raft of issues have prompted the changes, including greater-than-expected mobility among the school population, fundraising challenges, and the tension that came from devoting resources to the 2.25-square-mile project zone while also trying to serve the broader Adams County community.

“It was hard to find that balance to do both well,” said Fox Elwell, who joined Growing Home in January.

Organizers knew when they started that the community was changing, but gentrification pushed out families faster than they expected. About a quarter of Tennyson Knoll’s students left the school in 2015-16.

Leaders said that was one reason it was tricky to track child outcomes that would demonstrate the project’s impact — a hallmark of successful place-based work.

Fox Elwell said there’s more stability among residents in the Harlem Children’s Zone because of rent-controlled housing.

“So families are really staying in that community for years upon years,” she said. “With Blocks of Hope, it’s just not the case.”

Fox Elwell said the board and staff will determine the future of Blocks of Hope during the group’s upcoming strategic planning process starting in late spring.

Teva Sienicki, the former president and CEO of Growing Home and the project’s original champion, said significant evidence supports the place-based strategy that underpinned Blocks of Hope, but didn’t want to second-guess the decisions of Growing Home’s current leaders.

“I really do wish them the best,” said Sienicki, who left Growing Home last summer.

Even at the outset of the project,  Sienicki acknowledged that changing demographics and funding challenges could alter the long-term course of the project. Still, she was optimistic, projecting a gradual expansion that would bring two to three other elementary schools in the Westminster district under the Blocks of Hope umbrella, and increase the number of employees dedicated to the project from two to 70.

In addition to improving family functioning, the project’s goal was to boost school attendance, kindergarten readiness, and third-grade reading scores, and reduce the number of children referred for special education services. This year, 85 percent of Tennyson Knolls students are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, a proxy for poverty.

One of the essential ideas behind place-based efforts like Blocks of Hope and the Harlem Children’s Zone is to flood a carefully defined geographic area with services in the hopes of touching a critical mass of residents, usually around 60 percent. By reaching such a large proportion of a population, proponents say such efforts create a kind of tipping point that pushes the whole community to adopt the norms and aspirations of those who receive services.

But Blocks of Hope never got close to that tipping point.

While certain components of the project, such as backpack and school supply giveaways, reached a large number of families, others, such as parent programs, never got above 15 percent, said Fox Elwell.

Aside from high mobility, the fact that many students ride the bus to Tennyson Knolls — instead of getting dropped off by their parents — made it harder to connect with parents than organizers anticipated.

The nonprofit’s limited budget was also a factor. Spending on the project was originally set at $250,000 annually, with eventual plans to reach $3 million if it expanded to other schools.

The nonprofit’s actual spending on Blocks of Hope has been around $100,000 a year, said Fox Elwell. In addition, a grant that Growing Home leaders hoped would pay for an evaluation of the project never came through.

“There were some incredible hopes to grow the budget and deeply invest in the community,” she said. “And maybe it was more challenging to fundraise than we anticipated.”

There are still several Blocks of Hope programs at Tennyson Knolls this year, including backpack giveaways, holiday gift and meal help, and two parenting classes. The school also houses a boutique with used children’s clothing and gear.

An after-school tutoring program was discontinued after last school year because it wasn’t effective, leaders said. Another program aimed at grandparents raising grandchildren was slated to launch this spring, but will not because school leaders felt they had too much going on.

A community organizer originally hired to work with Blocks of Hope families to advocate for affordable housing has expanded her territory to include other neighborhoods.

“There’s a lot of need just a little bit south and a little bit east of those (school) boundaries,” said Leslie Gonzalez, a Growing Home board member.

Residents in some of those areas began to assume they were no longer eligible for any of the nonprofit’s services as Blocks of Hope ramped up. That wasn’t true, but the project sent some “unintended negative messages,” she said.

Despite looming questions about the future of Blocks of Hope, leaders at Growing Home and Tennyson Knolls say the project has helped families, sparked welcome changes to the nonprofit’s case management strategy, and built community at the school.

Tennyson Knolls Principal Heather McGuire, who is the school’s third principal since Blocks of Hope began, said the project helped get parents involved at school, whether attending PTA meetings, taking Blocks of Hope classes, or attending “coffee with the principal” meetings.

She credits the project with giving rise to the school’s tagline, “We are TKE,” a reference to the school’s initials.

