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.

crisis mode

Adams 14 proposing expanding mindfulness and other programs for student well-being

First grade students practice reading in Spanish in their biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary School in Adams 14. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

The Adams 14 school district is proposing an expansion next year of mental health staffing and two programs, including mindfulness, meant to help students get out of “crisis mode.”

After significant pushback in the current year on cuts that were meant to have schools sharing mental health professionals, every school will have their own next year.

Kim Cini, the district’s assistant director of student services believes, however, that the work of helping students with mental health problems, can’t be only the responsibility of a particular staff member in a school.

“You are never going to have enough mental health workers, ever. You just aren’t,” Cini said. “We are at a time and place in education, in the nation, that it’s time for all of us to step up and get involved. You need your classroom teachers, your parents, volunteers, front office staff, everybody.”

That belief is behind Cini’s push to introduce mindfulness programming in the district’s middle schools. That programming is meant to teach students to also take charge of their own mental well-being and to teach them ways to cope with stress.

In elementary school, Cini helped introduce a curriculum called Random Acts of Kindness to help younger children learn social and emotional skills including coping with trauma, a common challenge for students in the district where more than 86 percent qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a measure of poverty.

Three elementary school principals — from Dupont, Alsup and Kemp — tried out the Random Acts of Kindness this year, and Cini said they’ve seen results. Now, she is planning to expand the program to more schools next school year.

Pat Almeida, principal of Dupont Elementary, one of the three schools using the Random Acts of Kindness curriculum this year, said students get 30 minutes daily to learn coping skills, talk about current events on their mind, and plan activities meant to show compassion for one another.

“My staff is so much more focused on that time as being part of our wraparound services for all kids,” Almeida said. “It’s just part of what we do.”

Almeida said for most students the program has big benefits, but said for some students, it’s not enough help. That means often teachers are able to identify those students who need extra help more quickly and to provide them the right resources.

Long term, Cini said she will be looking at surveys in those schools working on mindfulness or Random Acts of Kindness to see if students report an increase in feeling safe, calm, or in sleeping better.

“We need to get them to go to sleep and stop that hypervigilance and hyperarousal,” Cini said. “They’re just hyperaroused at every little thing. I mean every time Trump comes on with something about DACA, we’re off to the races over here. It’s just crazy.”

Principal Almeida said the work has also made staff reflect more about the work as well.

“As adults we think we understand compassion and empathy,” Almeida said. “But to actually think about it and teach it is different.”

Cini said staff across the district are, like students, also in crisis, and often making decisions based on urgency.

“When you’re operating in crisis mode, you are hypervigilant and you start responding and your decisions become shaped around that,” Cini said. “You see a couple of kids wear a gang-related color and as a leader you make a decision to ban the color red based on the actions of a couple of kids. That’s a pretty big thing to do. We have got to stop making decisions like that.”

Police in schools

The Denver school district is exploring the idea of creating its own police officers

PHOTO: Photo by Katie Wood/The Denver Post via Getty Images

School safety patrol officers in the Denver district would get the authority to arrest students and write tickets under an idea being explored by the district’s safety department.

The head of Denver Public Schools’ safety department says the goal would actually be to end the “school-to-prison pipeline” that criminalizes students for misbehavior at school.

The idea is that giving more authority to school safety officers who have experience with children and training in the district’s restorative justice model would mean outside police get called less often, even for matters that are potentially criminal.

This is not yet a formal proposal, but the idea is already generating pushback.

Local organization Padres y Jóvenes Unidos has worked for years to reduce harsh disciplinary practices in the district, and its staff say certifying safety patrol officers as police officers would represent a big step backward.

“To do this would undo everything you have stood on national platforms bragging about,” said Monica Acosta, the organizing director at Padres y Jóvenes Unidos. “Going down this road would double down on policing and criminalizing students of color.”

About 77 percent of the 92,600 Denver Public Schools students are children of color. Approximately 67 percent of students come from low-income families.

Police in schools is a controversial topic in Denver. Staff and students at an alternative school called RiseUp Community School are speaking out this week about an incident in which Denver police searched for a student the principal told them wasn’t there. The principal said police officers pulled their guns on a teacher during the search.

The incident sparked intense backlash – and an apology from Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

“What happened should not have happened,” he said at a school board meeting Thursday night. He said the district will participate in a city investigation of the incident and work “to ensure something like this does not ever happen again.”

RiseUp student Mary Jimenez said she and her peers were left feeling disrespected and unsafe.

“Because we are students of color and students of low-income, we get harassed and pushed around and we’re expected not to fight back,” Jimenez told the school board.

Although the incident involved city police officers, not district safety officers, community activists said it’s an example of why law enforcement doesn’t belong in schools. Armed officers create a hostile learning environment, they said.

But Denver Public Schools Chief of Safety Mike Eaton said school policing is different than municipal policing. Whereas city police would be more likely to use the criminal justice system to respond to a report of a student getting into a physical fight or having illegal drugs on campus, Eaton said district officers would be trained to first look to the discipline policy.

The policy emphasizes that consequences should be age-appropriate and that the focus should be on correcting student behavior. “Interventions should provide students an opportunity to learn from their mistakes,” the policy says, “and re-engage the student in learning.”

The district safety department employs about 135 staff members, Eaton said. Of those, 35 are armed safety patrol officers who are not assigned to a particular school but respond to incidents across the district. Those are the only officers the district would seek to certify as police, he said. Unarmed school-based campus safety officers would not be certified.

Authorizing any new group as police officers requires approval from state lawmakers.

Denver Public Schools already has 16 “school resource officers,” which are city police officers assigned to work in its large high schools and a few middle schools. Eaton said his aim would not be to increase the number of school resource officers but rather to give the district’s own security staff the discretion to handle police matters.

“We have the opportunity to directly impact the school-to-prison pipeline, to eliminate or reduce it,” Eaton said. School policing, he said, “focuses on restorative and redemptive practices in dealing with students. Students are young. They’re going to make mistakes.”

Several large, urban school districts across the country have their own police forces, including districts in Cleveland, Atlanta, and Miami. Before moving forward with a proposal in Denver, Eaton said he’d seek input from students, parents, and community members.

He has floated the idea by the Denver school board. The board president and vice president said they’re open to discussing any ideas that would make students safer. But president Anne Rowe said she understands why the community might be concerned.

“I can appreciate the initial reaction of folks when they think about an urban district thinking about certifying their officers,” she said. “That’s going to require a lot of community engagement and getting down to: What are we trying to accomplish by doing that?”