'class of 2031'

An earlier start: Once rare, more Denver charter schools are embracing preschool

Caroline Hiskey, a preschool teacher at KIPP Northeast Elementary in Denver, reviews letters with the help of "Phonics Lion."

In many ways, the new preschool in Denver’s growing Green Valley Ranch neighborhood looks like any other preschool.

At playtime, a little girl trots toy dinosaurs across a table heaped with plastic animals. Nearby, a 4-year-old boy shows off a picture he drew with lots of red scribbles and dots. There is the usual collection of books, tiny plastic chairs and colorful rugs.

There are also telltale signs that the preschool is run by KIPP, one of the country’s largest college prep charter school networks. The classrooms are all named for colleges, like in KIPP’s higher grades. The preschoolers wear blue polo shirts emblazoned with the school’s logo. A crisp blue banner in the hallway proclaims them the “Class of 2031.”

Across Denver, a growing number of preschoolers are getting their first dose of formal education at charter schools that have retrofitted their models to meet the needs of younger students. The trend is fueled by a growing awareness that getting kids in the door early pays off later academically and by a hunger among parents for affordable, high quality preschool options.

It also signals charter leaders’ increasing willingness to navigate the complicated — and often unfamiliar — early childhood funding and regulatory landscape.

At least six Denver charter schools, most serving large low-income populations, have launched preschool programs in the last five years. Besides KIPP — which enrolls 48 preschoolers at its Northeast Elementary School — they include two locations of Rocky Mountain Prep, Highline Academy’s school in Green Valley Ranch, Academy 360 in Montbello and REACH Charter School in central Denver. (A couple charter schools offered preschool even earlier, but have since closed.)

There’s little dispute about the need for more quality preschool programs. Several neighborhoods in Denver, including parts of Montbello and Green Valley Ranch, are considered “child care deserts” because of the dearth of licensed preschool and child care slots, according to a recent report from the Center for American Progress.

A banner outside the preschool classrooms at KIPP Northeast Elementary School in Denver.

Lindsey Lorehn, the school leader at KIPP Northeast Elementary, said when the school first opened in a smaller location with kindergarten and first grade in 2015, “What we heard pretty resoundingly from families was they wanted a high quality early childhood education program.”

The school’s new building, nestled among recently built homes in Green Valley Ranch, made that possible. Its three preschool classrooms opened this fall, just as a highly regarded child care center in the same neighborhood was closing its doors. There already are 41 children on KIPP’s preschool waitlist.

Rocky Mountain Prep, which offers preschool to both 3- and 4-year-olds, has more than 150 children on waitlists for a spot at one of its two Denver schools and about 30 children on the waitlist at its newest school in Aurora.

Of the six charter-run preschool programs in Denver, four have Level 3 or 4 ratings, markers of quality under state’s child care rating system. Like other new preschools, KIPP’s program has the lowest Level 1 rating, which means it’s licensed but hasn’t yet gone through the lengthy process required for a higher rating. Leaders there hope to reach Level 3 by next year.

While preschool programs run by charter schools aren’t new, experts say they make a lot of sense educationally — with one major caveat. They must be developmentally appropriate and not overly academic. In other words, plenty of play and lots of time devoted to social-emotional skills. No rote memorization, drill-and-kill tactics or long sit-down lessons.

“There’s no doubt you’re gonna get better outcomes if you start with those children at a younger age,” said Geoffrey Nagle, president and CEO of the Erikson Institute, a Chicago graduate school focused on child development.

Many charter schools initially launched with a K-5 or K-8 structure mainly because of the way school funding was allocated, he said. Their leaders later realized, “We have to go upstream and get these kids earlier.”

Nationwide, the prevalence of charters with preschool programs varies by state.

In Colorado, 33 of 149 charter schools that include elementary grades, or 22 percent, offered preschool last year, according to state education department officials.

Figuring out how to pay for preschool is one of the challenges for Colorado schools, charter or otherwise. The state funds some preschool slots for at-risk children, but most are half-day spots and there’s not enough to meet demand. There’s also limited state funding for preschoolers with special needs.

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
A preschooler at KIPP Northeast Elementary School plays with dinosaurs.

A 2015 report from the Fordham Institute designated Colorado as offering charters that wanted to provide preschool a “somewhat hospitable” climate — the middle of three ratings. The state was dinged for its relatively low level of state preschool funding and because most charter schools have to seek the funding through their authorizing districts, which the report authors described as a barrier.

But it’s not a problem in every district. State officials say Denver Public Schools is exemplary when it comes to sharing state preschool funding with charter schools and community-based providers.

Even so, Denver charter schools that offer preschool usually have to cobble together dollars from lots of sources — the state, the city, the school district and in-house fundraising. Many offer the programs free to families or charge a sliding-scale fee.

James Cryan, CEO of Rocky Mountain Prep, said the rest of his program helps subsidize preschool, which is a money-loser.

In Denver, the number of charter schools offering preschool is likely to grow.

KIPP officials say they’ll include preschool in their planned southwest Denver elementary school, which could open in 2018 or 2019.

