Early education

In 3 years IPS tripled the size of its preschool, yet hundreds of spots remain unfilled

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Preschoolers at School 55

It was four weeks into the year for preschoolers in Indianapolis Public Schools, but it was four-year old Taysia’s first day in the program at School 55.

At an illuminated table full of translucent blocks, she stood with three other children intently building towers. The kids played quietly until — “Hey, that was mine!” a boy suddenly exclaimed.

With most of the blocks in use, Taysia had taken one from her playmate.

Teacher Carol Eberhart quickly stepped in to navigate the dispute and urged Taysia to ask her friends for a turn with the blocks.

“Maybe let’s ask together,” she said.

It may have seemed like an ordinary classroom squabble but Eberhart was teaching some of the most important skills that children learn in preschool. As she worked with Taysia and the other kids, she wasn’t just making peace. She was teaching conflict resolution, patience and the skills kids need to communicate with their peers.

If she does her job well, Eberhart said most of her preschool students will finish the school year with more of the soft skills it takes to succeed in school, including social skills.

“Eventually there will be six kids in the kitchen, and … they can cooperate and work together and take turns,” she said. “Patience, working together, using your words — right now that’s what they are really working on.”

Preschool is a big political issue across the state, with Indiana lawmakers and education advocates jockeying over how much to expand the state’s preschool pilot during the next legislative session.

Meanwhile, the state’s largest school district has more than tripled the size of its preschool program in recent years. By 2015, enrollment in IPS preschool had climbed to more than 800 kids from about 237 students in 2012, according to district data.

The program expanded so quickly, the district has struggled with filling all of the available spots.

Nearly a month into the year, the free IPS program still has 240 empty seats in classrooms that have space for a total of 845 kids, according to IPS curriculum officer Tammy Bowman.

The availability exists even as other free preschool programs are at capacity. A state and city program that uses a lottery to give vouchers to families for public or private preschool programs had thousands more applicants than available vouchers last year.

With 15 students enrolled, Eberhart’s class at School 55 still had room for five more kids.

The program is free for any student who lives within the district boundaries. IPS spends about $4,586 per student and the money to pay for the program comes from federal funding for educating low-income students, Bowman said.

In a district that serves many students who are already behind national standards when they enter kindergarten, leaders say that preschool is an essential tool for helping kids catch up.

When the district compared kindergarteners who went to preschool to those who didn’t in 2014-2015, it found that kids who had been to preschool were far better prepared to learn to read. Nearly half of IPS kindergarteners who hadn’t attended preschool were behind grade level when it came to early literacy skills such as recognizing the initial sounds in words, knowing the alphabet and vocabulary, Bowman said. In contrast, 68 percent of kids who had been to preschool had mastered those literacy skills.

Preschool can also be a way for new parents to learn what school will be like, Bowman said.

“It helps get families ready,” she said. “(Preschool) helps provide them kind of that bridge to getting used to the school experience and working with schools.”

moving on up

Jeffco on track to move most of next year’s sixth-graders into middle school buildings

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Jeffco Public Schools is moving forward with plans to put the majority of its sixth-graders in middle schools instead of elementary schools starting next fall, a shift district officials say will both better utilize building space and ease what can be a rough transition for kids.

The change, announced more than a year ago, will bring the state’s second largest school district into alignment with how most Colorado districts split up elementary and middle school.

Jeffco will continue to operate models that break that mold, including longstanding K-8 schools and a newer experiment with 7th through 12th grade schools officials say has shown promise.

Some critics continue to voice concerns about the plan, including questioning the cost and comparing that to what they say will result in a questionable benefit for students’ educations. District officials, however, say parents are getting their questions answered and educators are hearing fewer concerns than before.

The issue has come up at forums for school board candidates running this fall, and Jeffco staff last week at a regular board meeting updated the school board.

Marcia Anker, who started in July as the district’s sixth grade transition coordinator, said that some Jeffco schools individually started asking to make the change more than 10 years ago. Some individual middle schools had already been allowed to start enrolling sixth graders.

