Local roots

In a long-neglected Denver neighborhood, an innovative preschool offers sanctuary

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Assistant teacher Eā€™Monna Moore plays with a child at the Sewall Child Development Center at the Dahlia Campus.

The new preschool in northeast Denver is nestled in one wing of a sleek modern building with neat rows of peas, turnips, and spinach flourishing in a huge garden out front.

In gentrifying Denver, the scene is familiar—sparkling new construction rising up from the site of a razed shopping plaza.

But the story of this preschool and the new Mental Health Center of Denver facility in which it sits isn’t about satisfying the demands of the city’s new arrivals. If anything it’s the opposite—an effort to meet the needs of existing residents who have long been overlooked and underserved.

They are the families—nearly half of them African-American and many low-income—that call Northeast Park Hill home.

Opened in January, the Sewall Child Development Center at the Dahlia Campus is taking an approach its leaders say is unique in Denver and perhaps the nation: providing one neighborhood in need with a high-quality full-day preschool that serves all kids together, including those with challenging behavior and other special needs.

Photo credit: PB Smith/Sewall Child Development Center
Photo: PB Smith/Sewall Child Development Center

Although a small number of preschool programs in Colorado do offer this type of inclusive program, they usually draw students from a wide area.

At the same time, neighborhood-based preschool programs often exclude, counsel out or expel challenging children who may be given to explosive tantrums, aggression or chronic crying.

“A lot of preschools just place a huge emphasis on obeying, complying with adult requests,” said Christine Krall, who heads the Dahlia campus program. “We get kids who (have been) kicked out of three preschools.”

The center also serves kids who previously attended specialized programs far outside northeast Park Hill. While the programs may have worked educationally, they didn’t work geographically — forcing parents to miss school meetings or family nights and weakening the bonds between neighborhood families whose children with special needs were spread out across Denver.

“We want kids to go to school where they live,” Krall said.

Heated conversations

Officials from the Mental Health Center of Denver began considering building a new community facility on the site of the former Dahlia Shopping Center in 2013.

In a series of community conversations that lasted more than a year, local residents were plenty skeptical. They worried about the stigma of a mental health center in the neighborhood. What they wanted were places to buy healthy food and more early childhood choices, especially for kids with special needs.

As talk turned to the possibility of including a preschool in the new space, they feared they’d lose the preschool spots to more affluent residents who live in the Stapleton redevelopment farther east.

Lydia Prado, vice president of child and family services at the Mental Health Center of Denver, said community members painted a picture of the future they predicted.

She relayed what they told her: “There are a lot of people in Stapleton who work downtown. They’re going to come down (Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.). They’re going to drop their child off and they’re going to go to work. They’re going to be able to pay and you’re going to take them.”

But Prado didn’t want that scenario either. So she and the residents made a deal. When publicizing the new preschool, mailers would be sent only to residents in the 80207 zip code, which covers a large swath of northeast Park Hill.

PB Smith/Sewall Child Development Center
Photo: PB Smith/Sewall Child Development Center

The new complex, called the Dahlia Campus for Health and Well-Being, opened in January. Besides the preschool, it offers an array of health and mental health services and includes a vegetable garden, greenhouses and a fish-farming operation.

Sewell Child Development Center, a longtime Denver nonprofit specializing in inclusive education, runs the preschool. Denver Public Schools, which provides funding for some of the preschool slots, and the mental health center are both partners in the program.

It’s not a simple or cheap program, which explains why there aren’t more centers like it. It requires a complicated mix of state, school district, city and private funding to pay for the extra staff needed to maintain high adult-child ratios, including a raft of specialists such as speech therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists and social workers.

Currently, about a dozen employees staff three preschool rooms at Dahlia. Together they have of 45 slots—most filled by children from the neighborhood who attend for free or pay a small portion of the cost. A fourth classroom will open eventually.

“I think it’s great to have an alternative that’s inclusive—that has that intensity of mental health support, said Cheryl Caldwell, director of early childhood education for Denver Public Schools. “It’s good for families and kids.”

Opening doors for parents

Charella Hysten enrolled her 2-year-old son, Jair, at the Dahlia campus preschool about a month ago on the advice of a special education advocate.

Landing a spot there has allowed her son to get speech therapy consistently, where previously it was impossible. Bringing therapists to the house or meeting them in libraries set the stage for explosive outbursts from her 10-year-old twins, who have severe behavioral issues.

The preschool slot, along with inpatient treatment for her twins elsewhere, also allowed Hysten to start a job as a cook at a Qdoba restaurant after eight years at home.

“It allows me to make a paycheck…and possibly boost my self-esteem because I’ve been in the house feeling like nothing,” she said.

Hysten knows Jair likes his time at the preschool because of how easily he parts from her each day.

“He tells me ‘Bye,’” she said. “As a mother of seven, when you drop off your child and he says ‘Bye,’ that’s a good thing.”

Administrators at Sewell and the Mental Health Center of Denver say for many preschool families at the Dahlia campus, the program gives them respite from the raised eyebrows and instant judgement they face at restaurants, stores or elsewhere when their children act out.

“It’s not embarrassing to be here,” said Krall.

A twist on the Sewall model

Sewall runs 10 preschool sites around Denver, all of them with a mixture of typically developing kids and kids with special needs. Usually, about one-third of the students have a specific diagnosis such as autism.

Children play in the "Bear Cubs" classroom at the Dahlia Campus preschool.
PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Children play in the “Bear Cubs” classroom at the Dahlia Campus preschool.

At the Dahlia campus program, it’s a little different. There are fewer kids with diagnosable conditions and more kids with challenging behavior due to trauma such as abuse, chaotic living conditions or other factors. That makeup reflects the needs in the neighborhood.

Take teacher Kindal Matson’s classroom. Only two of nine students have a diagnosis, but four additional students need extra help regulating volatile emotions. One little girl has trouble when it gets too noisy, throwing things off shelves, running away or climbing on tables.

That’s part of the reason there are two teachers plus an additional staff member—a therapist or special education teacher—for every 15 kids. The three, all trained to teach social and emotional skills proactively and avoid punishing kids, work as a team with all the children.

“Each day a specialist comes in and works right alongside us,” Matson said. “They change diapers just as we do.”

The work can be draining at times. At a recent debrief with a social worker, Matson’s teaching team talked about coping with the daily ups and downs.

“You’re a sponge and you’re absorbing all these children’s needs and their disregulation, and you might have gotten bit three times today,” she said.

Still, Matson finds the work rewarding and is happy she moved to the Dahlia campus preschool in June after a stint at a more traditional preschool. The program’s emphasis on including all kinds of kids was what appealed most to her.

It also comes with benefits for both children with special needs and their typically developing peers, she said.

The girl who struggles with noise almost always manages to keep her emotions under control when she plays with a certain even-keel friend. Meanwhile, the mother of that friend reported to Matson that her daughter has grown more patient with her little brother since she came to the preschool.

Acknowledged at last

With seven months since the Dahlia campus preschool opened, there’s a sense that the puzzle pieces are falling into place.

There’s still an alphabet soup of funding sources to contend with, some empty slots to fill and new hires to make. But amidst such challenges are moments like the one Prado experienced after the center opened.

She said the mother of a little girl with special needs approached her one morning to say thank you. Tearing up, the woman confided that she’d long felt invisible.

She told Prado, “No one has seen me before and no one has seen my daughter…You have seen us. I never thought that would happen.”

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.