A spokeswoman for STRIVE Prep, Denver’s second largest charter network, said via email that leaders there will “absolutely” consider adding preschool at five planned elementary schools if those school communities see it as a need and priority.

In 2012, when Rocky Mountain Prep first launched preschool with the opening of its Creekside school in south Denver, there weren’t many charters in the city offering preschool. Subsequently, a number of charter school leaders contacted Cryan to ask how his team had untangled preschool licensing and funding rules. Since then, most of those leaders have added preschool.

“Where I’m excited is that I think high quality charter (schools) help provide new options and innovative approaches in the Pre-K space,” he said.

While there’s already lots of research showing that high-quality preschool boosts student achievement, there’s also evidence showing the impact of certain charter preschool programs.

A recent study by Mathematica Policy Research found that KIPP students who started in preschool had an advantage in reading over their peers who started in kindergarten. It also found positive effects in both math and reading for kids who attended preschool through second grade at KIPP. More than two-dozen KIPP schools have preschool nationwide.

Cryan said internal data from Rocky Mountain Prep show that students who start in the school’s preschool program at age 3 enter kindergarten more than half a year ahead in reading compared to peers who didn’t attend at age 3.

So how do charter schools, particularly ones that advertise rigorous college-prep environments in the upper grades, create preschools suitable for little kids who may not be adept at sharing toys, much less holding a pencil?

It was a worry for Aidan Bassett, KIPP Colorado’s director of early childhood education and a former early childhood special education teacher with Denver Public Schools,

“You think, ‘Charter — oh, it’s gonna look like kindergarten in preschool,” she said, “And that was not what we wanted.”

To prepare for the preschool launch at KIPP Northeast, Bassett visited a KIPP preschool program in Washington, D.C., where she was pleased to see a focus on play.

She said it’s a key part of the Denver program, which runs eight hours a day and offers dance, Spanish and art as “specials.”

While KIPP sometimes has very structured ways of doing things at higher grades, Bassett said teachers can tweak them to work better for preschoolers. For example, they might urge 4-year-olds to keep “all eyes on” whomever is speaking, a gentler version of the “tracking the speaker” approach used with older kids.

While, KIPP’s version of preschool looks familiar, there’s no mistaking the school’s emphasis on early literacy.

KIPP’s preschool teachers make a concerted effort to expose kids to a wide variety of language and vocabulary in and out of structured lessons. A list taped to a shelf reminds teachers to “push in” words — empty, full, float, sink, funnel, measuring cup, carefully — related to a current story or theme during the natural course of children’s play.

But even formal lessons come with plenty of lightheartedness.

During circle time on a recent morning in a classroom named for Emory University, teacher Caroline Hiskey used a puppet named “Phonics Lion” to lead the kids through a series of animated jingles about different letters of the alphabet.

“Get your pans out,” she said, as the children followed her mime of shaking a frying pan. “Ready … Say, ‘S, s, sizzling sausages’. Say, ‘Ssssssss.’ Take a bite.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to KIPP Northeastern Elementary. It is KIPP Northeast Elementary. 

A new floor

Colorado’s new minimum wage means raises for child care workers and tuition increases for parents

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.

Child care teachers and assistants absolutely deserve the raises that come from Colorado’s new minimum wage of $10.20 an hour, their bosses say, but the pay increases also mean that many providers will pass on the new expenses to tuition-paying parents already stretched thin by child care costs.

“I don’t know how much more parents can pay,” said Diane Price, who heads a nonprofit network of seven centers in Colorado Springs.

In some parts of the state, early childhood advocates also worry that the raises mandated by the minimum wage hike will cause some workers to lose public benefits by pushing their income just above the eligibility threshold — making it harder, not easier to make ends meet.

In a field working to professionalize its ranks, pay its workers more, and raise awareness about the educational and economic value of quality child care, many observers say the minimum wage increase is a step in the right direction.

“It’s an important move,” said Christi Chadwick, director of the “Transforming the Early Childhood Workforce” project at the nonprofit Early Milestones Colorado. “The thing I struggle with is we’re still not getting people out of poverty and paying them on par with the public school system.”

Price, the president and CEO of Early Connections Learning Centers, said, “Shame on us that we even have to have this discussion that early educators are in a category that pays minimum wage.”

The latest minimum wage increase, which took effect Jan. 1, is the second of four annual increases mandated by a ballot measure approved by Colorado voters in 2016. The last step of the phase-in process will boost the minimum wage to $12 in 2020.

Colorado is among 29 states — most in the northeast and west — that have set a minimum wage higher than the federal rate of $7.25 an hour, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Child care providers here say advance planning and clear communication with parents have helped them incorporate raises into their budgets.

Price, who raised tuition slightly at her centers last August, said she anticipates a budget hit of about $600,000 over the four-year phase-in period.

But that’s not just because her lowest paid staff members are getting raises to comply with the minimum wage law. Like many other child care directors, she’s giving raises across the board out of fairness to veteran employees.

Price said she didn’t want entry-level employees to catch up with those who already hav a Child Development Associate credential or an associate’s degree.

Heather Griffith, who leads the for-profit Young Peoples Learning Center in Fort Collins, is taking the same approach. Her whole staff, except two brand new employees, have received raises.

