intervening early

Life in a child care desert: What one Denver neighborhood can teach us about solving a national problem

PHOTO: Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Olga Montellano, an informal child care provider, says goodbye to Mateo Casillas, 2, after caring for him for the day.

Olga Montellano is kind, patient and doesn’t flinch when small children shout excitedly in her face.

On a recent afternoon, her calm demeanor was on display as she watched over her 3-year-old daughter and her next-door neighbor’s 3-year-old son as they frolicked on her front lawn in north Denver’s Elyria-Swansea neighborhood.

When the ponytailed mother of four heard what sounded like gunshots a street over, she ushered the children onto the porch, past a giant reading nook she’d crafted from cardboard, and into the house.

Montellano has been taking care of kids in her home for five years, ever since her next-door neighbor got a job at a factory and needed someone to watch her older child, now a kindergartener. In late November, Montellano added a 2-year-old boy to the mix, the son of a friend who’d just landed an office-cleaning job.

This kind of informal, mostly unregulated child care is a lifesaver in Elyria-Swansea, where train yards, Interstate 70 and large industrial plots share space with residential pockets that, as of now, are home to many poor and working-class families.

Licensed child care — particularly for children 3 and younger — is hard to come by here. The problem is so pronounced, the neighborhood has won an unwelcome designation: Child care desert. Put simply, it’s a place where the number of small children far exceeds the number of licensed child care slots.

But a slate of recent efforts could help Elyria-Swansea shed the label — and hold implications for other communities grappling with the problem.

The initiatives, which use both public and private money, include training for informal providers like Montellano, efforts to better match home-based child care slots with families and attempts to bring new child care centers to the area.

The idea is to ease the child care scramble that plagues many working parents in the largely Hispanic neighborhood and help set up young kids for future academic success. Currently, more than half of neighborhood children — many of them English learners — aren’t reading proficiently by the end of third grade.

Together, the projects represent an ambitious undertaking that could bring much-needed attention to a long-neglected neighborhood. But they’re also separate efforts with different leaders, missions and geographic reach — all unfolding as locals brace for big changes in the neighborhood.

On the horizon are a massive expansion of Interstate 70, which splits the neighborhood, and a billion-dollar overhaul of the National Western Stock Show complex. And as Denver’s breakneck growth continues, the neighborhood is showing signs of gentrification.

To those invested in transforming child care in this Denver neighborhood and similar urban areas across the country, all the changes raise an uncomfortable question: Will the families who need help still be around when the work is done?

“That’s a fear that we all have,” said Nicole Riehl, director of programs and development at Denver’s Early Childhood Council, one of many partners in an initiative called United Neighborhoods doing work in Elyria-Swansea.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Olga Montellano gets a hug from Juan Pablo Ordoñez, 3, as she picks him and her daughter Milagros Santos, 3, left up from preschool.

Scope of the problem

Nine of Denver’s 78 neighborhoods, including Elyria-Swansea, are classified as child care deserts, according to data from a recent Center for American Progress report. Parts of more than a dozen other neighborhoods also earn that designation.

The report found that half of the people in the 22 states it examined live in a child care desert, which it defines as neighborhoods or small towns with either no child care options or so few that there are more than three children for every licensed child care slot.

In Elyria-Swansea, parents cope in various ways. Some rely on nearby relatives or neighbors to watch their children. Others, if they have cars, drive their kids to child care centers or preschool programs outside the neighborhood. Some, fearing child care will eat up their whole paycheck, leave the workforce altogether to stay home with their kids.

Martina Meléndez, a single mother of four who lives in the neighborhood, illustrates the extent to which families cobble together care when affordable, flexible options aren’t available.

She works at night so she can be home during the day to handle school and preschool pick-ups and drop-offs for her younger three children. When she heads to her office-cleaning job, she enlists her college-age son to watch his siblings. On the weekends, when she waitresses full-time and her oldest son goes to his part-time job, she pays a babysitter $200 to stay at her house with the kids.

Meléndez worries about the toll the arrangement takes on her eldest son.

“I would like to be able to take care of my kids myself so that he doesn’t have so much pressure,” she said. “I know he’s going to have to concentrate more on school.”

