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.

out of pocket

Pencils, shelving, wiggly chairs: What Colorado teachers bought for their classrooms — and why

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Aurora kindergarten teacher Laura Henry provided the pencil totes, floor dots, balls and wiggle seats, and everything you see on the shelves out of her own pocket.

The rugs and bean bag chairs, the workboxes full of hands-on learning games, the file folders that help her track student progress — all came out of special education teacher Laura Keathley’s own pocket.

Robyn Premo, a high school science teacher, buys styrofoam and cans, glass rods and balloons, patches of fur and s’mores ingredients — just about all the materials except beakers that her students need to do hands-on experiments.

Marcea Copeland-Rodden, a middle school social studies teacher, bought an air-conditioning unit for her classroom because it was so hot students were getting bloody noses.

And everyone buys loads and loads of pencils.

“I don’t think that not having a pencil is a reason a kid should not learn today,” Premo said.

There’s nothing new about teachers spending money on their classrooms, but as rising housing prices and stagnant wages put more pressure on working families and as academic expectations rise even in kindergarten, teachers have to dig deep to meet their students’ basic needs and outfit their school rooms.

A national survey by the U.S. Department of Education found that 94 percent of teachers spend their own money for their students, with the average teacher spending $479 in the 2015-16 school year, the most recent data available.

When the Colorado Education Association surveyed more than 2,000 members in 2017, they reported spending an average of $656 out of their own pocket on classroom supplies.

The usual caveat applies: These numbers are self-reported.

To better understand what this looks like in Colorado classrooms, Chalkbeat reached out to teachers around the state to ask how much they spent out of pocket, what they bought, and why.

The teachers who responded to Chalkbeat’s survey work in districts large and small, urban and rural, and spent anywhere from $75 to $2,000. Most respondents spent several hundred dollars, and the majority said they do not get a stipend for school supplies.

Their spending covers the most basic of classroom supplies — pens, pencils, glue sticks, crayons, paper, folders, notebooks — but also the things that make classrooms feel inviting, that make learning engaging, that help a kid get through the day. Teachers bought snacks and spare clothes, earbuds for students to listen to audio books as part of reading lessons, wiggly chairs and yoga balls for fidgety learners, classroom decorations, tissues and wipes, prizes for good work and good behavior, fish for the fish tank, storage bins and shelving and fabric for makeshift blinds.

Premo teaches chemistry and physics at Westminster High School. Her department gets a $3,000 supply budget for the high school’s 2,400 kids. She emphasizes that she thinks her school is doing everything it can, but if she didn’t reach into her own pocket, her students would mostly experience science in online simulations.

“That is not, in my opinion, sufficient for rigorous, authentic science instruction, so I make the personal contributions to give my kids those learning opportunities,” she said.

Premo spent $2,000 getting ready for the school year, the most of any teacher who responded to Chalkbeat’s survey. She said she’s able to contribute more than many teachers, so she does.

“There are some fantastic online simulations, but kids learn better when they get to put their hands on things,” she said.

Fur patches help demonstrate static electricity, and s’mores help illustrate principles of chemical reactions. All these materials add up, and many of them are consumed in the process of lab work.

If Premo didn’t spend her own money, “we would run out of pencils very quickly. And we would run out of lab materials, and they would not be able to do anything hands-on. And we would lose our ability to be creative. We would work very bare-bones. It would be a lot of listening, a lot of videos.”

Laura Henry teaches kindergarten in Aurora Public Schools. It’s her 29th year in the classroom, and as kindergarten has moved away from play and more toward academics, she’s spent more and more of her own money on curriculum supplies.

Her school provides $500 a semester to each grade level, which has to be shared among three teachers, and the money goes fast. Teachers also get $10 a month for copying, which she burns through quickly, so she bought her own printer just for school use.

Because most of the students come from low-income families, the school tries to keep the school supply list modest, closer to $25, but only about three-quarters of the students bring in supplies.

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Aurora kindergarten teacher Laura Henry’s classroom after it has been cleaned during the summer. With the exception of the red shelf, a few alternative seating items, and the pencil coat rack, these items are school purchased.

She spent about $500 of her own money getting ready for the school year, on everything from folders to hold student poems to snacks and wipes to materials for dramatic play, building toys, puppet theater, books, and more.

“Kindergarten is supply-heavy because we use construction paper and glue like there is no tomorrow,” she said.

Many of our survey respondents said they don’t use online fundraisers like Donors Choose because the only people who donate are friends and family, and teachers feel bad hitting them up over and over again. Henry encounters the same dilemma, but she did turn to it this year for $550 in science and engineering supplies: gears, a light table, animal X-rays, a microscope and more.

Another advantage of Donors Choose: The money she puts into it herself is tax deductible, unlike the rest of what she spends on her classroom.

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Kindergarten teacher Laura Henry purchased the housekeeping table and chairs, everything on the wall and shelves, the books in the bin, tool bench, and playground buckets for her Aurora classroom.

Henry said she used to sometimes feel resentful about spending her own money, when her friends get reimbursed for their work expenses, but now she “rolls with it” as part of the teaching profession.

But she sees the lack of supplies as one more stumbling block for young teachers.

“I see these new teachers come in, and they’re so ready and eager to make a difference, and they don’t know how they get supplies or how they get copies,” she said. “I don’t know that our school board is even fully aware of how much we’re lacking at the classroom level. I don’t need 8,000 consultants to help me. I need my classroom funded.”

