Data Void

New push to quantify, prevent preschool expulsions in Colorado

When Sarah Davidon’s son was in preschool in Douglas County, he would often bite or hit other kids. Once he pinched a teacher on the arm. Another time he punched her in the stomach.

Although the teachers tried to be patient with his outbursts, Davidon worried that the center’s director would ask that the boy be removed from care—what many might call an expulsion.

“There was a period when we were getting calls almost daily,” Davidon said. “[The director] was getting increasingly frustrated…She would say, ‘Other parents are getting upset and I have to decide if this can continue.’”

The irony is that Davidon is a faculty member of the University of Colorado School of Medicine who studies preschool expulsions and early childhood mental health. She’s also board president of the Colorado Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health.

In those roles, she’s well aware that the odds of getting expelled from preschool are higher than the odds of getting expelled from the K-12 system. A 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Education also revealed that minorities and boys are disproportionately expelled from preschool.

It’s statistics like these that prompted a recent federal push for states to address the issue, a process now unfolding in Colorado. Last fall, a letter from two top federal officials was sent to states urging the development of preschool expulsion policies, analysis of expulsion data, and scaling of preventive practices.

In addition, the recently reauthorized federal Child Care and Development Block Grant—the main source of funding for the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program—includes a requirement for states to publish preschool expulsion policies, and permits some grant funds to be used for teacher training around the issue.

Currently, that there are no statewide policies on preschool expulsion in Colorado or mechanisms to collect expulsion data from childcare providers. The two state studies conducted over the past decade show a decreasing rate of preschool expulsions—suggesting that preventive strategies may be working.

Still, advocates say two data sets with relatively low response rates aren’t enough to provide a full picture of the preschool expulsion landscape or make firm conclusions about the impact of prevention strategies.

“When it comes to data, we are in the dark and that’s one of the concerns,” said Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

“We want to be able to advocate for strategies that mitigate the use of suspensions and expulsions. We want to be able to evaluate those,” but that’s difficult without baseline data, he said.

But Noel Nelson, CEO and president of the Early Childhood Education Association of Colorado, said requiring providers to report expulsions could add a new layer of unnecessary regulation and lead to state interference in a provider’s carefully considered decision.

“The decision to disenroll a child…is not taken lightly by owners, managers, teachers,” he said. “There’s just this assumption that providers are quick to disenroll and move on.”

Naming the problem

Preschool expulsions and the events leading up to them are worrisome for several reasons. For parents and providers, they are stressful, time-consuming, and potentially expensive. For children, expulsions can delay needed mental health services, threaten continuity of care and hinder positive social-emotional development.

Some experts say expulsions may also foretell a future of school struggles. Charlotte Brantley, president and CEO of Clayton Early Learning, said it’s likely that many of the children suspended or expelled from preschool will be the ones later suspended and expelled during the K-12 years.

“There’s bound to be a thread,” she said.

Despite disagreement among the state’s early childhood players about whether statewide expulsion reporting is needed and how much state oversight is necessary on preschool expulsions generally, most agree that any strategy should include training and other resources for early childhood teachers.

“You can have all the expectations in the world and if you don’t support early child care settings…you won’t necessarily get the results you’re after,” said Brantley.

State officials, child advocates, and provider representatives also agree that whatever happens around preschool expulsions in 2015 will rely on input from all quarters of the early childhood world.

“We’re naming a problem and we want to bring everyone to the table to think about what to do about it,” said Jaeger.

Limited data

Despite the lack of routinely collected state-specific data on preschool suspensions and expulsions, there are a few sources of information that help provide general outlines of the problem.

  • The 2014 data snapshot from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found that nationally black students make up 18 percent of the preschool population but 42 percent of those suspended once and 48 percent of those suspended multiple times.
  • The same report found that boys make up 54 percent of the preschool population but 79 percent of those suspended once and 82 percent of those suspended multiple times.
  • A 2006 study co-authored by Davidon found that 10 of every 1,000 children were removed from licensed Colorado child care settings, compared to a K-12 expulsion rate of nearly three per 1,000 students. (The provider response rate to the study survey was 17 percent.)
  • The 2006 study found that home-based providers had higher rates of expulsion (35 per 1,000) than child care centers (six per 1,000).
  • A follow-up study in 2011 (not yet published) found a significant drop in removal rates from licensed child care—four per 1,000. (The provider response rate to the study survey was 17.9 percent.)

Davidon, director of community education with JFK Partners in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, called the reduction found in the 2011 survey good news. Still, she said, “What we still don’t do is collect information on this every year…We can’t stop expulsions from happening if we don’t know when and where they’re happening.”

There has been some talk about adding an expulsion category to the state’s electronic incident reporting system currently used to report when a child is injured at preschool or day care. But officials from the state’s Office of Early Childhood, which is housed in the Colorado Department of Human Services, aren’t sure that’s the way to go.

Jordana Ash, director of early childhood mental health for the Office of Early Childhood, said she’d like to focus on collecting “lead measures” that anticipate the possibility of expulsion rather than “lag measures” such as the expulsion itself.

“We’re very invested in understanding this phenomenon and understanding really what leads to a child being at risk of expulsion,” she said. “Our efforts will be capturing the right data.”

In terms of what lead measures the state might collect, Ash said the department’s data team and other stakeholders will need to consider that issue.

“That’s the work in front of us,” she said.

Tools for heading off expulsions

While the current spotlight on preschool expulsions is relatively new, some advocates have been working to address it for years. There are several strategies that seem to be effective, including teacher trainings focusing on children’s social-emotional development. These include programs like Pyramid Plus, The Incredible Years and “Expanding Quality for Infants and Toddlers.”

Ash, who studied preschool expulsion rates in Boulder County in her previous position, said the creation of a “warm line” that providers and parents could call to seek phone or on-site help with difficult child behaviors seemed to have an impact in the Boulder area.

Another option for providers is bringing in early childhood mental health consultants. The state funds the equivalent of 17 full-time positions. Such consultants observe classroom dynamics and help teachers adjust schedules, change room lay-outs, and otherwise tweak instruction to better handle challenging children.

That’s what helped in Davidon’s case. Her son, now a first-grader in the Jeffco school district, didn’t end up getting expelled from preschool. Instead, as things deteriorated during his four-year-old year, she called in a friend who worked as an early childhood mental health consultant in Douglas County.

The friend observed Davidon’s son in his classroom several times over a month and then provided the teachers and Davidon with input and suggestions. Some, like a smaller class size, weren’t doable, but others, like better preparing the children for transitions and taking a different tack when the boy got physical, were implemented.

Davidon’s son still had moments of bad behavior after that but the frequency and duration of incidents decreased, said Davidon. Part of it, was helping the teachers frame his physically hurtful behavior not as a personal attack but an issue that would deescalate with calm correction.

“I’m not sure if [he] changed…what I do think changed is that the teachers felt a little more confident in how we addressed things when they came up,” she said.

While research suggests that mental health consultation can help reduce expulsions, there’s concern that the state’s cadre of consultants is too small to help all the providers who could use support. Davidon added that most parents can’t be expected to know about, much less arrange such interventions as she did.

“I can’t imagine if I weren’t working in the field and I didn’t know some of these people, who I would have called,” she said.

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.