Meléndez’s experience isn’t unique, but it is a reminder that market forces alone don’t ensure an adequate supply of child care in many communities.

That’s why quality child care needs to be understood as a public good — one that requires the same kind of public investment that pays for roads, bridges and schools, said Rasheed Malik, co-author of the Center for American Progress report.

“There’s starting to be discussions with state legislators and people on (Capitol) Hill in D.C. who are beginning to take up that mindset,” he said.

According to the report, 30 percent of Colorado residents live in child care deserts, but the problem is more acute in some communities — including those with higher Hispanic populations.

That’s the case in Elyria-Swansea, where more than 60 percent of residents are Hispanic, according to census estimates. The same is true in several other Denver neighborhoods classified wholly or partly as child care deserts, including Valverde, Athmar Park and Ruby Hill.

click on the map to enlarge

No local space

In Elyria-Swansea, a variety of factors contribute to the lack of child care — ranging from poverty to the neighborhood’s industrial roots. Amidst its train yards, warehouses and marijuana grow houses, there’s little suitable space for commercial child care — a high-cost, low-margin business.

Only Swansea Elementary School and a tiny nearby Head Start program offer formal child care in the neighborhood — a total of 81 full-day seats, mostly for 4-year-olds.

Even the federal government has picked up on the problem — earmarking the ZIP code for special consideration in grant awards for certain child care slots.

“Our challenge is facilities out there,” said Lance Vieira, chief operating officer of Rocky Mountain Service Employment Redevelopment, which runs the Head Start program in Elyria-Swansea.

Some local families send their kids to another Head Start center three miles away in the Sunnyside neighborhood. Special busing was provided for the youngsters through last year, but that ceased for a variety of reasons, including because the program switched from half- to full-day.

In a bid to help satisfy the demand for child care, Focus Points Family Resource Center, a longtime nonprofit serving families in Elyria-Swansea and Globeville, used grant money to open up a 30-seat preschool in the fall of 2016. With no space available in the two neighborhoods, leaders settled on a facility in the nearby Cole neighborhood.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Olga Montellano walks with her daughter Milagros Santos, 3, right, and her neighor’s son, Juan Pablo Ordoñez, 3, after preschool in their neighborhood.

Quality varies

Yadira Sanchez, a mother of three in Elyria-Swansea, knows what it’s like to struggle with child care. She still remembers sending her oldest child, Ruben, now 17, to a neighbor’s house when he was a little boy and she was working as a home health aide.

Culturally, she and her neighbor had a lot in common, and she felt confident Ruben would never be abused. Still, the boy spent most of his time on the couch and was regularly asked to share the meals Sanchez packed for him with the neighbor’s young daughter. The woman, who sometimes watched soap operas during the day, was anxious about the children getting hurt and discouraged active play.

The kind of informal care Sanchez used for Ruben — often called family, friend and neighbor care — is common in Elyria-Swansea and many other communities. Often, parents like it because they know the caregiver well, hours are flexible and it’s usually inexpensive or free.

Still, such unlicensed care is mostly unregulated by the state and quality varies widely.

Sanchez’s neighbor, who’d eventually added Ruben’s sister and a couple other children to her child care roster, stopped offering care after a few years.

“She felt like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, maybe I shouldn’t be doing it,’” Sanchez said.

From there, Sanchez tried a licensed home and two licensed centers outside the neighborhood but didn’t like those options, either. At two of them, the providers were cold, strict and the kids were often in trouble.

Sanchez wishes there was a child care center in the neighborhood.

Nothing fancy, she said. “Just a safe place … with people who actually love to work with kids.”

Rosemary Alfaro, who lives in Elyria-Swansea and works as a clerk for a home visiting program, yearns for the same kind of thing.

Over the years, she’s made various child care arrangements for her children. Her husband’s aunt helped out for awhile and the two older girls attended Head Start in the Sunnyside neighborhood and later the Highland neighborhood — a short drive to the west.

Today, her 3-year-old son attends morning preschool at the Focus Points center in the Cole neighborhood and her mother-in-law takes care of him and another youngster in the afternoons.

“She is my right-hand woman,” Alfaro said. “If I didn’t have her, I wouldn’t know what to do.”

