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.”

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.”