Achievement Gap

Landmark Tennessee study contradicts conventional wisdom about the power of pre-K

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students at Ross Early Learning Center, a pre-kindergarten center in Nashville

A new Vanderbilt University study suggests that public pre-kindergarten programs in Tennessee might actually negatively impact students as they advance through school, surprising experts and advocates alike. But the study’s lead researchers say that policymakers shouldn’t abandon pre-K as they seek to close the achievement gap between minority and lower- and higher-income students.

The U.S. Department of Education-funded study, released on Monday, is the first to thoroughly investigate the impacts of state-funded pre-K programs, which are increasingly popular as policymakers across the nation promote pre-K as a salve for unequal educational opportunities.

Lead researchers Dale Farran and Mark Lipsey found that Tennessee’s pre-K program for economically disadvantaged children, called Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K or TN-VPK, is not producing the positive impacts on academic achievement in the later grades that its advocates and sponsors expected. However, they said the potential for pre-K should be further investigated.

“We’re pretty stunned looking at these data and have a lot of questions about what might be going on in the later grades that doesn’t seem to be maintaining, if not accelerating, the positive gains the VPK attendees made in pre-K,” Lipsey said in a news release.

The five-year study was a joint effort between the Tennessee Department of Education and Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development, where pioneering experiments on the early education of “disadvantaged” children helped to inspire the creation in 1965 of early childhood programs under Head Start.

Gov. Bill Haslam has been waiting on the Vanderbilt study before determining whether he will propose spending more next year on pre-K. Haslam and state lawmakers have been hesitant to expand pre-K — some wanting to scrap the program altogether — citing a 2011 comptroller’s report finding that the impacts were negligible.

Vanderbilt researchers found that students who participated in TN-VPK benefitted significantly at first. But by first grade, there was no difference. By third grade, the students who attended pre-K actually fared worse on a variety of measures assessing both academics and behavior.

“We’ve got a platform out there that’s serving thousands of disadvantaged kids (in Tennessee) who are worthy of our attention,” Lipsey told Chalkbeat. “If we’re not getting what we wanted yet from that platform, we should at least explore its potential before we give it up.”

Groundbreaking report

National experts called the Tennessee study important and compelling.

“It’s a very exciting report because it’s the first time it’s been done on a state level,” said Bruce Atchison, director of early learning for the Education Commission of the States.

“The fadeout is definitely disappointing, but in the context of other studies, the Tennessee findings suggest that we need to raise the quality of programs to avoid the fadeout. It punctuates the fact that pre-K alone is not a silver bullet,” said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California-Berkeley.

Both Fuller and Atchison questioned whether uneven or mediocre elementary programs might contribute to a flattening out of academic performance by second and third grades.

“You can have high-quality pre-K and talk about a kindergarten-ready child,” Atchison said, “but if you don’t have a high-quality K-3 programs in place, some fadeout is going to occur.”

Kyle Snow of  the National Association for the Education of Young Children called the report “courageous” for going against popularly held beliefs in the policy community that pre-K is a panacea. He said he eagerly awaits follow-up from Farran and Lipsey on what factors in elementary school interacted with the skills learned in pre-K to cause students’ achievement to decline, after initially outperforming their peers.

“What is so important about this study is that it leads to these questions about sustaining gains and momentum,” he said. “What is the (elementary school) environment doing to support these skills?”

Payoff vs. cost

Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program, which was started about a decade ago and cost about $86 million in 2013-14, serves about 18,000 children. It ranks high among state-funded pre-K initiatives, meeting nine out of 10 benchmarks set forth by the National Early Education Research Institute for quality pre-K.

Gov. Bill Haslam and first lady Chrissy Haslam read to children in 2014 at the University of Memphis Child Care Center.
Gov. Bill Haslam and first lady Chrissy Haslam read to children in 2014 at the University of Memphis Child Care Center.

Farran and Lipsey launched the study in 2009, focusing on 3,000 students who applied. They compared the academic trajectories of students who gained seats through a lottery system, to those who applied for the program but didn’t make it in. All of the students were eligible for free and reduced lunch, a requirement for Voluntary Pre-K. The results only reflect students whose parents gave the researchers consent. Lipsey and Farran are still waiting for data for the rest of the students — almost 2,000 — from the Department of Education and will continue tracking them through the sixth grade. The researchers hypothesize there might be some potential long-term behavioral gains associated with attending pre-K.

Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville), a member of the state House Education Committee, called the study “invaluable.”

“When you’re in government, the question you always asks is how do we use taxpayer dollars effectively and efficiently,” said Dunn, a vocal critic of spending on pre-K. “This study would lead one to believe this approach isn’t very effective and efficient.”

Dunn said he’d rather see state dollars go to improve teacher quality. A more effective pre-K program, he said, might be to prepare at-risk students for kindergarten during the summer leading up to school, rather than the whole preceding year.

“We can help some of these at-risk kids get ready for kindergarten without spending all of that money,” he said.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the department is continuing to focus on improving the quality of existing pre-K programs across the state. “This is why the department is anchoring our work on establishing early foundations for our students and monitoring and emphasizing high-quality pre-K instruction,” she said. “We also believe that it is important that the Vanderbilt study continues to follow student gains over time to better understand long-term outcomes.”

Farran said policymakers should remember that classrooms observed in the study were diverse in their approaches — and that much can still be learned from the classrooms that did see positive impacts on students in later grades. Farran and Lipsey also are further evaluating the 160 Voluntary Pre-K classrooms that were part of the study to ascertain what qualities most helped children in kindergarten, first, second and third grades.

“TN-VPK was rolled out very quickly and not all pre-K classrooms in Tennessee are alike,” Farran said in the news release. “What might you get from the same pre-K program if you had a common vision and could push the quality up? These are among the questions we are raising in light of the findings of our study.”

"Pre-K is a good start, but without a more coherent vision and consistent implementation of that vision, we cannot realistically expect dramatic effects."Dale Farran, Peabody researcher

Lisa Wiltshire, executive director of the Tennessee Department of Education’s office of early learning, said during a roundtable discussion last week that a common vision and common standards for pre-K classrooms is one of her top priorities.

The researchers emphasized that the potential of pre-K to produce positive academic achievement cannot be dismissed.

“Pre-K is a good start, but without a more coherent vision and consistent implementation of that vision, we cannot realistically expect dramatic effects,” Farran said. “Too much has been promised from one year of pre-school intervention without the attention needed to the quality of experiences children have and what happens to them in K-12. There is much work to be done.”

Read the full report here.

New direction

Three years in, an ambitious experiment to improve the odds for kids at one elementary school is scaling back

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Tennyson Knolls students return to school after a ribbon-cutting ceremony on school grounds in September.

Blocks of Hope was once envisioned as a pint-sized version of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

The project would provide an array of educational and social services to young children and families living within the boundaries of one high-poverty Adams County school — in the process, changing not only the lives of individual children but also the community around them.

But after three years, the Westminster-based nonprofit that spearheaded Blocks of Hope is scaling back its ambitions.

While the project won’t disappear entirely, the nonprofit’s leaders say they’re no longer focusing services and staff so tightly on the school’s boundary zone and may eventually stop using the Blocks of Hope name.

“We’re starting to question whether it’s the right strategic direction for the organization,” said Karen Fox Elwell, the new president and CEO of Growing Home, which launched the project in 2014.

The shifting shape of Blocks of Hope — originally framed as a 20-year effort intended to change the trajectories of children 0 to 9 within the Tennyson Knolls Elementary School enrollment zone — is a disappointment for some advocates who’d hoped this “placed-based” approach would not only be successful, but also possibly serve as a model for other Colorado communities.

A raft of issues have prompted the changes, including greater-than-expected mobility among the school population, fundraising challenges, and the tension that came from devoting resources to the 2.25-square-mile project zone while also trying to serve the broader Adams County community.

“It was hard to find that balance to do both well,” said Fox Elwell, who joined Growing Home in January.

Organizers knew when they started that the community was changing, but gentrification pushed out families faster than they expected. About a quarter of Tennyson Knoll’s students left the school in 2015-16.