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
Members of the PASO class practice CPR and first aid during a session in July.

Expanding the pipeline

One day last summer, two-dozen Spanish-speaking women practiced first aid and CPR on rubber dummies at a Catholic church in north Denver. An instructor in pointy cowboy boots walked them through the proper responses to various emergencies — discovering an unconscious child on the ground or handling a seizure without knowing the child’s medical history.

Olga Montellano — the caregiver who ushered the children inside after hearing the gunshots — was there. So was Dolores Alfaro, Rosemary’s mother-in-law.

The four-hour session was part of an intensive course for family, friend and neighbor providers called Providers Advancing Student Outcomes, or PASO.

The initiative is just one part of United Neighborhoods, a Mile High United Way project focused on education, housing, health and workforce development in Elyria-Swansea and neighboring Globeville. It began last year and is expected to last three to five years.

The course leads to a common entry-level child care credential and represents a key strategy in the United Neighborhoods plan to address the problem of child care deserts.

The Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition, one of several partners in the United Neighborhoods work, has run PASO classes in several Front Range communities for years, often enrolling mostly undocumented immigrants and paying for the program with private funds.

The course in Elyria-Swansea is a bit different. The City of Denver’s Office of Economic Development — another United Neighborhoods partner — kicked in $130,000 to cover the cost of 14 participants, all of whom are legally in the United States.

City officials say the investment was a chance to help residents climb up the first rungs of the career ladder and improve child care quality at the same time.

Once PASO ends in mid-December, more than $5,000 in federal funding will be used to shepherd some participants through the arduous licensing process that will allow them to offer state-sanctioned child care in their homes. Leaders at Denver’s Early Childhood Council, which will provide that assistance, say they’ll create eight new Early Head Start slots for children birth to 3 in the 80216 ZIP code by next fall.

Other initiatives unfolding now or launching in the near future could eventually help boost child care offerings in Elyria-Swansea, too.

One, funded partially by Gary Community Investments and set to start in spring of 2018, relies on a nonprofit called WorkLife Partnership. The group operates across Colorado, charging employers a membership fee to get help with services — such as child care or housing — that help employees stay on the job.

Liddy Romero, executive director of WorkLife Partnership, said to increase child care along I-70, where soon hundreds of construction workers and other kinds of employees will be needed, the group will award $5,000 mini-grants to licensed in-home providers. The idea is to help them buy new curricula or equipment, and figure out how to offer more slots or expand into overnight care.

WorkLife Partnership is also partnering with the national online marketplace Care.com to ensure those providers — once they expand their capacity or hours — get efficiently matched with families that need child care.

Using money from another source, Romero said the group is already working with 17 in-home providers along I-70. None of the 17 are in Elyria-Swansea or Globeville, but providers from both neighborhoods, possibly some who are not yet licensed, could be included in the future.

Liliana Flores Amaro, an Elyria-Swansea resident and community activist, said with some residents leery of outsiders pushing in solutions, it’s important for leaders of all the projects underway or planned to avoid a “deficit mindset.”

They should approach the work “really honoring and respecting the experience and knowledge of child development and child-rearing that is in this neighborhood,” she said.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Olga Montellano, seated on floor, plays with her daughter Milagros Santos, 3, right, as friend and neighbor Berenice Morales watches.

Changing city, changing neighborhood

Residents and civic leaders all see signs that gentrification is coming to Elyria-Swansea — and sending residents to Adams County, Aurora and Edgewater.

For leaders at Focus Points, one indicator was the gradual disappearance of waitlists for parenting programs that were once over-subscribed. At the Valdez-Perry library branch, it’s near-daily goodbyes staff bid to patrons who are moving out of the area.

And, of course, there’s skyrocketing real estate prices.

“The reality is these families will be offered so much money for their houses they’re not going to stay,” said Vieira, of Rocky Mountain Service Employment Redevelopment. “It’s going explode in Globeville and (Elyria) Swansea will be very close behind.”

So what will come of efforts to fix the child care desert if the families — and the kids — move away? No one expects all current residents to leave, but the demographics will surely change. Some observers expect fewer large families and an influx of middle-class residents.

