The Other 60 Percent

Recession hitting Colorado kids hard

Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children's Campaign
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children's Campaign

Colorado is quickly losing its ability to provide adequately for its youngest residents, according to the first systematic measurement of the Great Recession’s impact on children in the state.

The 2011 Kids Count report, released Thursday, shows the number of youngsters statewide living in poverty rose by 31,000 between 2008 and 2009, cementing Colorado’s distinction as the state with the fastest-growing level of childhood poverty.

More than a quarter – 28 percent – of Colorado’s children live in a family where no adult has full-time employment. And in 2010, there were more than 18,400 homeless students enrolled in public schools in Colorado, up 53 percent from the 2006-07 school year.

While the bulk of them were living doubled-up as guests in other people’s homes, nearly a thousand were living in motels and 684 were living in cars or campgrounds or abandoned buildings.

“While economists proclaimed the end of the Great Recession more than a year ago, the end was nowhere in sight for many Colorado families, and especially for our children,” said Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, which releases the report annually.

“Though economic indicators can change quickly, the impacts on lives are often much longer-term.”

Even for parents who are working, affordable child care continues to be an issue, with child care costs increasing twice as fast as the median income in the past 10 years.

In 2009, the state was the fourth least-affordable state for full-time infant care at a center and fifth-least affordable for a 4-year-old’s care. At roughly $12,000 per year, full-time care for an infant in a daycare center eats up an average of 44 percent of a single mother’s income.

Measuring the recession’s impact

The Kids Count report provides state and county-level data on 40 components that contribute to the well-being of children, including health, education and economic status.

Gov. John Hickenlooper
Gov. John Hickenlooper

“The minute the resources come back, we’ll put them back into schools.”

While the data is collected annually, it typically lags a year or more behind by the time the report is released. Thus, last year’s report measured data collected before the full effects of the nation’s recent financial crisis and the resulting recession took their toll.

The 2011 report gives a more accurate picture of the challenges now confronting the state.

“This has a significant impact on the state’s quality of life,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said at a morning press conference in the state Capitol.

“And quality of life is a significant driver in why businesses want to move here.”

Hickenlooper acknowledged the irony of receiving the report on the heels of his proposed state budget, which would cut $332 million from K-12 education funding in Colorado.

“You are held captive to your resources,” he said, noting that no other budgetary category could yield that much in cuts. “The minute the resources come back, we’ll put them back into schools.”

Kids Count is a national state-by-state project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation to provide data about and track the status of children in the United States. The Colorado Children’s Campaign has been producing the state report since 1993.

Some ‘advantages’ of poverty

Not all the news in Colorado is gloomy, Watney said. She pointed to a number of indicators in which Colorado is showing improvement, including a drop in the number of children who lack health insurance.

That is one of the few advantages of poverty, experts note. Families whose income in the pat was too high to qualify for public insurance now may find themselves eligible for Medicaid or other programs.

Homemade paper dolls greeted lawmakers Thursday, reminding them to focus on children.

As a result, just 12 percent of Coloradans under 18 now lack health insurance. That’s still greater than the national average of 10 percent, but it’s a significant decrease for Colorado in the past two years.

Today, 38 percent of Colorado children are enrolled in Medicaid or CHP+, a low-cost insurance program for children whose families do not qualify for Medicaid.

Also, the number of children enrolled in full-day kindergarten – as opposed to half-day – has increased 70 percent since 2007, to 41,729 children.

Benefits of full-day kindergarten include greater academic success, improved social skills and a more stable daily schedule. Full-day programs also can lessen the financial burden on a family struggling to pay for child care.

Watney steered clear of editorializing about the findings. Nowhere in the report are there recommendations for policy changes. Rather, the report is all about the data.

“What gets measured, gets changed,” she said.

Hickenlooper said he hopes the state can use the data contained in the report to spot trends and act on them.

“We should hold ourselves to a higher level of accountability,” he said. “We should be able to predict outcomes based on data like what is in the Kids Count report.”

Other highlights of the report:

Demographics:

  • In 2009, there were 1,242,976 children in Colorado, putting the state in the top 10 in terms of growth of the child population since 2000.
  • Colorado’s children are 30 percent Hispanic, 59 percent non-Hispanic white, 4 percent black, 3 percent Asian, 1 percent American Indian and 3 percent of mixed race.
  • Since 2000, the proportion of non-Hispanic white children in Colorado has declined by 7 percent and the proportion of Hispanics has increased 6 percent. Others have remained stable.
  • 73 percent of Coloradan under age 18 live in a household headed by a married couple, and 28 percent in a single-parent household.

