'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. 

Starting early

Colorado’s state preschool program doesn’t serve English learners well, report finds

PHOTO: energyy | Getty Images
Preschool children doing activities.

Colorado’s public preschool program fails to meet most targets for effectively serving young English learners, according to a new state-by-state report released today.

Besides having just two of nine recommended policies in place for serving such youngsters, Colorado also doesn’t know how many of the 22,000 preschoolers in its state-funded slots speak a home language other than English.

These findings come from the “State of Preschool 2017” report put out by the National Institute for Early Education Research, or NIEER, at Rutgers University. This year, in addition to the organization’s usual look at state preschool spending, enrollment, and quality, the report includes a section on how states are serving English learners. Nationwide, 23 percent of preschool-aged children fall into this category.

Colorado fared about the same as last year — average or below average — on the criteria examined annually in the preschool report. It ranked 25th among 43 states and Washington, D.C., for 4-year-old access to preschool, 10th for 3-year-old access and 39th for state preschool funding. It also met only five of 10 benchmarks measuring preschool quality, worse than most other states.

Colorado’s state-funded preschool program, called the the Colorado Preschool Program, provides half-day preschool to 3- and 4-year-olds who come from low-income families, have parents who didn’t finish high school, or other risk factors. Seven states, mostly in the West, have no public preschool programs.

Colorado isn’t alone in having few provisions focused on preschoolers learning English. About two-dozen other states also met two or fewer of the report’s nine benchmarks, which include policies such as allocating extra funding to English learners, and screening and assessing them in their home language.

Only three states met eight or nine of the benchmarks: Texas, Maine, and Kansas.

Colorado education department officials said the NIEER report could help spur changes in the Colorado Preschool Program.

“This actually might be an opportunity for us to look at these more specific indicators of high quality practices [for] dual-language learners, to help drive improvements in our program,” said Heidi McCaslin, preschool director at the Colorado Department of Education.

To alter the program or its data collection requirements, she said the state legislature would have to change the law or the State Board of Education would have to change rules.

Authors of the new report say supporting English learners is important, especially early in life.

“For all children, the preschool years are a critical time for language development.” said Steve Barnett, senior co-director of the institute. “We know that dual-language learners are a group that makes the largest gains from attending high-quality preschool. At the same time they’re at elevated risk for school failure.”

Colorado earned credit for two of the study’s English-learner benchmarks: for allowing bilingual instruction and having policies to support families of young English learners. Those policies include providing enrollment information and communicating with the child’s family in the home language.

McCaslin mentioned one Colorado preschool initiative focused on dual-language learners. It’s a training to help preschool teachers distinguish between children who have speech problems because of a disability and those who have speech delays because they are learning English and another language at the same time.

Data dive

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

PHOTO: KIdStock | Getty Images
Boy standing near school bus.

Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates in school districts across Colorado. Some rural districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state. And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up.

These are a few of the findings from a new Chalkbeat analysis of three years of data on out-of-school suspensions given to students in kindergarten through second grade. Chalkbeat obtained the district- and state level data — some of it disaggregated by race and gender — from the Colorado Department of Education through a public records request.

Last year, rural district leaders and the lawmakers who represent them beat back a bill that would have limited the use of suspensions in the earliest grades. This year, advocates decided not to bring forward a new version after struggling to find common ground with opponents. At the same time, at least three large metro Denver districts have recently launched their own efforts to reduce the number of small children sent home for misbehaving — but not without some trepidation from teachers.

Amidst these discussions, we wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado’s public schools.

Supporters of policies that limit suspensions of young children say such discipline doesn’t work to change students’ behavior, harms them educationally, and disproportionately affects boys and children of color. Opponents of such policies say suspension is a tool sometimes needed to help restore classroom order, ensure student and teacher safety, and focus a family’s attention on the problem.

Young children are suspended for a variety of reasons, including hitting, biting, fighting, and chronically disrupting their classrooms.

It’s important to note that we examined the number of suspensions given out in each district, not the total number of students who were suspended. In some cases, individual students receive multiple suspensions during a school year. (Suspension numbers are self-reported by each school district and not independently verified by the state.)

Colorado districts handed out more suspensions to young students last year than they did the year before (or the year before that).

Even as local and national groups have recently spotlighted the harm caused by suspending young children from schools, Colorado schools have handed out more suspensions.

Even as the statewide population of kindergarten to second grade students has shrunk over the last three years, schools have handed out more suspensions to this age group.

Last year, districts statewide gave approximately three suspensions per 100 kindergarten to second grade students, up from 2.6 in 2014-15. The state education department first began disaggregating suspension data by grade level three years ago.

Three-year trends in Colorado’s K-2 suspension rates

This chart shows the number of suspensions given per 100 kindergarten through second grade students in rural districts, small rural districts and all Colorado districts over the last three years.

The highest-suspending districts are rural. (So are the lowest-suspending districts.)

Of the state’s more than 140 rural districts, several use suspensions in the early elementary grade at higher rates than any large district. For example, the 980-student Trinidad district in southern Colorado, posted the state’s highest rate last year, giving out 65 suspensions to students in kindergarten through second grade — a rate of 27 suspensions per 100 students.