One check on gentrification could be new affordable housing planned for a large new development to be built on a six-acre parcel at the corner of 48th Avenue and Race Street. Leaders at the Urban Land Conservancy, which owns the land, say there will be hundreds of affordable housing units included, but the exact number will be determined when a developer is chosen in early 2018. The development will include space for local nonprofits at below-market lease rates. The first phase of construction could start in 2019, with completion four to five years later.

Sheridan Castro, the interim executive director of Focus Points, said the group will apply for some of that space for a childcare facility there. The idea is to move the organization’s preschool in the Cole neighborhood to the new development and add care for infants and toddlers.

“It would be an economic opportunity as well for members of our community and our staff who have been working toward becoming certified early childhood educators,” Castro said.

Christi Smith, the conservancy’s operations and communications director, said the need for child care in the neighborhood is well-known, but there’s also interest in using the nonprofit space for a medical clinic, a fresh food market or job training. As with the affordable housing units, the developer will make the final decision, she said.

But even if the new development does include a child care center, some observers expect families who can afford to pay for the care will scoop up many slots.

All the changes bring both hope and uncertainty for long-time residents like Olga Montellano.

She already believes the PASO program has made her a better caregiver. She gets the children in her care outside more and has learned skills and activities to help get her neighbor’s 3-year-old son, who used to be silent, talking.

But whether she stays in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood is an open question. Her landlord has raised the rent, but not much, she said. She would like to buy a home, but homes that used to be affordable and small are now unaffordable and small.

“My preference would be to stay here because I’ve already lived here 15 years,” she said. “I don’t know … it seems strange to leave.”

career prep

A growing Jeffco program trains future early childhood workers while they’re still in high school

Julian Salazar, 18, plays with preschool children at an internship that's part of his high school's early childhood pathway program.

Julian Salazar pushed preschoolers on swings, weaving deftly between them as the children careened back and forth. Earlier in the afternoon, the 18-year-old had worked mazes, played a number-themed card game, and snacked on Goldfish crackers with the 3- and 4-year-olds.

It was all part of Salazar’s weekly internship in a preschool classroom a couple miles away from his high school, Jefferson Junior/Senior High in the Denver suburb of Edgewater.

The internship, which ended in early May, is one component of a new early childhood career pathway offered at the high school. The year-long program also includes two early childhood classes and leads to an entry-level certificate from Red Rocks Community College that qualifies students to be assistant preschool or child care teachers.

Salazar — and students in similar concurrent enrollment programs around Colorado — represents one segment of the child care field’s next generation. With their professional lives just beginning, the students are laying the foundation to earn further credentials and become the lead preschool teachers and directors of the future. It’s a vision straight out of the state’s three-year plan to build a strong early childhood workforce. But in a field known for low pay and high turnover, keeping these students in the pipeline is no small task.

Julian Salazar, 18, helps a preschooler with his jacket during his internship.

Still, organizers of the Jeffco school district’s early childhood pathway are optimistic. Enrollment in the program at Jefferson is set to more than double from 19 this year to 43 next year, and plans are in the works to expand to two other district high schools — McLain Community and Arvada West — by 2020.

The district offered similar early childhood training programs at certain district high schools in the past, but they fizzled out. One had targeted teen moms enrolled at McLain, for example, but many of the students weren’t ready for college-level work, said Janiece Kneppe Walter, who leads the early childhood education program at Red Rocks and helped the district set up the pathway program.

A few years ago, Kneppe Walter and her colleagues won a grant to revamp the two introductory early childhood classes. Then in the fall of 2016, teacher Nicole Kamman launched the pathway program at Jefferson with eight students. At first, it was just a sequence of two college courses modified for a high school audience. This year, leaders decided to add the 22-hour internship to give students more hands-on practice.

While Jefferson is one of the lower performing high schools in the district, it has posted improved graduation rates and test scores in recent years. The vast majority of its students are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, a proxy for poverty.

Kamman sees the early childhood program as a way to give these students valuable experience in a field where qualified workers are in high demand.

“Any opportunity to get them career-ready … I knew I had capacity to promote that,” she said.

At the same time, local preschoolers in Edgewater and nearby areas get the chance to see teenage role models from their own communities, many of whom speak Spanish, as they do.

