Early education

Once seeking to scrap pre-K, Tennessee’s biggest pre-K critic votes to improve it

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

When a thorough study of Tennessee’s public pre-kindergarten program last year suggested the program actually set kids back, state Rep. Bill Dunn was validated. The Knoxville Republican had been railing against the state’s pre-K program for years, calling it a waste of money that should be dropped in favor of other investments in early childhood education.

But in a House subcommittee meeting on Wednesday, pre-K’s most vocal opponent gave the program a second chance. Dunn voted in support of a bill that would keep the state’s Voluntary Pre-K program for low-income students, and make it better.

Rep. Bill Dunn
PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Rep. Bill Dunn

The bill, which would help require certain “best practices” in pre-k classrooms, passed and now goes to the House Education Instruction and Programming Committee. The support of Dunn means the legislation likely has overcome its most formidable hurdle in the House.

“It tries to make the best out of a situation that I think, if you look at the Vanderbilt study, should cause a lot of concerns to people,” Dunn said before the vote.

His reluctant support reflects the key lawmaker’s acquiescence to the commitment of Gov. Bill Haslam and the State Department of Education to improving the state’s pre-K program, viewed as a significant tool in closing the achievement gap. Rather than offering a knee-jerk response to the troubling Vanderbilt study that questioned the power of pre-K, Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen have taken a measured approach directed at refining the program.

The landmark study, released in October by researchers at Vanderbilt University, showed that children who attended Tennessee’s public pre-K programs did better than their peers in kindergarten, but that their academic performance flattened out by the second and third grades — and eventually they did worse in elementary school than did their peers who had no pre-K education at all.

Haslam had been waiting to see the results of the five-year study before deciding whether to expand pre-K. This year, he included funding in his proposed budget to pay for improvements.

The legislation addresses some of the researchers’ takeaways, including concerns about the quality of Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program, an initial lack of investment in teacher development, and a transition to possibly mediocre early elementary school programs.

Specifically, the proposal also calls for developing a plan to better coordinate between pre-K classrooms and elementary schools so that elementary-grade instruction builds upon pre-K classroom experiences; engaging parents and families of students throughout the school year; and delivering relevant and meaningful professional development for teachers.

All of those practices already are in action at Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools’ model pre-K centers, according to Dana Eckman, the district’s director of early childhood learning, who testified in support of the bill.

“We want this for every child and family who attends a voluntary pre-K program,” Eckman said. “If we’re going to invest in children, let’s invest in the right resources, not to only get a ‘return on our investment,’ but to have an impact on students that will be sustained … for the rest of their lives.”

Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K was spearheaded by Gov. Phil Bredesen in 2005, answering a call from researchers and educators to serve low-income students as 4-year-olds to get them on equal footing with their more affluent peers by kindergarten. Statewide enrollment jumped from 9,000 students during its pilot year to 18,000 within three years, which has since remained steady.

The bill that advanced on Wednesday is sponsored by Rep. Mark White of Memphis, who noted that the inequities that the original program sought to fix remain especially prevalent in his home city. He encouraged his colleagues to use the Vanderbilt study to inform improvements to the state’s existing pre-K program.

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“A lot of times we want to just throw things out, but then we just create something new … and have the same problems all over again,” White said. “One of the best things that can happen to us as we go through the process over the years is we learn from studies from higher ed.”

Dunn, however, reminded fellow legislators that pre-K isn’t the only solution to early learning challenges. He said the money ultimately might be better spend in kindergarten and first-grade classrooms.

“We have very limited resources,” Dunn said.

 

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that this bill came with a $1 million fiscal note. The bill was amended to remove the $1 million cost of implementation, which would have gone to the development of a kindergarten readiness screening test.

We'll come to you

They started as an experiment in rural areas. Now, mobile preschools are rolling into metro Denver.

PHOTO: Pat Sudmeier
Children attend preschool in Gus the Bus in Garfield County.

In several of Colorado’s rural communities, some children have long attended preschool in specially equipped mobile classrooms with names like Gus the Bus, Magic Bus and El Busesito.

The rolling preschools, which travel to apartment complexes or mobile home parks a couple times per week, are seen as an innovative way to reach children who can’t access traditional bricks-and-mortar preschools.