She’s already sent out a letter notifying parents that tuition will go up 6.5 percent on February 1 – that’s an additional $16 a week for a full-time preschool slot. It’s the second of three tuition hikes Griffith will institute during the minimum wage phase-in period.

While the higher costs are hard on parents, “it’s a lot tougher for these teachers to survive on non-livable wages,” Griffith said. “I’m 100 percent in support of this minimum wage hike.”

Griffith hasn’t gotten much pushback over the impending tuition increase. The thriving economy helps. Also, she said, parents like the care her centers provide and wouldn’t be able to find it for much less unless they switched to unlicensed care, which is mostly unregulated.

Anne Lance, who heads the non-profit Teaching Tree Early Childhood Learning Center in northern Colorado, said she began planning — and frontloading — wage increases for all staff shortly after the 2016 ballot measure passed.
Currently, her entry-level teaching assistants start at $10.50 an hour even though she’s only required to pay $10.20.

“I had to get way ahead of the game … so in a couple years when it gets closer to that $12, it’s not going to kill me,” said Lance, who operates one center in Loveland and one in Fort Collins.

While the center’s two sites serve many low-income children who qualify for state child care subsidies or state-funded preschool slots, there are some tuition-paying families in the mix, too.

It’s those parents who may feel the sting of the minimum wage increases over the next couple years. Lance said she’ll keep her tuition increases to a modest 3 percent this year, but may have to jump up to 5 percent in 2019 and 2020.

On average, lead teachers with several years of experience at Teaching Tree make about $13.50 an hour. While that’s above the minimum wage, it’s not much to live on for employees on their own or those who are single parents, Lance said.

In Colorado, about one-third of child care teachers qualify for some kind of public assistance to cover housing, food, health insurance, or child care costs, according to a 2017 survey of child care workers in the state.

Chadwick, of Early Milestones, said during visits last fall to the San Luis Valley and southeastern Colorado, early childhood leaders explained that some child care workers were quitting their jobs due to fears they would lose government benefits when minimum wage-related raises took effect.

To alleviate such concerns and make child care a profession that pays a living wage, more substantial raises are needed. But Chadwick and other leaders don’t expect further funding to come from a state-level effort.

Instead, they say it will be locally-funded initiatives — already underway in some Colorado communities — that pick up the slack.

“We have to pass things like mill levies and taxes that support early childhood,” said Griffith, of Young Peoples Learning Center. “We have to do it. We have to say yes to these things if what we want is a community that has educated kids ready to go into kindergarten.”

year in review

Early childhood discipline, child care deserts and funding challenges in the spotlight during 2017

Malanna Newell is a toddler teacher at the Mile High Early Learning center in Denver's Westwood neighborhood. She started as a teaching assistant before taking Mile High's Child Development Associate training last fall.

Amid national debate on the disproportionate number of suspensions and expulsions given out to young boys and children of color, Colorado lawmakers and educators grappled with the best approach to discipline in 2017.

The year kicked off with a bill in the legislature to curb suspensions for early elementary and preschool students — a shift that would have put Colorado on the forefront of school discipline reform, some observers said. Although the bill had a broad array of backers, a Republican-controlled Senate committee killed the proposal after last-minute opposition from a group of rural school district leaders. Some of those leaders said suspensions weren’t a “rural problem,” but a Chalkbeat analysis found otherwise.  

Despite the defeat, advocates of the bill expect a renewed push for the measure during the 2018 legislative session.

In the meantime, Colorado’s two largest school districts — Denver and Jeffco — spearheaded changes to reduce the number of suspension handed out to young children. In June, Denver’s school board instituted a policy limiting the suspension of preschool through third grade students, though some educators worried they weren’t being given enough support to handle kids who misbehave.

In Jeffco, after Chalkbeat wrote about the district’s high rate of early elementary suspensions, administrators commissioned a report on the issue with recommendations to increase the use of restorative justice practices and other alternatives to suspension.  

Also in 2017, local early childhood leaders launched or expanded efforts to address key problems in the field — including teacher recruitment and retention and kids’ sometimes rocky transition to kindergarten.

At the same time, some early childhood advocates were forced to reckon with the perennial lack of funding that plagues the industry and constricts families’ choices. One of Denver’s most well-known child care providers, Clayton Early Learning, closed one of its two facilities last summer — a move observers said spotlights the high cost of quality child care.

But there were also bright spots in the funding landscape — some growing out of local efforts in Colorado’s rural towns and resort communities. A preschool in Holyoke found a way to give staff members generous raises and a growing number of cities and towns are getting new dollars for early childhood programs through sales or property taxes.

In Denver, several efforts — using a combination of public and private funds — aim to improve child care options in the city’s Elyria-Swansea neighborhood, which is designated a “child care desert.”

At the state level, officials promoted recently-created financial incentives for child care centers with top quality ratings, though some providers say earning those ratings is too much work.

Looking ahead to 2018, early childhood advocates hope to renew a tax credit that helps child care providers make ends meet. Plus, winners of a new early childhood innovation competition will get financial help to scale up their ideas.