Keathley runs a multi-needs special education room with two paraprofessionals at Avery-Parsons Elementary in the Buena Vista district in the Arkansas Valley. She spent $485 getting the classroom ready this year. A lot of that money went to filing systems that help the teachers keep track of each student’s needs and progress. It also went to bulletin board supplies. These boards serve as the “411 wall” with everything kids need to know for the day, from what their classroom job is to what outside appointments they have.

PHOTO: Laura Keathley
The bulletin board in Laura Keathley’s Buena Vista classroom serves as a 411 wall for her students. She purchases all the supplies for the board herself.

Keathley and her team used their own money to outfit the “crash corner,” where students go when they need to decompress with fidget toys in a giant bean bag chair, and to make workboxes with activities that students can work on independently throughout the day.

Keathley said she hardly asks her parents for any school supplies.

“We know that a lot of times parents of kids with disabilities, we know their money goes other places and they spend so much on special things for their kids, we don’t want to ask them,” she said.

Without her own investment in the classroom, it would be a very different place.

“I could go with what the school provided me and stay within my budget, but my classroom would not be the place I would like it to be,” she said. “We wouldn’t have rugs. We wouldn’t have nearly the supplies to give snacks or do cooking in the classroom. Our desks would be much more utilitarian, and we wouldn’t have much on the walls.”

Copeland-Rodden teaches seventh grade social studies at Pueblo Academy of the Arts in southern Colorado.

She spent $500 this year, more than most, because she dropped $350 on the air conditioning unit. It might seem like an extravagance, but after years of buying more and more fans, for minimal relief, it felt like a necessity.

“It’s just really hot in the classroom,” she said. “We have kids get bloody noses, that’s how bad it is. By sixth and seventh period, everybody is done. They don’t do their work. They fall asleep. They get cranky and angry at each other. It makes it tough on everyone.”

She also bought materials for Civil War shadow puppets and other projects that will make history come alive, but most of her classroom spending is on basic supplies. She doesn’t feel like she can ask parents, most of whom are low-income, to pay for supplies when she only has their child for one period a day. Out of 130 students, one brought in a box of tissues at the start of the school year.

“I spend so much on pencils,” she said. “It’s not just once. I go through a big 50-pack of pencils every month. Every class there’s at least one kid who has lost a pencil. I’ve given up trying to get back the pencils.”

She used to ask kids for something in exchange for the pencil to prompt them to return it, but too many kids had nothing to give.

“One boy said, ‘Here’s a shoe,’ and I said, ‘I don’t want your shoe,’” she said. “I have kids walking from class to class with nothing.”

Teaching has been this way for a long time, and the teachers who talked to Chalkbeat don’t see it changing anytime soon.

“If we all collectively agreed we weren’t going to pay for school supplies, maybe eventually someone would do something,” Premo said. “But I don’t want to risk this year’s kids to make that point.”

Free for All

A benefit of free lunch for all: fewer students get repeatedly suspended, new study suggests

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote
Students eat lunch at the Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy in Detroit.

Allowing an entire school to eat for free, instead of restricting free lunch to students whose families fill out forms, can reduce the number of students who get suspended multiple times, according to a new study.

It’s the latest evidence that universal meal programs, which have also been linked to higher test scores and better health in other research, help students.

“There are many potential benefits to providing universal free meals in high-poverty schools, including achievement impacts … and of course whatever reduction in kids going hungry comes with it,” said Nora Gordon of Georgetown University, who wrote the paper along with Krista Ruffini at the University of California at Berkeley.

The study, which was released last week by the National Bureau of Economic Research and has not been formally peer reviewed, focuses on the federal free lunch program’s “community eligibility” initiative, which allowed schools where many students qualified for free or reduced price lunch to provide the free meal to all students. This was designed to reduce the stigma of receiving the meals among low-income students, streamline paperwork, and ensure no student went hungry. (Previous research has shown that in California, for instance, 13 percent of students who were eligible for subsidized lunch didn’t receive it for one reason or another.)

Gordon and Ruffini took advantage of the fact the the program was rolled out slowly, starting in 2012. This allowed the researchers to compare the suspension rates of the initial schools that took up the program to those in states that adopted it later. The paper also tries to account for the fact that at this time, many states and districts were already making efforts to reduce exclusionary discipline.

The study estimates that in elementary school, the chances of being suspended multiple times fell by about a third of a percentage point in elementary school and half a percentage point in middle school. Those aren’t big changes, but only a small share of students receive multiple suspensions in the first place.

Gordon and Ruffini say community eligibility may have had broader effects because it helped students nutritionally and also because it improved “the social climate of the school by reducing the stigma associated with free meals.”

There was some evidence that making entire schools eligible for free lunch reduced in-school suspensions, too, but the program didn’t seem to reduce the number of students who were suspended just once or have any effect on suspensions in high school.

One limit of the study is that it relies on federal civil rights data, which only reports the share of a school’s students suspended once and the share suspended more than once. This data has also been shown to be inaccurate in some cases, as schools may input wrong information. The results also vary somewhat based on the group of schools that the researchers focus on.

But the finding is consistent with a handful of other studies pointing to benefits of community eligibility, including the preliminary data from other papers that have yet to be published. It’s also in line with other research showing that the timing of receiving food stamp benefits — and therefore, when families may be most able to eat well — affects poor students’ test scores and behavior.  

The community eligibility program has continued to grow. Still, in the 2016–17 school year nearly half of eligible schools didn’t participate.