Meanwhile, about 70 rural districts suspended no students at all last year. These include a few that are around the same size as Trinidad, including East Grand, Weld RE-9, and Telluride.

As a group, small rural districts — those with less than 1,000 students — are suspending early elementary children at about the same rate as non-rural districts — giving just over 3 suspensions per 100 students. Rural districts — somewhat bigger than “small rurals” but still under 6,500 students — suspend less frequently, giving out 2 suspensions per 100 students.

The state’s highest-suspending districts

A look at which rural school districts suspend young students at the highest rate. Rates reflect the number of suspensions given per 100 kindergarten through second grade students in 2016-17. Note: The state education department classifies Expeditionary BOCES as a “small rural” district, but it’s a single school located in Denver that pulls students from several area districts.

El Paso County is home to three of the five highest-suspending large districts.

Three of the large districts that used suspension in lower elementary grades most often last year are in El Paso County: Harrison, Colorado Springs and Widefield. One of the other two is in metro Denver and the other is in Greeley.

The three El Paso County districts have larger proportions of students from low-income families than some of their lower-suspending counterparts in that county — Falcon or Academy, for instance. However, other large districts, including Denver and Aurora, serve similar or greater proportions of students in poverty as the high-suspending El Paso County districts, yet have lower suspension rates.

Large districts with the highest suspension rates

This chart shows the five districts of Colorado’s 30 largest with the highest suspension rates in 2016-17. Rates reflect the number of suspensions given per 100 kindergarten through second grade students.

Large districts with the lowest suspension rates tend to be more affluent and white.

The five districts with the lowest suspension rates among the state’s 30 largest, are scattered geographically and range in size, but generally have fewer students from poor families and fewer students of color than high-suspending large districts.
One exception is the 7,000-student Eagle County district, which has the lowest suspension rate among the five. Students of color make up 55 percent of enrollment and 37 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, a proxy for poverty.

Large districts with the lowest suspension rates

This chart shows the five districts of Colorado’s 30 largest with the lowest suspension rates in 2016-17.

Suspension rates are dropping in Denver, and climbing in the state’s other four largest districts.

Of Colorado’s five largest districts, which educate about 75,000 students in kindergarten through second grade, Jeffco had the highest rate of early elementary suspensions last year, followed by Aurora. While the rates increased for both districts compared to the previous year, each has recently embarked on new efforts to prevent student suspensions.

Denver, which for years has emphasized restorative discipline practices and this year launched a policy limiting suspensions of preschool through third grade students, was the only one of the five largest districts to post a decrease in its early childhood suspension rate last year. Cherry Creek saw a jump last year, and Douglas County saw a smaller uptick.

Trends in Colorado’s five largest districts

A look at changing suspension rates in the state’s five largest districts over three years. Rates reflect the number of suspensions given per 100 kindergarten through second grade students.

Young black boys are disproportionately suspended nationwide. Colorado is no exception.

While black boys make up up only about 2.3 percent of the state’s kindergarten to second grade students, they receive almost 10 percent of suspensions given in that age group. Such disparities exist in all 14 of the state’s 30 largest districts for which data was available.

The Denver district, which educates more young black students than any other in Colorado, was close behind the three districts with the highest levels of disproportionality. Last year, black boys made up about 6 percent of Denver’s kindergarten through second grade population, but received 29 percent of suspensions given in that age group.

(In 16 large districts, suspension data broken out for black male K-2 students was unavailable because privacy rules require some data to be suppressed when group sizes are very small.)

Disproportionate suspensions given to black boys

Among the state’s 30 largest districts, these three gave out a particularly disproportionate number of suspensions to black boys in kindergarten through second grade in 2016-17.

Young Hispanic boys receive a disproportionate number of suspensions in many Colorado districts — but not all.

At the state level, Hispanic boys make up 17 percent of the kindergarten through second grade population, but receive 29 percent of suspensions. At the district level, the picture varies. Seven of the state’s 30 large districts, including two with relatively high suspension rates overall, did not suspend a disproportionately large number of Hispanic boys last year. Those include Colorado Springs 11 and Harrison — the two highest suspending large districts — as well as Aurora, School District 27J, Fountain, Pueblo 70, and St. Vrain Valley.

In the 19 large districts that showed some disproportionality in suspending young Hispanic boys, the severity ranged widely. Two districts with very low overall suspension rates — Poudre and Douglas County — had high levels of disproportionality. In contrast, Falcon and Widefield had relatively low levels of disproportionality.

(In 4 of the 30 largest districts, suspension data broken out for Hispanic male K-2 students was unavailable because privacy rules require some data to be suppressed when group sizes are very small.)

Disproportionate suspensions given to Hispanic boys

Among the state’s 30 largest districts, these three gave out a particularly disproportionate number of suspensions to Hispanic boys in kindergarten through second grade in 2016-17.

Look up your district’s 2016-17 K-2 suspension rate in the chart below.