District officials say they estimate 3,355 students due to be sixth graders next year will be attending a middle school in 2018-19 instead of staying in an elementary school.

Many of the players involved in the initial discussions to move sixth grade out of elementary schools aren’t in the district anymore, including former superintendent Dan McMinimee.

Current district leaders say it was a conversation that began with district officials who oversee use of buildings, but that the decision wasn’t driven by building concerns.

Still, building use is a factor. Tim Reed, executive director of Jeffco facilities said middle school buildings in Jeffco were designed to hold three grade levels and have been underutilized.

“I think the conversation has always been about what’s best for students,” Reed said. “There was a recognition that there was significant underutilization in our middle school buildings. This was a way to accomplish two things including to better utilize middle schools.”

National research on middle school grade configurations has not been keen on sixth through eighth grade models. One study comparing students in sixth through eighth grade schools to students in schools that are K-8 schools found that student test scores weren’t different, but found more negative perceptions among students in traditional middle schools.

Jeffco board members and staff who have touted the benefits that sixth graders will see in a middle school point out that students will get a chance to start exploring their career interests with elective classes and have more time to develop relationships with staff in the middle schools.

Karen Quanbeck, interim chief school effectiveness officer and a previous middle school principal in the district, said at last week’s board meeting that two years with students is not enough.

“It seems like you’re welcoming them and in the blink of an eye you’re sending them off to high school,” Quanbeck said.

But some schools will need to continue with the seventh and eighth grade model for at least one more year. Because the empty middle school seats aren’t evenly spread throughout the district, some schools will require expansions to make room for new sixth graders.

The school board has already approved the funding to build a $10 million addition to Drake Middle School and a $4.5 million addition to Dunstan Middle School to accommodate the changes. Another $2 million in reserves will be used to make minor fixes at five other schools.

Three schools — Ken Caryl, Creighton and Summit Ridge — will delay their transition to the new model because the district estimates it needs to find another $15.5 million to add eight classrooms to each school.

Two years ago, in a bid to help lift student achievement, the district merged some schools to create two seventh-through-12 schools: Alameda and Jefferson junior and senior high schools. Those schools will retain that model.

Principals at those schools say they are seeing small benefits from the change. Though the neighborhoods are traditionally higher in poverty and mobility, Anker said that principals tell her students are staying in the school at a higher rate than before.

Still, Anker said one model is not better than another.

“Matriculation models that offer the fewest transitions are what benefits kids,” Anker said.

While there may be some benefits to having every Jeffco middle school offer the same grades — for instance, so parents choosing different schools across the district have consistency — the cost of doing that would also be prohibitive, Anker said.

“We also value the differences in our communities,” Anker said.

The district in the coming months will need to find a way to fund the remaining middle school expansions. Officials also will help some sought-after schools decide if they will cut down the number of seventh and eighth graders they enroll, or ask for help to build out space as well.

vegetarian options

Want your Brooklyn school to go meatless on Mondays? Here’s your chance.

PHOTO: Helen Richardson, The Denver Post

Goodbye, ground beef and popcorn chicken. Hello, crispy tofu and roasted chickpea tagine.

Starting next spring, 15 Brooklyn schools will begin “meatless Mondays” — an effort to make school lunches and breakfasts a little healthier and friendlier to the environment, officials said Monday.

The city has not yet picked the schools that will participate in the pilot program, and an education spokeswoman said the city will make decisions based on interest and public input. (Whether the city is prepared for a barrage of requests from health-minded Park Slope parents is another matter.)

The announcement comes less than two months after city officials made lunch free for all students regardless of income. Monday’s press conference was held at Brooklyn’s P.S. 1 — one of three district schools that only serves vegetarian fare — and drew Mayor Bill de Blasio, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

“Cutting back a little on meat will help make our city healthier and our planet stronger for generations to come,” de Blasio said in a statement, adding that meat will no longer be served at Gracie Mansion on Mondays.

You can read more about the program here.