Now, they’re coming to the Front Range.

Last spring, a mobile preschool rolled into the northern Denver suburbs, and the city itself could eventually get one, too. Officials at Mile High United Way are exploring the concept and Denver school district leaders say they hope to join the project if it moves forward.

“It’s no surprise there is a lack of both affordable and accessible high-quality early childhood education in our community,” said Karla Maraccini, vice president of community impact and strategy at Mile High United Way. “One of the solutions we’re exploring is mobile preschool.”

Such programs aren’t widespread in Colorado or the nation, but the meet-them-where-they-are approach has plenty of precedents. Think bookmobiles or mobile blood drives. Advocates say mobile preschools represent a valuable school readiness initiative for young children cut off from traditional early education experiences.

“Mobile can be used in so many ways. I think of the food trucks, how that’s been kind of a revolution,” said Logan Hood, who manages the Preschool on Wheels program in Garfield County in western Colorado. “When you come to that person’s community and you’re willing to open your doors … it’s lasting.”

Rany Elissa and Alexa Garrido, the husband-wife team that recently launched the mobile preschool program in Federal Heights north of Denver, said they plan to acquire another bus and expand their program to nearby Thornton in 2019. They’re also looking at Denver, possibly in Park Hill or a neighborhood in northwest Denver, and have had discussions with Mile High United Way on the topic.

The pair, which separately run a company that provides tutoring and other services to K-12 students across the state, said seeing the academic struggles of older students convinced them they needed to start earlier. That’s why they spent more than $200,000 to gut a 19-passenger bus and remake it into a preschool space with a bathroom, running water, heat and air-conditioning.

The colorfully painted bus spends most weekdays at the Denver Cascade Mobile Home Park, where eight children attend morning preschool and another eight attend in the afternoon. The children, all English language learners, attend the year-round program four days a week.

Many participating families walk to the bus each day, shut out of local building-based preschools that are full, or that they can’t afford or can’t reach, Garrido said.

Large swaths of Adams County, where Federal Heights is located, are considered child care deserts because the number of young children far exceeds the number of child care and preschool slots, according to a 2017 report from the Center For American Progress.

Parts of Denver have that designation as well and additional city data show fewer than a quarter of 3- and 4-year-olds attend preschool in certain areas, including parts of north Denver, far northeast Denver, and a few neighborhoods along the city’s eastern border with Jefferson County.

Elissa and Garrido’s program, Right On Mobile Education, is one of four mobile programs licensed by the state, which means it meets basic health and safety standards.

The Magic Bus preschool program in Eagle County, which launched in 2007, serves 82 children for four hours a week with a bus and a motor home. The Preschool on Wheels program, a project of the Aspen Community Foundation in neighboring Garfield County, serves 80 children for six hours a week with two buses — Gus the Bus and the Sunshine Bus. Families there pay $5 a month to participate. El Busesito, or the Little Bus, which operates in both Garfield and Eagle, serves 96 children for five hours a week with three buses.

While Colorado’s mobile preschool operators emphasize the pains they take to ensure quality — using reputable curriculums, incorporating social-emotional learning and employing credentialed bilingual teachers — the programs don’t get a quality rating from the state the way building-based preschools do.

State officials, who only began licensing mobile preschools in 2016, said too many factors in the rating system don’t match up with the mobile preschool model. They said that the rating system, called Colorado Shines, might eventually cover mobile preschools.

Generally, mobile preschool classes run for a shorter time than building-based classes, but leaders say they still help kids make big learning gains.

At that age, “their brains are like little sponges,” said Deb Dutmar, manager of the Magic Bus program for the Vail Valley Foundation. “Even that concentrated time with them singing songs, doing circle time, having a snack, reading a book, having play time … just those two days a week, it’s amazing how they grow.”

But mobile programs, which include parent workshops and home visits, aren’t cheap. Plus, they usually don’t qualify for government dollars that support traditional preschools, and families pay nothing or only a tiny fee to participate. In other words, they require lots of grants and donations to stay afloat.

The Magic Bus program costs $280,000 and Preschool on Wheels costs $350,000 a year. Hood, manager of the Preschool On Wheels program, said she spends lots of time fund-raising and, when she fields calls from other communities, emphasizes the need to find sustainable funding.

