rural roadblock

It seemed like a sure thing. Now a Colorado bill limiting early childhood suspensions and expulsions is on life support.

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post

Legislation that would significantly limit suspensions and expulsions for Colorado’s youngest students has hit a late and possibly fatal roadblock — opposition from the state’s rural school districts.

While House Bill 1210 is still alive, it’s been assigned to a Republican-controlled Senate committee that has a track record of killing legislation that leadership opposes. The assignment to the Senate State Affairs Committee is a major setback for supporters who believe the legislation would put Colorado on the forefront of early childhood discipline reform.

Although advocates garnered substantial bipartisan support among lawmakers and worked for months gathering feedback from school districts and other groups, a late-breaking push by a coalition of rural school districts sidelined the effort.

The group had an opportunity to weigh in earlier, but did not. Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance, said she knew about the bill and was included in supporters’ outreach efforts, but didn’t initially voice opposition on behalf of her members.

“I wouldn’t say we ever supported the bill, but we weren’t taking an active approach,” she said. “This was just one I didn’t vet well enough.”

Murphy said she and some lawmakers began hearing major concerns from rural superintendents as the bill wound through the legislative process, with many district leaders saying the new rules would tie educators’ hands.

“Sometimes we need to suspend or expel young students,” Murphy said. “It’s a tool that’s in our limited toolbox.”

On March 21, the same day the Democratic-controlled House approved the bill, the alliance’s board of directors voted unanimously to oppose it. Two days later, the bill was assigned to the Senate State Affairs Committee.

“I learned a few lessons here,” Murphy said. “I somewhat regret the late nature of it all.”

Although rural school districts educate only about 20 percent of Colorado students, they hold sway at the state Capitol, especially among Republicans. This year, two Senate Republicans who represent rural areas were given leadership positions.

State Rep. Susan Lontine, a Denver Democrat and one of the bill’s sponsors, said she was disappointed about the bill’s likely fate.

“I thought we had support with all the diverse stakeholders,” she said. “We sat down with (the Rural Alliance). We went through a draft of the bill and asked them what their concerns were and addressed them. I was frankly very surprised where the pushback was coming from.”

House Bill 1210 would curb out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for students in kindergarten through second grade, as well as preschoolers in state-funded programs. It would permit out-of-school suspensions only if a child endangers others on school grounds, represents a serious safety threat or if school staff have exhausted all other options.

In general, suspensions would be limited to three days. Expulsions would be prohibited under the bill except as allowed under federal law when kids bring guns to schools.

State Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, said he hopes the bill could make it through the committee. He’s lobbying committee members and Senate leadership, he said.

“I think it’s good policy, there’s data there, and this is a good conversation for the Senate to have,” he said.

While some of his co-sponsors are open to amending the bill to meet the demands of the rural superintendents, Priola said he was hesitant to provide rural schools districts exceptions.

“It’s hard to cut out a section of the state on something that should be a no-brainer,” he said.

Murphy, the alliance’s executive director, said she doesn’t think the bill could be amended in a way that the alliance would support. Bill backers floated one possible change last week — involving the expulsion standard — but her board rejected it, she said.

Senate President Kevin Grantham, in a statement to Chalkbeat, said House Bill 1210 and a sister measure that would provide culturally appropriate discipline training for teachers would get a fair hearing.

“These bills include provisions that could have justified assignment to a number of committees, but we concluded that State Affairs, on balance, was the right place to send them,” he said. “People often jump to conclusions about what such committee assignments mean, but I trust the bills will get a fair hearing there and I believe stakeholder discussions continue to take place that could potentially improve their chance of success.”

Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign, one of many groups that pushed for the bill, said one of the biggest concerns for school districts during the bill-drafting process was to ensure that suspensions would still be allowed if young students posed a safety risk.

While the bill addresses that concern, he said, “We have more work to do apparently than we thought.”

For supporters, the bill’s passage would be a milestone in the years-long discussion in Colorado and the nation about the disproportionate use of harsh discipline tactics on boys of color.

But some superintendents said the bill wasn’t a good fit for rural districts.

Rob Sanders, superintendent of the Buffalo district in northeastern Colorado, said he’s had young students flipping desks over or trying to stab other children in the eye with scissors. In such cases, especially when other parents are threatening to pull their children out of the school for safety reasons, suspension or expulsion can be necessary, he said.

The bill, however, would give districts the ability to suspend children behaving in the way Sanders described.

Sanders also said Bill 1210’s time limits on suspensions — from three to five days — are more rigid than what’s in the nation’s special education law.

A better solution would be more funding for schools, including for more school social workers, he said.

Chris Selle, superintendent of the Meeker district in northwestern Colorado and a member of the Rural Alliance’s board, said the overuse of suspensions and expulsions is not an issue in his district.

“Is it a situation where the Front Range has a cold and we have to take the medicine?” he said.

Selle said educators in Meeker think carefully before handing out suspensions, and that for kindergarten to second grade students, they rarely exceed one day.

In addition, he said, when suspensions are given, they often help lead to a productive partnership with parents.

Last year, 7,800 preschool through second-grade students in Colorado received out-of-school suspensions and 14 were expelled, according to the Colorado Department of Education. Boys, black students and students with disabilities were over-represented in those discipline cases.

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.