On a spring day in Kamman’s classroom, her high school students discussed nine child temperament traits and then acted them out as classmates tried to guess the characteristic.

When it was Salazar’s turn, he mimed sweeping the floor, not giving up even after repeatedly fumbling with the broom and dustpan.

“Persistence,” a classmate guessed correctly.

Of the eight Jefferson students who completed the early childhood pathway program last year, four landed jobs at local preschools or child care centers, Kamman said, and a fifth enrolled at Red Rocks seeking a degree in early childhood education.

But for some students, perhaps even a majority, the pathway program is a stepping-stone to something else.

“I don’t think they necessarily see early childhood as their endpoint,” Kamman said.

One of her students hopes to become a pediatrician, so the early childhood classes are a useful stop in a longer journey.

Salazar, a self-assured teen who was as comfortable helping kids with stubborn jacket zippers as playing chase on the playground, described his internship in the preschool classroom at Jefferson County Open School as “amazing.” Asked if he planned to pursue early childhood education, he said he could see working as a teaching assistant for a short time, but not necessarily long-term.

“I’m looking more or less for a ‘now’ thing,” he said.

Another student in the pathway program, senior Sonya Hernandez, felt the same way. She plans to study event management at Metro State University next year, but enrolled in the pathway program to improve her short-term job prospects.

“For me, it was more so about having the opportunity to get a better job after high school rather than working a regular minimum wage job at a fast food place or retail.” the 17-year-old said. “I figured I might as well do it and also get the college credits.”

Kamman said the field’s wages are a bit higher than minimum wage and therefore competitive for teenagers just starting out. Nationwide, the median wage of early childhood workers is $10.60 an hour, according to a 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Education. Colorado’s minimum wage is $10.20 this year and will rise to $11.10 in 2019.

The shortage of early childhood workers is a perennial problem in the state. A recent survey of Colorado child care providers found an average annual turnover rate of 16 percent for lead teachers and 22 percent for assistant teachers. In addition, 70 percent of directors reported difficulty in finding teachers for vacant positions.

Early childhood pathway programs like the one at Jefferson Jr./Sr. High represent only a partial solution to the early education workforce crunch. But to Kneppe Walter, that’s okay. If some pathway students use early childhood jobs to work their way through college in unrelated majors, she doesn’t see that as problem.

“They’re still walking away with some great life skills,” she said. “If they could contribute for two to five years, I’d be tickled pink.”

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Ariadna Santos, a student at Jefferson Junior/Senior High School reads to preschoolers during her internship.

Ariadna Santos, a soft-spoken high school junior who also interned at Jefferson County Open School, may well fit this profile.

The 16-year-old, who said she has no younger siblings and has never worked as a babysitter, said the internship made her more comfortable with young children. On a recent day, she sat at a knee-high table and read a picture book about animals to a half-dozen preschoolers. As one little boy repeatedly touched his neighbor’s arms and shoulders, she calmly said, “Let’s not grab other people. Keep your hands to yourself.”

It was the kind of episode Santos found daunting at the beginning. Early in the internship when two children got in a sandbox fight, she had no idea what to do and the lead teacher had to intervene.

“Nowadays, it’s just easier to calm them down and get them to work with each other,” said Santos, whose other career interests include architecture and interior design.

“I don’t really know what I want to do as a career yet so I just really wanted to take this class as an opportunity to see what one of the options could be,” she said.

Even if Santos doesn’t stay in the early childhood workforce permanently, Kneppe Walter is hopeful that the pathway experience will be formative for others in the program.

“What’s lovely about early childhood is it’s got this strong core of social justice to it,” she said. “If students resonate with that idea, ‘I want to be empowered. I want to make a difference,’ then it’s not such a hard sell to go into early childhood.”

discipline disparities

Colorado schools gave out nearly 1,800 suspensions to young students with disabilities last year

PHOTO: Apeloga AB |Getty Images

Getting sent home from school became a constant for Ben Wankel’s second-grade son last fall.

It started simply enough: The cafeteria was too noisy, his pants were scratchy, or he was bored in class. Sometimes, Wankel’s son, who has autism, would flee the room, prompting a teacher or aide to follow. Other times, he’d have a meltdown that devolved into kicking, hitting, or throwing things.

