Early Childhood

Some immigrant children are shut out of new preschool programs

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Preschoolers' backpacks at IPS School 102.

The thousands of poor Indiana children who will attend new publicly funded preschool programs this year through Gov. Mike Pence’s state preschool pilot and an Indianapolis program sponsored by Mayor Greg Ballard all have one thing in common.

They all must be legal U.S. residents.

Children who are in the country without permission aren’t welcome into either the state or Indianapolis preschool program.

How can public schools be barred from excluding those kids while publicly funded preschool programs are free to do so?

Indianapolis program leaders say they’re following the state’s lead. State officials say they’re following federal guidelines. And while federal law does, indeed, require schools to give all children fair and equal access to public education regardless of citizenship, the rule starts in kindergarten.

“I don’t think that anybody was consciously saying, ‘We want to exclude or not be welcoming,’ but there were some boundaries that we had to identify in terms of who could we serve with public dollars and federal dollars,” said Beth Stroh, who administers the city preschool program through the United Way of Central Indiana.

The state says it’s not allowing non-U.S. citizens into the program to stay in line with the rules of its other programs.

“This maintains consistency in policy among our early childhood education programs,” said Jim Gavin, a spokesman for the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration. “The Child Care and Development Fund and Early Education Matching Grant programs also require that the eligible child be a citizen.”

But immigrant advocates say the rule unfairly excludes kids, arguing it prevents children who are already at risk for difficulty in school from getting the same early help their future classmates in similar circumstances can receive.

“It’s a shame,” said Indianapolis immigration lawyer Fatima Johnson. “They’ll be behind everyone else. If only a portion of kids are kindergarten-ready, how much money and resources do you have to spend later to catch the kids up?”

Read more: Lost in Translation: Struggle and success as language barriers reshape Indianapolis schools

The number of children who could be excluded because of this requirement is likely small. Children born in the U.S. to parents who are in the country without permission, which are estimated to account for 88 percent of all children of immigrant parents, are U.S. citizens by birth and therefore welcome into the program. And so are refugees with legal status. Indiana is estimated to have 10,000 foreign-born children under age 16 who are not U.S. citizens, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Some school districts have found a way to accommodate preschool-age children who are in the country without permission.

Wayne Township, on Indianapolis’ West side, is a participant in the state’s On My Way preschool program. Superintendent Jeff Butts said the district accepts all students for its preschool program. But if they don’t qualify for the state preschool program they can still get tuition help through a federal poverty program. The district’s preschool offers 80 preschool spots funded by the federal grant. Citizenship is not a requirement for that program.

Stroh said the state and city programs tried to invite children from families that don’t speak English fluently to apply. The state translated its applications into English and Spanish. Stroh said the city added French, Burmese and Chin, another common language spoken by immigrants in Indianapolis.

But she said they didn’t follow through with that throughout the entire process. The information that was sent to the families who were accepted into the program was only in English, Stroh said.

“We did make an effort,” Stroh said. “That’s a way we can improve the notification process. (Some) couldn’t even read the cover.”

It’s unclear if undocumented children will be accepted into future rounds of the state or city program. FSSA Spokeswoman Marci Lemons said the department didn’t want to speculate.

Johnson said she hopeful that rules could chance so more children could be included.

“The number of people who are sensitive to this issue is growing,” Johnson said. “These people are here to stay. They’re not leaving. It would behoove Indiana to have educated people.”

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.”

Teaching teachers

How a Memphis pre-K giant is changing the way early childhood educators are taught

PHOTO: Porter-Leath
Porter-Leath's new training program places emphasis on early literacy.

Morgan Bradley thought that teaching children at her church’s Sunday school would have prepared her to work in early childhood education.

But the recent college graduate was shocked by all she learned at a recent training at Porter-Leath’s new Early Childhood Academy.

“I thought I knew how to work with little kids, but I didn’t know how much a child’s brain develops during those years before kindergarten,” said Bradley, who will be helping in a Head Start classroom through AmeriCorps. “I’m realizing now how necessary good teaching in pre-K is to getting a baby ready for kindergarten, especially when it comes to using my words to build a child’s vocabulary.”

Bradley is one of more than 500 educators who will go through Porter-Leath’s training this year in an effort to boost the quality of early education instruction in Memphis. Porter-Leath is the city’s largest provider of early childhood education and has a partnership with Shelby County Schools for Head Start and other services, including training.

The program comes as Tennessee grapples with a low literacy rate and mixed quality of early education programs. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has emphasized the need for better early childhood education across the state for Tennessee to improve as a whole.

Porter-Leath’s trainings are held almost monthly and revolve around four tenets: socio-emotional learning; literacy; health; and STEAM, or science, technology, engineering, art and math.

The socio-emotional and literacy pieces are what make the program different from usual professional development for early educators, said Rafel Hart, vice president of teacher excellence for Porter-Leath and the training program’s leader.

“When we think about professional development in early childhood, we think about training on CPR and first aid,” he said. “That’s important, but Teacher Excellence focuses on classroom practices. How do we make our quality of instruction better?”

A Memphis organization since 1850, Porter-Leath serves about 6,000 children in its preschool program and employs 670 people. It serves students in some of Memphis’ poorest neighborhoods who may be dealing with the trauma of food or home insecurity at early ages. This makes training teachers in socioemotional learning especially crucial, said Hart.

Porter-Leath’s program draws from organizations like Acknowledge Alliance that trains teachers to help students regulate their emotions and learn self-awareness.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
AmeriCorps members who will work in Porter-Leath classrooms are among more than 500 educators to go through the training.

“I’ve been in early childhood for 25 years, and socioemotional learning is rarely used,” Hart said. “That’s a tragic mistake we’re correcting. Students can’t grow to develop strong academics if their emotional health isn’t growing first.”

All new Porter-Leath and Shelby County Schools early childhood educators will go through this training, but it’s also open to and encouraged for longtime teachers.

Kelly Thieme, a former literacy specialist and now Porter Leath instructional coach, is especially excited to see the focus on literacy.

“A lot of people don’t understand literacy starts from birth, and speaking to children makes reading and literacy easier,” she said. “We go through current research on how young children learn to read. To me, this helps us and others understand that we’re not just babysitters; it helps us professionalize our profession.”