Immigrants

  • The majority of children in immigrant families are long-term residents. Only 2 percent – 5,000 children – had parents who arrived in this country less than five years ago.
  • Eighty-seven percent of children in immigrant families were born in the United States.
  • The bulk of children in immigrant families – 67 percent – are Latin American. Eight percent have European parents, 14 percent have Asian parents and 4 percent have African parents.
  • Nineteen percent of school-aged children in Colorado speak a language other than English at home.

Family economics

  • The number of children in families with incomes at 250 pecent or more of the Federal Poverty Level ($55,125 for a family of four) is decreasing, going from 56 percent in 2008 to 55 percent in 2009. But the number of children living in extreme poverty (incomes under $11,000 for a family of four) is growing, up from 5 percent in 2008 to 8 percent in 2009.

Geography of poverty

  • The areas most impacted by economic changes caused by the recession are on the Western Slope.
  • The counties with the highest poverty rates are in the San Luis Valley and the urban cores.

Ethnicity of poverty

  • Black and Hispanic families have been more impacted by the recession than white families. The total increase in children living in poverty rose by 17 percent, but for non-Hispanic white children, the rate of increase was  just 12 percent. It was 27 percent for black children, and 17 percent for Hispanic children.

Child health

  • The teen birth rate has been in steady decline since 2000. In 2009, 50 percent of  babies in Colorado were born to women in their 20s, and almost 30 percent were born to women in their 30s. Only 3 percent were born to girls 17 or younger.
  • Childhood obesity continues to plague Colorado. Although the state was ranked with the second lowest rate of overweight or obese children in 2003, by 2007 it ranked tenth, with 27 percent of children above a healthy weight. One national survey puts Colorado’s rate of increase in childhood obesity as second fastest in the nation, behind Nevada.

How I Help

Why this high school counselor asks students, ‘What do you wish your parents knew?’

Today, we launch a new series called “How I Help,” which features school counselors, social workers and psychologists across Colorado. It is a companion to our popular “How I Teach” and “How I Lead” series.

Through “How I Help,” we hope to give readers a glimpse into the professional lives of school staff members who often work behind the scenes but nevertheless have a big impact on the day-to-day lives of students.

Our first “How I Help” features Cassie Poncelow, a counselor at Poudre High School in Fort Collins. She was the 2016 Colorado School Counselor of the Year and is one of six finalists for the 2018 National School Counselor of the Year award.

Poncelow talked to Chalkbeat about how she creates a legacy of caring, what teens want their parents to know and why peer-to-peer mentoring is better than a social-emotional curriculum taught by adults.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?
I was incredibly fortunate to have many powerful educators shape my life in my time as a student, but none did more so than my school counselors. My counselor from high school remains a dear friend and mentor. I knew that I wanted to be a part of what is happening in education and loved the diversity of the school counselor job. They get to collaborate with so many different stakeholders, get to know students in really cool ways and be involved with so many aspects of making change.

Cassie Poncelow

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
Three years ago, we noticed that students were dropping out continuously because they were short on graduation credits and tired of taking the same classes over and over again. I worked with a team to create Opportunities Unlimited, which is a dropout recovery program for students ages 17-21 that is focused on GED completion and concurrent enrollment opportunities. A fifth cohort started this fall and the program has graduated 26 students in two years.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
Our Ambassadors program is in many ways the backbone of our climate and culture at Poudre High School. This program trains 50 upperclassmen to mentor freshmen through a year-long curriculum that includes topics like stress management, suicide prevention and sexual assault. This mentoring model means that every freshman has an ambassador that is connecting with them for almost three hours each month. The ambassadors deliver comprehensive, peer-to-peer education that is far beyond and better than any social-emotional learning curriculum that counselors could facilitate. As the co-leader for this program, I also couldn’t live without the hope that this crew gives me. They are the best part of my job.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school(s) where you work?
I am grateful to work in a place and with people who see the vital role of school counselors and are eager to partner with them. In my time at Poudre High School we have added two new school counseling positions, further demonstrating our school’s belief in the work we do. I have worked at schools in the past that created a lot of systemic barriers to accessing school counselors and I think this was based on a misconception that we were a more frivolous part of services for students.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?
I often ask my students, “What do you wish your parents knew?” What I hear consistently is a plea for them to remember what it was like to be 16: How painful and awkward it was, how boys were all the rage and not getting invited somewhere really was the actual worst.

So, I advise parents to remember that. And remember that a lot of what they dealt with at 16 is even more complicated by the world our kids are experiencing. Social media wasn’t a reality when they were kids and our current students have never known a world where mass shootings haven’t happened often. I know it’s no, “I walked uphill both ways without shoes in the snow,” but this is a scary time to be student — different, but equally hard. Our kids need us to hear them in that. And believe that they can change it.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
At my core, I think we all thrive on authentic relationships and I do whatever I can to create these with my students. I want each of my students to feel like I am truly in their corner and a champion not only of what they do but more so of who they are. I hope to not only live this, but to model it for my students in ways that inspire them to do the same.

