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.

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.