Data Void

New push to quantify, prevent preschool expulsions in Colorado

When Sarah Davidon’s son was in preschool in Douglas County, he would often bite or hit other kids. Once he pinched a teacher on the arm. Another time he punched her in the stomach.

Although the teachers tried to be patient with his outbursts, Davidon worried that the center’s director would ask that the boy be removed from care—what many might call an expulsion.

“There was a period when we were getting calls almost daily,” Davidon said. “[The director] was getting increasingly frustrated…She would say, ‘Other parents are getting upset and I have to decide if this can continue.’”

The irony is that Davidon is a faculty member of the University of Colorado School of Medicine who studies preschool expulsions and early childhood mental health. She’s also board president of the Colorado Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health.

In those roles, she’s well aware that the odds of getting expelled from preschool are higher than the odds of getting expelled from the K-12 system. A 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Education also revealed that minorities and boys are disproportionately expelled from preschool.

It’s statistics like these that prompted a recent federal push for states to address the issue, a process now unfolding in Colorado. Last fall, a letter from two top federal officials was sent to states urging the development of preschool expulsion policies, analysis of expulsion data, and scaling of preventive practices.

In addition, the recently reauthorized federal Child Care and Development Block Grant—the main source of funding for the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program—includes a requirement for states to publish preschool expulsion policies, and permits some grant funds to be used for teacher training around the issue.

Currently, that there are no statewide policies on preschool expulsion in Colorado or mechanisms to collect expulsion data from childcare providers. The two state studies conducted over the past decade show a decreasing rate of preschool expulsions—suggesting that preventive strategies may be working.

Still, advocates say two data sets with relatively low response rates aren’t enough to provide a full picture of the preschool expulsion landscape or make firm conclusions about the impact of prevention strategies.

“When it comes to data, we are in the dark and that’s one of the concerns,” said Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

“We want to be able to advocate for strategies that mitigate the use of suspensions and expulsions. We want to be able to evaluate those,” but that’s difficult without baseline data, he said.

But Noel Nelson, CEO and president of the Early Childhood Education Association of Colorado, said requiring providers to report expulsions could add a new layer of unnecessary regulation and lead to state interference in a provider’s carefully considered decision.

“The decision to disenroll a child…is not taken lightly by owners, managers, teachers,” he said. “There’s just this assumption that providers are quick to disenroll and move on.”

Naming the problem

Preschool expulsions and the events leading up to them are worrisome for several reasons. For parents and providers, they are stressful, time-consuming, and potentially expensive. For children, expulsions can delay needed mental health services, threaten continuity of care and hinder positive social-emotional development.

Some experts say expulsions may also foretell a future of school struggles. Charlotte Brantley, president and CEO of Clayton Early Learning, said it’s likely that many of the children suspended or expelled from preschool will be the ones later suspended and expelled during the K-12 years.

“There’s bound to be a thread,” she said.

Despite disagreement among the state’s early childhood players about whether statewide expulsion reporting is needed and how much state oversight is necessary on preschool expulsions generally, most agree that any strategy should include training and other resources for early childhood teachers.

“You can have all the expectations in the world and if you don’t support early child care settings…you won’t necessarily get the results you’re after,” said Brantley.

State officials, child advocates, and provider representatives also agree that whatever happens around preschool expulsions in 2015 will rely on input from all quarters of the early childhood world.

“We’re naming a problem and we want to bring everyone to the table to think about what to do about it,” said Jaeger.

Limited data

Despite the lack of routinely collected state-specific data on preschool suspensions and expulsions, there are a few sources of information that help provide general outlines of the problem.

  • The 2014 data snapshot from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found that nationally black students make up 18 percent of the preschool population but 42 percent of those suspended once and 48 percent of those suspended multiple times.
  • The same report found that boys make up 54 percent of the preschool population but 79 percent of those suspended once and 82 percent of those suspended multiple times.
  • A 2006 study co-authored by Davidon found that 10 of every 1,000 children were removed from licensed Colorado child care settings, compared to a K-12 expulsion rate of nearly three per 1,000 students. (The provider response rate to the study survey was 17 percent.)
  • The 2006 study found that home-based providers had higher rates of expulsion (35 per 1,000) than child care centers (six per 1,000).
  • A follow-up study in 2011 (not yet published) found a significant drop in removal rates from licensed child care—four per 1,000. (The provider response rate to the study survey was 17.9 percent.)