This semester I have a freshman boy who was consistently skipping class (who knew gas station tacos were such a draw?) and failing multiple classes. His “consequence” is that he has to spend a period working on missing work in my office. I also have a slew of seniors who have made my office their home during this fifth hour, many who are excellent students and are just looking for a place to study. They have taken this freshman under their wing and are committed to his success far beyond what I could ever be. They are constantly asking about his upcoming exams, what he needs help with and celebrating his rising grades with him. I think I have built really authentic relationships with these upperclassmen who then remember what it means to feel connected and cared for and are passionate about showing this student just that. I often stress “legacy” to my students and this seems like a clear picture of that.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Kid stuff is hard. I hurt for kids a lot, as I think all educators do. They live lives far beyond our walls and far beyond what we could imagine and ever control. That’s the hardest. Close second would be trying to operate in a system that seems to be driven by folks who aren’t doing the work. I recognize that there are so many moving pieces and would love to have some of the actual “decision-makers” come spend the day in our role and better understand the work we do.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A year ago, I had a student who was really struggling with some significant mental health issues. I knew that we needed to bring in a parent but the girl was very anxious about this idea, to the point where she had literally crumpled up on my office floor. After calling her mom to meet with us, I joined her on the floor of my office to talk more. Her mom walked in shortly after, assessed the scene and sat right down on the floor with us, despite the chair-filled room. This move shifted everything and I was so grateful for her wisdom to be where her kid was at. It was a good reminder to me to do that always: be where kids are at.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
A lot of my unwinding still includes my students as I announce volleyball games or attend other sporting events or performances. I love these opportunities because they let me see my kids in a different light and remind me how awesome they are. I also spend as much time outside as possible, whether it’s going for a quick hike with my pup or a bike ride. Beyond traveling and reading, I cheer hard for the CSU Rams! Go State!

Big money

Millions in grant dollars will bring more counselors to Indiana’s underserved students

KIPP Indy was one of several schools in the county to receive a counseling grant.

Scores of Indiana schools were awarded private grants that will allow them to bolster counseling services for students, many of whom are lacking help for an increasing portfolio of problems, including fallout from the state’s drug epidemic and basic needs like advice on college applications.

The $26.4 million in grants, decided last month, include six for Marion County districts and charter schools. They were awarded by Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy founded by key players in the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly.

The grants went to 52 school districts and five charter schools, covering about a third of the state’s counties. Based on enrollment, they ranged from about $68,000 to almost $3 million.

Lilly began its push to help schools build better counseling programs last year.

“The response from school corporations and charter schools far exceeded the Endowment’s expectations,” said Sara B. Cobb, the Endowment’s vice president for education. “We believe that this response demonstrates a growing awareness that enhanced and expanded counseling programs are urgently needed to address the academic, college, career, and social and emotional counseling needs of Indiana’s K-12 students.”

As Chalkbeat previously reported, school counselors have been stretched exceedingly thin in recent years, both in Indiana and across the country. On average, each Hoosier counselor is responsible for 630 students, making Indiana 45th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia for counselor-to-student ratios. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of no higher than one counselor for every 250 students.

So far, state-led efforts to expand counseling have fallen short; a bill proposed in 2015 to require a counselor in every school was withdrawn for further study, and the issue hasn’t resurfaced significantly in the legislature since. At the time, cost was the sticking point.

Schools and districts had to apply for the grants and show how they would use the money. Lilly reported that mental health and business partnerships, mentoring programs, improving curriculum and adding in more training for staff were all strategies that grant-winners have proposed.

Initially, 254 districts and charter schools applied, many pointing out how Indiana’s recent opioid crisis has increased social and emotional challenges for students. Counselors have to juggle those serious needs with college and career advising and, increasingly, responsibilities that have nothing to do with counseling, such as overseeing standardized tests.

Because of the level of interest, Lilly is planning a second round of grants, which would total up to $10 million.

“Because the implementation grant process was so competitive, the Endowment had to decline several proposals that had many promising features,” Cobb said. “We believe that with a few enhancements, many of these proposals will be very competitive in the second round of the Counseling Initiative.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Indianapolis Public Schools: $2,871,400
  • KIPP Indianapolis: $100,000
  • Lawrence Township: $1,527,400
  • Pike Township: $1,114,700
  • Neighborhood Charter Network: $68,312
  • Southeast Neighborhood School of Excellence: $99,870

IPS said in a news release that it planned to use the grant money to build counseling centers in each of the district’s high schools, which would begin operating in 2018 after IPS transitions to four high schools. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said counselors are “critical” for students as they prepare to graduate high school and pursue higher education and careers.

“We’re thrilled that the students and families we serve will benefit from this gift,” Ferebee said.