Getting ready for school

How one program is training mothers, aunts and grandmothers in the ABCs of child care

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

On a recent morning, 15 women gathered in a mint green classroom at First Lutheran Church in Longmont to learn more about the fundamentals of child care. They talked about mapping out daily schedules with time for reading activities, group play, meals and naps. They traded tips about the inexpensive educational materials available at Dollar Tree stores.

This was no Saturday morning babysitting boot camp. It was part of a 120-hour training course that will eventually earn participants a national child care credential.

What made the class unique was the women enrolled. Ranging in age from 20-something to 60-something, they were Spanish-speaking mothers, aunts and grandmas who care for the young children of friends and relatives in their homes. Some do it for free. Others earn a small wage.

Most are undocumented immigrants, and as a result not eligible to become licensed childcare providers in Colorado. Still, they are a critical part of Colorado’s early childhood workforce — one that is often overlooked in the policy realm.

In Colorado and nationally, so-called Family, Friend and Neighbor care is legal and ubiquitous. It cuts across racial and socioeconomic lines, with many parents choosing it because they know and trust the caregiver. While more than half of young Colorado children with working parents receive such care, the providers are often isolated and invisible.

“There’s not a database. They’re not connected to any system,” said Liz Houston, executive director of the Early Childhood Colorado Leadership Alliance.

This under-the-radar existence has meant little public awareness or support for such providers — and by extension the thousands of children in their care.

Two PASO participants work on an activity together at a recent class in Longmont.
Two PASO participants work on an activity together at a recent class in Longmont.

But with the growing push to make sure children are ready for school no matter what kind of child care they get, that’s changing.

The training session in Longmont is one example. It’s part of a program called Providers Advancing Student Outcomes, or PASO, run by the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition. Funded mostly by grant money in four Front Range locations, it’s received national notice and represents one of the few initiatives targeted to Spanish-speaking providers.

“There’s not another program that’s as intensive as PASO out there,” said Valerie Gonzales, director of operations for the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition.

There are other efforts, too, several coordinated by some the state’s early childhood councils. One, launched by the Denver Early Childhood Council with private grant money, was a shorter, less formal series of trainings for Family, Friend and Neighbor providers in two Denver neighborhoods. Both drew Spanish-speaking providers, although they were open to all providers. The Boulder, Arapahoe and Weld county councils have also led the way in working with Family, Friend and Neighbor providers, Houston said.

Houston’s organization, which works on behalf of Colorado’s 31 councils, also embarked on a recent effort to help unlicensed providers. Using $250,000 in federal money, the group awarded mini-grants to some Family, Friend and Neighbor providers who were seeking to become licensed.

Empowering providers

While the women in the church classroom got ready to break for lunch, PASO graduate Maria Perez recounted her own experience in the program six years ago.

Maria Perez, a PASO graduate, cares for children of current PASO participants.
Maria Perez, a PASO graduate, cares for children of current PASO participants.

She was caring for her aunt’s three children as well as two of her own at the time.

“We didn’t know anything when we started,” she said. “It’s true. The first day I came I was like, ‘Wow, we know nothing about early education.”

But she stuck with it, earning a perfect attendance certificate and coming to appreciate how each class connected to the last like a series of train cars. Today, Perez, who arrived here from Mexico 11 years ago, heads the team that provides child care in the church nursery during PASO classes. She seeks out other PASO graduates to assist her because she knows they’re well-trained.

Perez is an enthusiastic evangelist for the program and the parent empowerment it promotes. Since she took the course, which is led by instructors known as “tias” or aunts, she’s referred 10 other women.

She also urges parents of her young charges to get involved in their kids’ schools and in the community. She points to her 17-year-old son — a responsible boy who’s helpful with his younger siblings and taking Advanced Placement classes at school.

“This is thanks to the fact that I am always involved,” she said. “And I am always trying to learn in any program…I always tell that to the parents; ‘Go to the classes and pay attention.’”