Davidon, director of community education with JFK Partners in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, called the reduction found in the 2011 survey good news. Still, she said, “What we still don’t do is collect information on this every year…We can’t stop expulsions from happening if we don’t know when and where they’re happening.”

There has been some talk about adding an expulsion category to the state’s electronic incident reporting system currently used to report when a child is injured at preschool or day care. But officials from the state’s Office of Early Childhood, which is housed in the Colorado Department of Human Services, aren’t sure that’s the way to go.

Jordana Ash, director of early childhood mental health for the Office of Early Childhood, said she’d like to focus on collecting “lead measures” that anticipate the possibility of expulsion rather than “lag measures” such as the expulsion itself.

“We’re very invested in understanding this phenomenon and understanding really what leads to a child being at risk of expulsion,” she said. “Our efforts will be capturing the right data.”

In terms of what lead measures the state might collect, Ash said the department’s data team and other stakeholders will need to consider that issue.

“That’s the work in front of us,” she said.

Tools for heading off expulsions

While the current spotlight on preschool expulsions is relatively new, some advocates have been working to address it for years. There are several strategies that seem to be effective, including teacher trainings focusing on children’s social-emotional development. These include programs like Pyramid Plus, The Incredible Years and “Expanding Quality for Infants and Toddlers.”

Ash, who studied preschool expulsion rates in Boulder County in her previous position, said the creation of a “warm line” that providers and parents could call to seek phone or on-site help with difficult child behaviors seemed to have an impact in the Boulder area.

Another option for providers is bringing in early childhood mental health consultants. The state funds the equivalent of 17 full-time positions. Such consultants observe classroom dynamics and help teachers adjust schedules, change room lay-outs, and otherwise tweak instruction to better handle challenging children.

That’s what helped in Davidon’s case. Her son, now a first-grader in the Jeffco school district, didn’t end up getting expelled from preschool. Instead, as things deteriorated during his four-year-old year, she called in a friend who worked as an early childhood mental health consultant in Douglas County.

The friend observed Davidon’s son in his classroom several times over a month and then provided the teachers and Davidon with input and suggestions. Some, like a smaller class size, weren’t doable, but others, like better preparing the children for transitions and taking a different tack when the boy got physical, were implemented.

Davidon’s son still had moments of bad behavior after that but the frequency and duration of incidents decreased, said Davidon. Part of it, was helping the teachers frame his physically hurtful behavior not as a personal attack but an issue that would deescalate with calm correction.

“I’m not sure if [he] changed…what I do think changed is that the teachers felt a little more confident in how we addressed things when they came up,” she said.

While research suggests that mental health consultation can help reduce expulsions, there’s concern that the state’s cadre of consultants is too small to help all the providers who could use support. Davidon added that most parents can’t be expected to know about, much less arrange such interventions as she did.

“I can’t imagine if I weren’t working in the field and I didn’t know some of these people, who I would have called,” she said.

Launch pad

In a tough business, startups vie to become the Uber and Lyft of child care

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Yemi Habte works with her daughters Charis Mandefro 9, and Anna Mandefro 2, as Stephanie Olson of Aurora, a MyVyllage mentor, watches during a mentoring session in Habte's home.

One summer morning, Yemi Habte sat at the kitchen table in her suburban Aurora home poring over a 10-page packet of child care forms with her mentor Steph Olson, a veteran child care provider who lives nearby.

Soon, Habte would open her own home-based child care business, Shining Little Lights, and Olson had come over to answer her questions. Habte wondered what to do if parents didn’t want to list their employers on the form? Or wanted their children to have only organic food? The pair also talked through emergency contacts, sunscreen procedures, and field trips.

The friendly kitchen table meeting, punctuated by cups of rich Ethiopian coffee and a snack of crisp roasted barley, didn’t happen by chance. It was the work of a new Colorado-based company called MyVyllage.

The idea is to make opening and running a high-quality home-based child care business easier and more lucrative. That means guiding providers like Habte through the complicated start-up process, helping them fill open spots, and simplifying back-office tasks such as billing and record-keeping.

Over the long haul, MyVyllage has ambitious plans: minting more than 100,000 new licensed home-based child care providers and a million new child care slots nationwide over the next decade. It’s a lofty goal in an industry marked by low pay, long hours, a maze of regulation, and a steady decline in the number of licensed home-based providers.