Both Hood and Dutmar say they routinely get calls from all over the country — Hawaii, Maryland, Louisiana, California and elsewhere — from people wanting to hear more about mobile preschools.

It’s important to consider community needs in developing such programs, Hood said, “It’s not saying, ‘This is cute. Let’s do this.’”

Beyond finances, mobile preschools present logistical challenges, too.

One mobile preschool program in Oakland, California, thought to be the first in an urban setting during its pilot phase in 2015, was discontinued a year later.

Elise Darwish, who was an administrator at the charter school network operating the bus when the program launched but not when it ended, said she believes the amount of regulation and red tape involved in running the program led to its demise.

Ensuring basic sanitation can be a stumbling block, too. Since Dutmar has one Magic Bus without a bathroom, it must be parked near a public restroom. Especially in the winter, bundling up wiggly children just for a bathroom break eats up a lot of time, she said. The good news is the foundation just finished its fund-raising campaign for a second Magic Bus motor home, which will arrive bathroom-equipped next summer.

Elissa and Garrido faced their own share of logistical headaches when they decided to launch their mobile program. They quickly realized that most city zoning rules don’t easily accommodate mobile preschools.

“No one knew what to do with us,” Elissa said. “We were not a food truck. We were not selling anything.”

Eventually, they found a passionate advocate in the mayor of Federal Heights and successfully navigated the city’s zoning ordinances. By next summer, they hope to add a second bus that will offer preschool at the Woodland Hills mobile home park in Thornton.

Denver, they hope, won’t be far behind.

the youngest learners

Most of Indiana is a licensed child care ‘desert’ for infants and toddlers, new report says

PHOTO: Christina Veiga / Chalkbeat

Most of Indiana has a severe shortage of licensed child care for infants and toddlers, meaning the state’s youngest children potentially lack options for early learning during a critical time in their development, according to a report released Wednesday by the Center for American Progress.

In Indiana, the capacity of licensed child care centers and homes only covers 12 percent of the state’s 245,000 infants and toddlers, the report said. Or, to put it another way, there are more than eight infants and toddlers for every licensed child care spot.

The shortages are more pronounced in rural and lower-income areas, according to the report from the left-leaning, Washington, D.C.-based public policy research and advocacy organization.

“It’s the most important time for these kids in terms of their development and in terms of their ability to set themselves up for quality learning environments later on in preschool and elementary school,” said study co-author Rasheed Malik, senior policy analyst for early childhood policy.

One of the most severe shortages outlined in the report is in Adams County, southeast of Fort Wayne along the Ohio state line, where licensed child care providers have only 18 spots for the county’s 2,058 infants and toddlers.

Not every infant and toddler needs child care, and not every family will choose a licensed option. But these “child care deserts,” as the report calls them, can limit families’ access to early childhood programs where children’s interactions with caregivers “have long-term effects that lay the groundwork for healthy socio-emotional regulation, learning ability, and resilience,” the report said.

For working families, the shortage can also make it difficult to find child care while parents are at their jobs.

The report, which uses state data on licensed child care providers, doesn’t include small, unlicensed in-home providers, arrangements with family members, or church preschools.

Still, Malik said even though the report doesn’t capture the full scope of child care in Indiana, it’s a measure for the market that shows a need for more child care options for young children.

Numbers from the Indiana Early Learning Advisory Committee also illustrate a shortage in high-quality programs for the youngest children: While an estimated 160,000 children ages 0 to 2 need care, only 16,000 infants and toddlers are in high-quality programs.

Infant and toddler care can be much harder to find and more expensive than early childhood options for 3- or 4-year-olds, costing about $10,000 to more than $11,000 per year, according to the committee’s estimates.

The high costs of providing care for infants and toddlers is likely what fuels the shortage of options, Malik said. In contrast, he said, options for 3- and 4-year-olds are on the rise because of increasing state and local investments in prekindergarten.

Among the Center for American Progress report’s recommendations is greater public investment in child care for infants and toddlers.

“These are our most precious resource, and research has told us every dollar spent there is well rewarded for society,” Malik said.