Leaders said that was one reason it was tricky to track child outcomes that would demonstrate the project’s impact — a hallmark of successful place-based work.

Fox Elwell said there’s more stability among residents in the Harlem Children’s Zone because of rent-controlled housing.

“So families are really staying in that community for years upon years,” she said. “With Blocks of Hope, it’s just not the case.”

Fox Elwell said the board and staff will determine the future of Blocks of Hope during the group’s upcoming strategic planning process starting in late spring.

Teva Sienicki, the former president and CEO of Growing Home and the project’s original champion, said significant evidence supports the place-based strategy that underpinned Blocks of Hope, but didn’t want to second-guess the decisions of Growing Home’s current leaders.

“I really do wish them the best,” said Sienicki, who left Growing Home last summer.

Even at the outset of the project,  Sienicki acknowledged that changing demographics and funding challenges could alter the long-term course of the project. Still, she was optimistic, projecting a gradual expansion that would bring two to three other elementary schools in the Westminster district under the Blocks of Hope umbrella, and increase the number of employees dedicated to the project from two to 70.

In addition to improving family functioning, the project’s goal was to boost school attendance, kindergarten readiness, and third-grade reading scores, and reduce the number of children referred for special education services. This year, 85 percent of Tennyson Knolls students are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, a proxy for poverty.

One of the essential ideas behind place-based efforts like Blocks of Hope and the Harlem Children’s Zone is to flood a carefully defined geographic area with services in the hopes of touching a critical mass of residents, usually around 60 percent. By reaching such a large proportion of a population, proponents say such efforts create a kind of tipping point that pushes the whole community to adopt the norms and aspirations of those who receive services.

But Blocks of Hope never got close to that tipping point.

While certain components of the project, such as backpack and school supply giveaways, reached a large number of families, others, such as parent programs, never got above 15 percent, said Fox Elwell.

Aside from high mobility, the fact that many students ride the bus to Tennyson Knolls — instead of getting dropped off by their parents — made it harder to connect with parents than organizers anticipated.

The nonprofit’s limited budget was also a factor. Spending on the project was originally set at $250,000 annually, with eventual plans to reach $3 million if it expanded to other schools.

The nonprofit’s actual spending on Blocks of Hope has been around $100,000 a year, said Fox Elwell. In addition, a grant that Growing Home leaders hoped would pay for an evaluation of the project never came through.

“There were some incredible hopes to grow the budget and deeply invest in the community,” she said. “And maybe it was more challenging to fundraise than we anticipated.”

There are still several Blocks of Hope programs at Tennyson Knolls this year, including backpack giveaways, holiday gift and meal help, and two parenting classes. The school also houses a boutique with used children’s clothing and gear.

An after-school tutoring program was discontinued after last school year because it wasn’t effective, leaders said. Another program aimed at grandparents raising grandchildren was slated to launch this spring, but will not because school leaders felt they had too much going on.

A community organizer originally hired to work with Blocks of Hope families to advocate for affordable housing has expanded her territory to include other neighborhoods.

“There’s a lot of need just a little bit south and a little bit east of those (school) boundaries,” said Leslie Gonzalez, a Growing Home board member.

Residents in some of those areas began to assume they were no longer eligible for any of the nonprofit’s services as Blocks of Hope ramped up. That wasn’t true, but the project sent some “unintended negative messages,” she said.

Despite looming questions about the future of Blocks of Hope, leaders at Growing Home and Tennyson Knolls say the project has helped families, sparked welcome changes to the nonprofit’s case management strategy, and built community at the school.

Tennyson Knolls Principal Heather McGuire, who is the school’s third principal since Blocks of Hope began, said the project helped get parents involved at school, whether attending PTA meetings, taking Blocks of Hope classes, or attending “coffee with the principal” meetings.

She credits the project with giving rise to the school’s tagline, “We are TKE,” a reference to the school’s initials.

Gonzalez said, “We don’t view Blocks of Hope as a failure necessarily … Even though there were a lot of challenges, a lot of good came out of it, too, and we were able to meet even more families in that community we serve.”

safe haven

Colorado could get its first 24/7 child care facility for families in crisis

PHOTO: Jamie Grill | Getty Images
Mother rubbing forehead while holding baby son.