All told, the boy was officially suspended six times last semester from REACH Charter School, a 3-year-old Denver school that aims to educate students with disabilities alongside their nondisabled peers.

The second-grader’s experience with discipline is a familiar story for young children with disabilities. A Chalkbeat analysis shows that last year among Colorado students in kindergarten through second grade, nearly one-third of 6,080 out-of-school suspensions were meted out to special education students — even though they make up just 9 percent of K-2 enrollment.

Amid the continuing national debate over the fairness, effectiveness, and risks of suspension, the rate stands out to experts.

“I’m very disturbed by it,” said Phil Strain, a professor of early-childhood special education at the University of Colorado Denver. “I think that any time that there is a disproportionality ratio of [that] size … it’s beyond chance, beyond random, beyond accident.”

The disparities in suspension rates exist nationwide for special education students — and students of color — and helped drive a 2014 Obama-era directive urging states to reduce the use of such discipline tactics. While that guidance is now under review by the Trump administration, many school districts have taken bold steps amidst growing awareness that suspensions increase the likelihood students will repeat a grade, drop out of school, and become involved in the juvenile justice system.

Denver Public Schools, which has spearheaded significant discipline reforms in recent years and has seen its overall K-2 suspension rate drop, gave out one-third of its 445 K-2 suspensions to young students with disabilities last year.

The numbers are even more startling in other districts. Harrison, a 12,000-student Colorado Springs-based district, gave out 56 percent of its 324 K-2 suspensions to special education students last year.

Suspension Disparities for Students with Disabilities in 2016-17

The seven districts below all give out at least 50 percent of kindergarten through second grade suspensions to students with disabilities last year.

Note: This chart is based on data showing the number of K-2 suspension given out by school districts, not the number of individual students suspended.

Boulder Valley, a 31,000-student district, gave out nearly 70 percent of its 55 K-2 suspensions to special education students last year.

Jeffco Public Schools, the state’s second-largest district with 86,000 students, gave half of its 713 K-2 suspensions to special education students last year.

These findings come from a Chalkbeat analysis of K-2 out-of-school suspension data during the 2016-17 school year. Chalkbeat obtained the district- and state-level data, which was disaggregated by special education status, from the Colorado Department of Education through a public records request.

Many school district leaders say suspending a student is a last resort, considered only in cases of extreme classroom disruption or when the safety of staff or students is at stake.

“It’s not something we want to do,” said Kevin Carroll, chief student success officer in the Jeffco district. When it does happen he said the rationale is, “We need to take a break here for a little bit and regroup.”

Leaders in Harrison, Boulder Valley, Jeffco, and Denver all say they have efforts underway to prevent suspensions of young students, including those with disabilities.

Andre Spencer, superintendent of the Harrison district until he abruptly resigned Monday, called the suspension disparities for special education students there “alarming.”

“It’s not something we’re proud to see,” he said last week. “We don’t want parents, kids, anybody to perceive that we are a district that will send any particular population [home].”

Act of desperation

One of the most fundamental problems with suspensions is that they don’t fix bad behavior. Kids may learn that misbehaving gets them a day off, but there’s no evidence that getting sent home teaches kids how to control their tempers or solve problems productively.

“No one has ever demonstrated that suspension or expulsion treats the problem,” Strain said. “I’ve come to see suspension and expulsion as acts of desperation. It’s adults giving up.”

And when kids with disabilities are sent home, he said there’s a big impact: Students who need instruction the most lose out on learning.

Such discipline takes a social toll, too.

For the second-grader at REACH, who was 7 at the time he attended, the six suspensions were part of a string of other discipline problems resulting in three different school placements this year and two months spent at home. While the boy is now doing well at Denver Green School, Wankel laments his son’s lost social connections, especially because making friends can be hard for children with autism.

“He was very sad about losing the friendships,” after leaving REACH, Wankel said. “I don’t want his friendships to feel temporary or disposable.”

Finally, there’s the problem suspensions create for parents, requiring them to leave jobs early or miss work while they stay home with their children. Wankel said he and his partner, Mark Schaffer, were lucky that one of them was always available to handle school crises and stay home with their son.