Flor Marquez, community engagement coordinator for Denver’s Early Childhood Council, found the same kind of enthusiasm in the training sessions she led in northeast and southwest Denver over the summer.

Participants, who learned about topics such as child abuse prevention, nutrition and discipline, saw the power in educating themselves, she said.

“They didn’t want the group to end,” she said

In fact, the southwest Denver group didn’t end. The women in it decided to keep meeting weekly even after its official conclusion. There’s no more grant money to support it, but Marquez helps out when she can.

Expensive work

Preliminary findings from an outside evaluation also show PASO is working. Besides significantly increasing providers’ scores on performance assessments, it showed that children in their care made gains too, especially on social-emotional skills.

It’s not cheap. The classes, coaching and materials cost about $10,000 per person.

“There is sticker shock,” said Gonzales.

Currently, PASO is grant-funded and gets some additional dollars from the Boulder Valley and St. Vrain Valley school districts. In Aurora, the program is now on hiatus because the grant money recently ran out.

Gonzales wishes state money were available to help.

Some critics have argued that undocumented immigrants don’t deserve such support, but Gonzales notes that the children served by such providers are typically born here and will attend school here. Most come from low-income Latino families and will be on the wrong side of the achievement gap if they don’t get a strong start.

Marquez said much of the state funding available to help child care providers improve is focused on those who are already licensed or heading in that direction.

“I definitely think it creates a huge challenge…because these are grassroots programs that require a lot of time and effort for recruitment and sustainability,” she said.

With no master list of Family, Friend and Neighbor providers, groups that want to work with them spend lots of time on outreach — going to churches, laundromats, community events and even door-to-door.

Houston, who is hoping to secure another round of state funding for mini-grants, said while the state has done a tremendous job making improvements to its licensed child care system, more needs to be done for Family, Friend and Neighbor providers.

“It’s in the best interest of all of us to support providers across the board,” she said.

All over the map

What do children need to know when they start kindergarten? You might be surprised

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

How many letters should kids recognize when they enter kindergarten? Should they be able to cut with scissors? How long should they be able to sit still?

Such basic questions seem like they should come with clear-cut answers, but parents and teachers — and even Colorado state standards — differ widely in their expectations for entering kindergarteners

Early childhood leaders in Larimer County discovered just how much variation exists after they surveyed 800 local parents, preschool teachers and kindergarten teachers in 2015.

“The answers were all over the map,” said Bev Thurber, executive director of the Early Childhood Council of Larimer County. “A lot of times it was way above what research says is developmentally appropriate.”

Such findings spotlight the lack of consensus about what it means to be ready for kindergarten. The survey found parents and preschool teachers generally had higher expectations for youngsters than kindergarten teachers or state standards, suggesting that some parents and preschool teachers may be focusing too much energy on teaching academic skills to young children.

“Our concern is not only do you have this variability, but also this pressure on the academic side … when that’s really not the most important thing, especially at this young age,” said Thurber.

To help parents sort it all out, Thurber and a team of early childhood teachers and advocates created a new eight-page parent guide called “Ready Set Kindergarten.” Available in English and Spanish, the whimsically illustrated booklet gives parents tips for building academic and social-emotional skills — things like simple counting, recognizing the letters in a child’s name, naming feelings and taking turns. It also includes a month-by-month schedule for the pre-kindergarten year highlighting logistical details like registration windows and meet-the-teacher opportunities.

All three Larimer County school districts, — Poudre, Thompson and Estes Park — have agreed to use the guide, which is being distributed through preschools, elementary schools, doctors’ offices and libraries.

But some experts say too much emphasis on getting children ready for kindergarten relieves schools of their obligation to serve students regardless of their background or experience.

“It’s critical for schools to take responsibility for being ready for children – not the other way around,” said Sherry Cleary, executive director of the New York Early Childhood Professional Development Institute at the City University of New York.