Last fall, Lisa Rickerd Mills, a medical social worker in Grand Junction, worked with a single mother who needed inpatient mental health treatment.

The problem was child care. The woman had no one to watch her two small children during her stay and bowed out of treatment.

It’s exactly the kind of scenario a group of advocates hope to prevent with a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week child care facility for families facing emergencies or periods of high stress.

The center, to be called the Grand Valley Crisis Nursery and set to open in late 2018, would provide free care for children 0 to 5 years old for periods ranging from a few days to 30 days. The idea is to give parents a safe place to leave their youngest children when they’re facing a crisis — a period of homelessness, an emergency medical procedure, domestic violence, or the threat of job loss. It’s meant to prevent child abuse and neglect and keep kids out of the foster care system.

While there are around 70 crisis nurseries nationwide, the one planned for Grand Junction would be the first of its kind in Colorado. It could pave the way for a new type of state child care license and perhaps crisis nurseries elsewhere in the state. The project is unfolding amidst a broader push in the western Colorado community to improve child and family outcomes by dramatically expanding child care options over the next three years.

Kaleigh Stover, a former pharmaceutical sales representative who moved to Grand Junction from Sacramento last summer, is leading the charge on the crisis nursery. Prior to her move, the 26-year-old volunteered at the Sacramento Crisis Nursery, which runs two of five crisis nurseries in California and, like many such facilities, relies heavily on volunteers to care for the children.

“I’m like that girl in the grocery store who will offer to hold your baby,” she said. “I have a soft spot for babies and moms and helping those people who are experiencing hard times.”

When she first arrived in Grand Junction, Stover called around to several nonprofit organizations and was surprised to learn there wasn’t a crisis nursery in town.

She said local advocates told her, “We don’t have anything like this … but we need it.”

Child abuse cases — and hotline calls about suspected child abuse — have steadily risen over the last few years in Mesa County. The western Colorado county also faces numerous other challenges: higher than average rates of child poverty, foster care placement, and teen pregnancy.

The community’s transience also means that parents of young children often arrive without a circle of family and friends to help out in a pinch, said Rickerd Mills, a member of the crisis nursery’s board.

That can mean parents leave their kids in the care of people they don’t know well or enlist older siblings to watch them.

In addition to providing licensed overnight care for young children, crisis nurseries have case managers who work to connect parents with community resources and get them back on their feet.

While there are a host of typical housing, job, and medical problems that prompt parents to use crisis nurseries, parents with a child care problem outside the usual list won’t be turned away at the Grand Valley center, Stover said.

“We let families define the crisis,” she said, adding that parents using the center would be required to check in with case managers regularly.

Over the past six months, Stover has steadily made progress on the nursery — holding a community town hall, recruiting board members, and finding a local nonprofit to serve as the nursery’s fiscal sponsor. She’s currently in the process of finding a location for the nine- to 12-bed center and will soon begin fundraising.

Stover expects the first-year costs to be around $455,000 if the group purchases a building, with operations costing $150,000 in subsequent years. About 80 percent of the nursery’s funding will come from individual and corporate donations and 20 percent from grants, she said.

In what might be the nursery project’s biggest victory so far, Stover got a preliminary nod in February from the state’s child care licensing advisory committee, which agreed to consider giving the crisis nursery a waiver from state licensing rules.

If the waiver is granted, it could set the stage for a new kind of child care license in Colorado — a cross between a typical child care center license, which doesn’t allow 24-hour care, and a residential child care facility license, which allows 24-hour care but doesn’t permit care for children under 3 years old.

“Having a new license type is kind of nightmare, but it changes the whole state if we can make it happen,” Stover said.

Ebony White Douglas, program manager at the 22-year-old Sacramento Crisis Nursery, praised Stover’s persistence in pursuing the project. She said she routinely consults with people in other states interested in launching crisis nurseries and has seen many such projects sidelined because of complex licensing logistics or daunting fund-raising requirements.

Rickerd Mills said she was heartened to hear about the positive reception from the state’s licensing advisory committee.

“I think it just goes to show the need in this community and the state,” she said.