leveling the playing field

Amid questions and confusion, DPS axes advanced kindergarten program in bid for greater equity

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

Denver Public Schools is eliminating the kindergarten program it offers advanced students because of declining enrollment in the program and because it serves disproportionate numbers of white and higher-income students.

The end of the advanced kindergarten program at seven schools is part of the district’s ongoing efforts to address racial and socioeconomic segregation at schools and within programs. In recent years, district officials have made changes meant to include more students of color in programs for highly gifted students and International Baccalaureate tracks, and in June, the district launched a citywide committee charged with finding ways to better integrate district schools.

District officials said the elimination of advanced kindergarten not only ties in with their focus on equity among students but will also free up money to train kindergarten teachers districtwide on strategies for serving advanced learners.

The move left some parents confused.

“This all sounds so nuts,” one commenter said in a Facebook thread after DPS announced the end of advanced kindergarten on its website last week.

Rumors circulated that even though the district will no longer test 4-year-old students for advanced status in the fall before their kindergarten year, certain schools would continue to do so.

Enrollment in advanced kindergarten programs at seven DPS schools has declined in recent years.

But that’s not true, said Rebecca McKinney, the district’s director of gifted and talented education, on Thursday.

Instead, she said, families with children entering kindergarten in 2018 will go through the district’s school choice process in the spring — this time with no advanced kindergarten option. Then, next fall, all kindergarten students will take the same routine assessments. For those who meet the criteria to be designated as advanced, their schools will decide how to best meet their needs.

In practice, that could mean separate classrooms if there are enough advanced kindergarteners in a given school, McKinney said. It could also mean that advanced students join first grade classes for certain subjects or that kindergarten teachers adjust lessons to match the students’ advanced skills.

“It allows more of our kids to be looked at as advanced learners,” McKinney said. “It’s not, ‘Did my parents get the application in on time?’ ”

Among the five large metro area districts, only DPS currently offers an advanced kindergarten option. It’s for students who enter school at the usual kindergarten age, but are academically advanced.

The seven Denver schools offering advanced kindergarten this year are Gust, Stedman, Palmer and Edison elementaries, Bill Roberts School, and two early childhood centers: Escalante-Biggs Academy and Stephen Knight Center for Early Education. After steady declines in advanced kindergarten enrollment since 2012, only 143 students are enrolled this year.

(An eighth school — Polaris at Ebert Elementary, a magnet program for the highly gifted — eliminated advanced kindergarten after last year because it gave kindergarteners an unfair advantage in gaining access to the school’s higher grades.)

Launched in 2004 at a time when the district was concerned about declining enrollment, the advanced kindergarten program eventually grew to enroll more than 200 students — most of them white and from middle- or upper-income families. In contrast, about two-thirds of students districtwide come from low-income families and three-quarters are students of color.

One of the reasons for the disparity was the admissions process for advanced kindergarten. It required parents to apply for testing almost a year before their children would enter kindergarten. There was also a fee to get children tested, although it was based on a sliding-scale system that provided discounts and even free testing.

“There is a lot of privilege wrapped up in the current model and knowing when the deadline comes,” said Keely Buchanan, co-founder of Preparing for Denver Kindergarten, a service that helps parents navigate Denver’s school choice system.

In theory, she said, she understands district officials’ instinct to eliminate the handful of dedicated programs for advanced kindergartners and make sure those students are served at all district schools.

As news of the change began swirling around last week, some parents feared that advanced kindergarten classrooms would continue in an under-the-radar way at a few of the district’s most sought-after and best-funded schools, creating even more inequity than there is now.

Kelly Dulong, the mother of an advanced kindergartener at Bill Roberts School, worried about that prospect. Yet, she said, she believes grouping students by skill levels can make it easier on teachers.

“I think there’s a real value in having a cohort that meets a certain threshold,” she said. “The reality is there’s 27 kids in the classroom and it’s really hard to differentiate.”

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.

Giving Quest

Advocates push to extend tax credit to encourage donations to cash-strapped child care providers

PHOTO: Porter-Leath

A wide-ranging coalition that includes early childhood, education and business groups is galvanizing support for a bill to extend a state tax credit that incentivizes donations to Colorado child care providers.

Advocates say the Child Care Contribution Tax Credit, which will be up for reauthorization during the 2018 legislative session, represents a key tool for supporting an expensive but perpetually underfunded sector.

“It’s the child care provider’s lifeline to additional funding,” said Gloria Higgins, president of the business group Executives Partnering to Invest in Children, or EPIC.

It’s a public-private partnership of sorts — with the state rewarding private citizens and businesses with lower tax bills when they support early childhood education.

During fiscal year 2016, Colorado taxpayers made about $52 million in donations that qualified for the tax credit, according to data from the Colorado Department of Revenue. Donations can cover costs such as child care scholarships, teacher salaries and building improvements.

“If parents had to pay $50 million more for child care, I don’t know what they would do,” Higgins said.

The tax credit, which first took effect in 1999 and has been reauthorized once, allows donors to claim an income tax credit worth up to 50 percent of their contribution. In other words, a donation of $200 to a qualifying child care provider would yield a state tax credit of $100 for the donor.

Donations to a variety of organizations — including child care centers, programs offering before- and after-school care, residential treatment centers and homeless youth shelters — are eligible for the credit.

The tax credit was suspended for a couple years during the Great Recession because slow-growing state revenue triggered a special provision in the law. The credit was restored in phases starting in 2013 and will expire in 2019 if it’s not reauthorized.

Given the state’s historically bipartisan support for the tax credit, advocates are hoping for a smooth passage.

“The reason why some people like tax credits … really comes from the fact that you’re just declining revenue,” said Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign. “You’re not necessarily building new government programs.”

And for taxpayers who make the donations, the philosophy is about “letting people keep more of money they’ve earned,” he said.

Currently, there is no organized opposition to renewing the tax credit for another 10 years.

Still, advocates know there are many demands for state dollars.

“We, in early childhood, are truly competing … with potholes or K-12 education,” Higgins said. “We just want to hold onto what we have.”

Colorado is one of only a handful of states that offer tax credits to individuals or businesses that donate to child care providers or related programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Oregon, Mississippi, Louisiana and Pennsylvania all have some version of a contribution credit, though generally the parameters are more restrictive than in Colorado.

Tami Havener, who leads a nonprofit that offers full-day preschool and a host of other early childhood services in Steamboat Springs, believes the tax credit encourages supporters to donate more than they otherwise would.

“I think it definitely makes a difference in them deciding how much they can give,” she said. “It allows them to be more generous.”

The Family Development Center where Havener is executive director raises about $110,000 a year — in amounts ranging from $25 to $30,000. The money helps pay for need-based scholarships, teacher training and extra staff so that student-teacher ratios stay low.

The preschool enrolls 80 students, about one-third of whom come from low-income families.

Havener said she’s gotten more savvy in recent years about advertising and explaining the credit to donors because she realized that some didn’t understand the financial benefits.

Now, in addition to helping specific child care providers, some groups envision the credit as a way to get communities to collaborate on larger child care initiatives. The idea is to use the credit as a rallying point for donors interested in pooling their resources for big projects — say, building a child care facility in a neighborhood without one.

“This is no silver bullet by any stretch,” Jaeger said. “It’s a tool in the toolbox.”