Cleary reviewed the guide and worried that it would create unneeded stress for families and set up teachers to have unrealistic expectations for kids.

Thurber said many teachers and parents already have unrealistic expectations for entering kindergarteners, according to survey results. The guide scales those back, she said, and offers a more reasonable list of activities that are based on state standards and Colorado’s early learning and development guidelines.

“This is what experts have said is developmentally appropriate,” Thurber said.

“I completely buy in that schools have to meet kids where they are at,” she said. ”However, within that, there is a certain anxiety among families when you have all these differing expectations.”

Karen Rattenborg, executive director of the Colorado State University Early Childhood Center and an assistant professor at the university, saw the disparity in expectations when she analyzed the survey data.

Take letters, for example. State standards say kids should recognize at least 10 letters when they start kindergarten, specifically the letters in their name. Survey results showed most parents and preschool teachers believed entering kindergarteners should recognize more than 20 letters. Kindergarten teachers opted for a lower 11-20 range.

The same dynamic held true for counting — about half of parents and preschool teachers thought kids should be able to count higher than 20 while state standards say 10 is enough.

In some cases, both preschool and kindergarten teachers placed a high value on tasks that state standards and other common benchmarks don’t mention. Both groups rated cutting with scissors as the second most important fine motor skill for entering kindergarteners, but state standards and the state’s early learning guidelines are silent about scissors.

“It’s things like that where we had these a-ha moments,” said Rattenborg.

In some cases, there was agreement. For instance, the vast majority of both preschool and kindergarten teachers said the ability to communicate needs and wants was the top communication skill kindergarteners need.

Rattenborg said the diversity of views made one thing clear.

“We realized having a common guide throughout Larimer County would be helpful for virtually everyone involved,” she said.

Diane Umbreit, a kindergarten teacher at Kruse Elementary School in Fort Collins and a member of the committee that conceived the guide, agreed.

Over the years, she’s seen plenty of confusion and anxiety among parents. Some push their kids hard to acquire new skills before kindergarten. Some want to do learning activities with their children, but aren’t sure where to start.

Others, she said, are “shocked that their child needs to know the letters in his name.”

Umbreit said of the new kindergarten guide, “Hopefully, it evens the playing field.”

Enter to win

Denver organization to launch national prize for early childhood innovation

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

A Denver-based investment group will soon launch a national contest meant to help scale up great ideas in the early childhood field — specifically efforts focused on children birth to 3 years old.

Gary Community Investments announced its Early Childhood Innovation Prize on Wednesday morning at a conference in San Francisco. It’s sort of like the television show “Shark Tank,” but without the TV cameras, celebrity judges and nail-biting live pitch.

The contest will divvy up $1 million in prize money to at least three winners, one at the beginning stages of concept development, one at a mid-level stage and one at an advanced stage. Gary officials say there could be more than one winner in each category.

The contest will officially launch Oct. 25, with submissions due Feb. 15 and winners announced in May. (Gary Community Investments, through the Piton Foundation, is a Chalkbeat funder.)

Officials at Gary Community Investments, founded by oilman Sam Gary, say the contest will help the organization focus on finding solutions that address trouble spots in the early childhood arena.

The birth-to-3 zone is one such spot. While it’s an especially critical time for children because of the amount of brain development that occurs during that time, it’s often overshadowed by efforts targeting 4- or 5-year-olds.

Steffanie Clothier, Gary’s child development investment director, said leaders there decided on a monetary challenge after talking with a number of other organizations that offer prizes for innovative ideas or projects.

One foundation they consulted described lackluster responses to routine grant programs, but lots of enthusiasm for contests with financial stakes, she said.

“There’s some galvanizing opportunity to a prize,” she said.

But Gary’s new prize isn’t solely about giving away money to create or expand promising programs. It will also include an online networking platform meant to connect applicants with mentors, partners or investors.

“We’re trying to figure out how to make it not just about the winners,” Clothier said.

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