Too often, “people can’t afford this,” he said. “We are not just penalizing the kids and their educations by pulling them out of school, we’re penalizing the parents,” he said.

Battling extreme behavior

People on all sides of the discipline debate say schools often lack the resources they need — both specialized training and extra staff — to prevent and handle children’s most extreme behaviors. Suspensions can seem like the only way to restore calm and get the class back on track when a child becomes violent, threatening, or disruptive.

Pam Bisceglia, executive director of Advocacy Denver, which serves people with disabilities, said the sentiment was common during last year’s unsuccessful push for statewide legislation limiting preschool-through second-grade suspensions.

“We don’t have enough in our toolbox. You need to give us something,” she recalled opponents saying.

Suspension Disparities for Students with Disabilities by District Type in 2016-17

This chart shows that young students with disabilities statewide, and in certain kinds of districts, receive a disproportionate share of out-of-school suspensions. Small rural districts have less than 1,000 students and rural districts have less than 6,500 students.

Note: This chart is based on data showing the number of K-2 suspension given out by school districts, not the number of individual students suspended.

The early-childhood suspension bill died last year largely because of opposition from rural school district leaders. But Bisceglia hopes the bill will resurface next year, along with a heightened awareness among rural leaders that suspensions disproportionately affect students with disabilities.

“They feel as though the discipline is really an urban issue, but disability touches every community,” she said.

Experts on school discipline say the key to helping kids with extreme behaviors is understanding what triggers the behavior and what it’s meant to communicate. Then the job becomes reducing triggers, de-escalating things when tempers flare, and teaching kids acceptable replacement behaviors.

A trigger for Wankel’s son came during an art class where students were asked to draw objects in both the foreground and background. The boy did a cursory drawing of a mountain and a bunny, then waited with increasing frustration, and eventually walked out of the room, which spurred a chase and an effort to restrain him. What he needed in that moment — and might have prevented the rest of the episode — Wankel said, was someone to cheer his initial effort and nudge him to add even more to the picture.

Moira Coogan, the principal of REACH, said she couldn’t comment on the boy’s case because of federal privacy mandates. However, generally speaking, she noted that being a small 129-student school can make it difficult to have enough staff to handle things when a child’s challenging behavior escalates. The school does have the option to reach out to the school district for additional help, and that has been provided at times, she said.

Strain, of the University of Colorado Denver, said using unproven or inconsistent approaches is one of the biggest problems he sees when school staff struggle to manage challenging behavior.

“Often people have tried things,” he said. “But it’s almost never true that they [used] an evidence-based strategy with fidelity in the first place.”

A related problem, he said, is when not all staff members who interact with a challenging student have appropriate training. So perhaps the lead teacher is well-equipped to head off disruptive outbursts, but the part-time paraprofessional is not.

Some parents say large class sizes, aggressive restraint practices, and calls to district security staff or even 911 also contribute to behavior that spirals out of control.

District initiatives

Even though early childhood suspension legislation failed last year, a number of Colorado districts have recently taken their own steps to address the issue.

In Jeffco, leaders have undertaken several efforts this school year to reduce kindergarten through third grade suspensions. These include training on restorative practices, a checklist to help principals who are considering a suspension to first exhaust other options, and a requirement that principals discuss a possible K-3 suspension with a district administrator before administering it.

Based on K-2 suspension numbers pulled in March, Jeffco is on track to have about 400 suspensions in those grade levels this year, down from 713 last year. District officials said it won’t be clear till the final end-of-year numbers come in, whether or not students with disabilities received a disproportionate number of suspensions.

Spencer, the Harrison superintendent until this week, said a district committee is in the process of creating an action plan to help reduce student discipline incidents. Individual schools will soon draft their own action plans with complementary goals. The district has also hired a full-time behavior analyst to give staff more support in handling challenging behavior next year.

Boulder Valley district leaders said next year they are adding 10 elementary counselors and will use a new classroom management program intended to help students with more extreme behaviors.

Officials there noted that the average number of suspensions given to each special education student who received the punishment has gone down over the last three years. In 2014-15, K-2 special educations students were suspended 2.6 times on average. Last year, it was 2.1.

Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district, this year instituted a policy limiting suspensions in kindergarten through third grade. Officials there say they’ve also provided training on de-escalation techniques to early childhood educators and established an advisory committee to support schools around the new discipline policy.

Not all Colorado districts disproportionately suspend students with disabilities, according to state data. Of the 30 largest districts, Falcon, Academy 20, and Pueblo 70 were among those without suspension disparities for that population.

Chalkbeat calculations show that another four districts — Douglas County, Thompson, Fountain, and Mapleton — also fall into that category. All gave four or fewer suspensions to K-2 special education students last year, below the threshold for disproportionality.

Sent home, but not suspended

Although data compiled by the Colorado education department provide a useful snapshot of suspension use in schools, it’s important to remember the data is reported by districts and not independently verified by the state.

Some advocates worry that suspensions are vastly under-reported, especially as the spotlight on harsh school discipline tactics has grown brighter in recent years.

“You can be absolutely sure that the suspensions you’re seeing are definitely underreported,” said Rosemarie Allen, president and CEO of the Institute for Racial Equity and Excellence. “We’re not capturing soft suspensions at all.”

Those soft or unofficial suspensions include situations where parents are asked to pick up their child early from school or keep them home for a day because of problem behavior.

Wankel, the father of the second-grader, was often asked to pick up his son early from REACH. The same thing had happened sometimes when the boy previously attended the district-run Bill Roberts K-8 School.

The usual explanation: “He’s having a rough day, you need to come pick him up,” Wankel said.

At REACH, “He was being sent home and nobody wanted to call it a suspension,” said Wankel. “That’s why we started saying, ‘Is this a suspension? We want to know.’”

In part, Wankel wanted an accurate accounting of his son’s suspensions because special protections kick in for special education students once they’ve been removed from school for 10 days or more. But also, as the number ratcheted up, he hoped district officials would take notice and send additional support to the charter school.

Coogan, the REACH principal, said the school uses both suspensions and what she called “removals” only in the most serious incidents when a child jeopardizes the safety of himself or others. She said removals, which are sometimes part of a crisis plan or behavior plan within the student’s federally-mandated special education plan, occur when a child is sent home by the school. Like suspensions, she said removals count toward the 10-day trigger and are documented by the school. She said REACH follows the Denver district’s discipline policies and procedures.

Asked how a suspension is defined, Denver district officials said via email, “When a school removes a student from instruction to home, that is a suspension.”

But not every parent wants an official tally of suspensions on a child’s record.

Khafilah Malik, the mother of a kindergartener with autism, anxiety, and Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, said she was frequently asked to pick up her son early from school last fall when he attended Odyssey School of Denver. Bisceglia, who served as an advocate for Malik and her son, corroborated this account.

Malik chose Odyssey, an expeditionary learning-themed charter school, because her son loves science and she thought the model would suit him. But sometimes the 5-year-old would have meltdowns — during fire drills, or when a teacher changed routine directions, or when he couldn’t sit with a favored classmate. He’d run, scream, hit, throw papers, or knock over chairs.

“They never really used the ‘s’ word,” said Malik. “They said, ‘We just don’t have the support staff to meet your son’s needs.’”

Malik said she would have resisted if any of those early pick-ups had been counted as suspensions on his permanent record.

“I did not want my son to be labeled,” she said, especially because she already worried that he was being painted “as this angry, aggressive African-American male child.”

Odyssey executive director Marnie Cooke said via email that the account of Malik being asked to repeatedly pick up her son early and the explanation about a lack of support staff is inaccurate, but said she could not provide details because of privacy rules. She said the school is fully staffed to meet students’ needs.

Cooke also noted that the school’s special education population has tripled in five years and parents of students with disabilities are largely satisfied with their children’s experience at the school.

After his time at Odyssey, Malik’s son switched to a district-run school for a month and then to Tennyson Center for Children, which has specialized programming for children with autism. His mother said Denver Public Schools covers tuition at the center and the youngster is doing well there in a class of six children.

Malik said for now, he’s happy and learning to calm down quickly when things don’t go his way.

“They get it,” she said. “When he’s escalated, they have to debrief with him. He has to connect.”

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