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Secretary of Education John King to visit Denver, tout Colorado’s new mandatory child care rating system

PHOTO: EWA/Katherine Taylor

Colorado’s efforts to improve the quality of its early childhood programs will get a moment in the spotlight Monday when U.S. Secretary of Education John King swings through Denver as part of a two-day tour calling attention to the issue.

King will tout Colorado Shines, the state’s year-old mandatory child care rating system that sets a high bar for providers seeking its top score and gives parents the chance to comparison shop.

Like other child care quality rating and improvement programs across the country, the initiative was kickstarted with money from Race to the Top, one of the Obama administration’s signature education initiatives.

King will visit Denver’s Mile High Early Learning, a Montessori-inspired center, on Monday morning. There, he will visit a preschool classroom accompanied by Anna Jo Haynes, the center’s president emeritus. Haynes is a fixture in the Colorado education community and the mother of Happy Haynes, an at-large Denver Public Schools board member who previously served as board president.

King then will take part in a roundtable discussion about early learning in Colorado, to be held at Denver’s Early Childhood Council at the Tramway Nonprofit Center in Denver’s Cole neighborhood. He will be joined by Deputy Assistant Secretary of Education Libby Doggett, Colorado Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, Interim Education Commissioner Katy Anthes and Department of Human Services Executive Director Reggie Bicha. (Editor’s note: state officials said Friday that Lynne will not be able to attend the roundtable).

In the works since 2010, Colorado Shines launched in February 2015 and is mandatory for the state’s roughly 4,600 licensed child care providers — both child care center and home-based providers. The new system replaced a volunteer program called Qualistar that was never widely used and — unlike Colorado Shines — charged providers a fee.

Child care providers are rated on a scale of 1 to 5 through Colorado Shines. The lowest level signals only that a provider is licensed by the state and meets basic health and safety standards. The highest ranking means the provider has gone through an in-depth process to demonstrate quality in everything from teacher-child interactions to financial record-keeping.

As Chalkbeat previously reported, the overwhelming majority of providers were given scores of 1 in the program’s first year. Backers of the system say that is understandable, as providers learn and adjust to new expectations.

In an interview Thursday, DHS executive director Bicha said he expects more providers to rise in the rating system as “friendly competition” develops in the child care market.

“People want to be better, know they can be better and challenge themselves to be better,” he said. “I think that is what we are going to see in Colorado Shines.”

Bicha said finding and affording trained, highly qualified staff is the biggest challenge facing providers. He noted that Colorado has taken steps to address that, including providing larger reimbursements for centers investing in high-quality staff, curriculum and food.

The state also has established micro-grant and micro-loan to help child care providers invest in their businesses.

Still, Colorado consistently ranks near the bottom nationally in state spending on preschool programs.

This will be King’s first visit to Colorado since his confirmation in March to succeed Arne Duncan as education secretary. Following his Denver visit, King will head to Delaware on Tuesday to highlight that state’s early childhood initiatives.

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.”

Enter to win

Denver organization to launch national prize for early childhood innovation

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

A Denver-based investment group will soon launch a national contest meant to help scale up great ideas in the early childhood field — specifically efforts focused on children birth to 3 years old.

Gary Community Investments announced its Early Childhood Innovation Prize on Wednesday morning at a conference in San Francisco. It’s sort of like the television show “Shark Tank,” but without the TV cameras, celebrity judges and nail-biting live pitch.

The contest will divvy up $1 million in prize money to at least three winners, one at the beginning stages of concept development, one at a mid-level stage and one at an advanced stage. Gary officials say there could be more than one winner in each category.

The contest will officially launch Oct. 25, with submissions due Feb. 15 and winners announced in May. (Gary Community Investments, through the Piton Foundation, is a Chalkbeat funder.)

Officials at Gary Community Investments, founded by oilman Sam Gary, say the contest will help the organization focus on finding solutions that address trouble spots in the early childhood arena.

The birth-to-3 zone is one such spot. While it’s an especially critical time for children because of the amount of brain development that occurs during that time, it’s often overshadowed by efforts targeting 4- or 5-year-olds.

Steffanie Clothier, Gary’s child development investment director, said leaders there decided on a monetary challenge after talking with a number of other organizations that offer prizes for innovative ideas or projects.

One foundation they consulted described lackluster responses to routine grant programs, but lots of enthusiasm for contests with financial stakes, she said.

“There’s some galvanizing opportunity to a prize,” she said.

But Gary’s new prize isn’t solely about giving away money to create or expand promising programs. It will also include an online networking platform meant to connect applicants with mentors, partners or investors.

“We’re trying to figure out how to make it not just about the winners,” Clothier said.