Gonzalez said, “We don’t view Blocks of Hope as a failure necessarily … Even though there were a lot of challenges, a lot of good came out of it, too, and we were able to meet even more families in that community we serve.”

safe haven

Colorado could get its first 24/7 child care facility for families in crisis

PHOTO: Jamie Grill | Getty Images
Mother rubbing forehead while holding baby son.

Last fall, Lisa Rickerd Mills, a medical social worker in Grand Junction, worked with a single mother who needed inpatient mental health treatment.

The problem was child care. The woman had no one to watch her two small children during her stay and bowed out of treatment.

It’s exactly the kind of scenario a group of advocates hope to prevent with a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week child care facility for families facing emergencies or periods of high stress.

The center, to be called the Grand Valley Crisis Nursery and set to open in late 2018, would provide free care for children 0 to 5 years old for periods ranging from a few days to 30 days. The idea is to give parents a safe place to leave their youngest children when they’re facing a crisis — a period of homelessness, an emergency medical procedure, domestic violence, or the threat of job loss. It’s meant to prevent child abuse and neglect and keep kids out of the foster care system.

While there are around 70 crisis nurseries nationwide, the one planned for Grand Junction would be the first of its kind in Colorado. It could pave the way for a new type of state child care license and perhaps crisis nurseries elsewhere in the state. The project is unfolding amidst a broader push in the western Colorado community to improve child and family outcomes by dramatically expanding child care options over the next three years.

Kaleigh Stover, a former pharmaceutical sales representative who moved to Grand Junction from Sacramento last summer, is leading the charge on the crisis nursery. Prior to her move, the 26-year-old volunteered at the Sacramento Crisis Nursery, which runs two of five crisis nurseries in California and, like many such facilities, relies heavily on volunteers to care for the children.

“I’m like that girl in the grocery store who will offer to hold your baby,” she said. “I have a soft spot for babies and moms and helping those people who are experiencing hard times.”

When she first arrived in Grand Junction, Stover called around to several nonprofit organizations and was surprised to learn there wasn’t a crisis nursery in town.

She said local advocates told her, “We don’t have anything like this … but we need it.”

Child abuse cases — and hotline calls about suspected child abuse — have steadily risen over the last few years in Mesa County. The western Colorado county also faces numerous other challenges: higher than average rates of child poverty, foster care placement, and teen pregnancy.

The community’s transience also means that parents of young children often arrive without a circle of family and friends to help out in a pinch, said Rickerd Mills, a member of the crisis nursery’s board.

That can mean parents leave their kids in the care of people they don’t know well or enlist older siblings to watch them.

In addition to providing licensed overnight care for young children, crisis nurseries have case managers who work to connect parents with community resources and get them back on their feet.

While there are a host of typical housing, job, and medical problems that prompt parents to use crisis nurseries, parents with a child care problem outside the usual list won’t be turned away at the Grand Valley center, Stover said.

“We let families define the crisis,” she said, adding that parents using the center would be required to check in with case managers regularly.

Over the past six months, Stover has steadily made progress on the nursery — holding a community town hall, recruiting board members, and finding a local nonprofit to serve as the nursery’s fiscal sponsor. She’s currently in the process of finding a location for the nine- to 12-bed center and will soon begin fundraising.

Stover expects the first-year costs to be around $455,000 if the group purchases a building, with operations costing $150,000 in subsequent years. About 80 percent of the nursery’s funding will come from individual and corporate donations and 20 percent from grants, she said.

In what might be the nursery project’s biggest victory so far, Stover got a preliminary nod in February from the state’s child care licensing advisory committee, which agreed to consider giving the crisis nursery a waiver from state licensing rules.

If the waiver is granted, it could set the stage for a new kind of child care license in Colorado — a cross between a typical child care center license, which doesn’t allow 24-hour care, and a residential child care facility license, which allows 24-hour care but doesn’t permit care for children under 3 years old.

“Having a new license type is kind of nightmare, but it changes the whole state if we can make it happen,” Stover said.

Ebony White Douglas, program manager at the 22-year-old Sacramento Crisis Nursery, praised Stover’s persistence in pursuing the project. She said she routinely consults with people in other states interested in launching crisis nurseries and has seen many such projects sidelined because of complex licensing logistics or daunting fund-raising requirements.

Rickerd Mills said she was heartened to hear about the positive reception from the state’s licensing advisory committee.

“I think it just goes to show the need in this community and the state,” she said.