But MyVyllage isn’t alone in this enterprise. A growing cadre of for-profit and nonprofit groups — with names like WeeCare, WonderSchool, Early Learning Ventures, and Pie for Providers — are using what’s called a “shared services” approach to help new and existing child care businesses achieve efficiencies they couldn’t on their own.

Think buying supplies or insurance in bulk at a discount, streamlining the state child care subsidy process, or using a common pool of substitute teachers, mentors or coaches. While many of the groups offer similar services, some emphasize technology solutions, others focus on hands-on help, and still others offer a combination of the two.

Early childhood advocates and philanthropists are generally enthusiastic about this growing segment of the market, seeing it as an overdue innovation in a patchwork-quilt industry that lacks central infrastructure and economies of scale.

But it also raises a key question: Will tens of thousands of people accept the offer to enter and stay in a notoriously tough business?

Louise Stoney, who runs Opportunities Exchange, a national organization that promotes early childhood shared services alliances, believes it’s possible. She thinks that the approach can do for child care what companies like Uber and Lyft did for ride-sharing.

Shared services, she said, have been used for years in other sectors, but is relatively new in the early childhood world — one largely built on the failed model of small, stand-alone businesses.

“They’re tiny little businesses,” she said. “They don’t have scale. They’re not maximizing automation.”

The point of shared services, she said, is to ”really think about efficiency as a value that matters and as a way to drive more dollars into the classroom.”

Origin story

Two mothers, Erica Mackey and Elizabeth Szymanski, founded MyVyllage in 2017 after struggling to find child care themselves.

The pair met while working on business degrees at Oxford University and both have backgrounds in entrepreneurship. Mackey, who lives in Montana, co-founded a solar energy company that provides affordable electricity to households in Africa. Szymanski, who lives near Boulder, co-founded a company that allows companies to establish the value of their shares and helped build a plastics recycling company in Tanzania.

“I don’t have an early childhood background. I’m a business-builder,” Szymanski said. “But I’m a mom with two kids.”

MyVyllage’s glossy website, dotted with pictures of smiling providers and bright-eyed children, offers an appealing pitch to prospective home-based child care providers — perhaps teachers or mothers interested in staying home with their own young children.

“Make going to work the best part of your day,” it exclaims. “Focus on the children. We’ll handle the rest.”

Other up-and-coming companies in the sector make similar offers. WeeCare, a Los Angeles-based company that aims to open a million new child care homes nationwide over the next decade, tells prospective providers, “Earn up to $90,000 a year doing what you love.”

WonderSchool, with 140 child care businesses in California and New York City under its umbrella, sells its services this way: “You decide how you teach,” “Set your own schedule,” “Make more money.”

At least two dozen other groups around the country are working to support early childhood businesses with a shared services approach. Many focus on a single county or region, operate with the help of grant-funding, and don’t aspire to major expansion.

One such effort, run by a network of child centers called Early Connections, is based in Colorado Springs. The group, which has a grant from the Michigan-based W.K. Kellogg Foundation, works with 38 established home-based providers to improve quality and business practices. It’s a hands-on model, with monthly coaching sessions, regular gatherings for peer support, and an equipment lending library.

Diane Price, who heads Early Connections, doesn’t see her venture growing much bigger, but applauds the early childhood shared services movement. It’s a boon to providers, who often work in isolation, and helps gives families more child care choices, she said.

But child care trends in Colorado and nationwide suggest that companies like MyVyllage are in for a remarkably heavy lift.

Although many families prefer home-based child care, particularly for infants and toddlers, such providers are closing their doors faster than they’re opening them. From July 2015 to July 2017, the most recent numbers available, Colorado’s non-24-hour licensed home providers declined 13 percent to 2,159 homes — a loss of more than 300 homes, according to the Colorado Department of Human Services.

The on-ramp

Here’s how the MyVyllage model works: Prospective child care providers enter into a franchise agreement with the company. MyVyllage provides help with state licensing, access to back-office technology, and a choice of seven early childhood curriculums vetted by an adviser affiliated with the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. It also matches providers with a local mentor who will work with them for up to two years.

Currently, MyVyllage has three mentors and seven beginning providers, about half in Colorado and half in Montana.

Once new providers open their doors, they pay a fee to MyVyllage equal to 10 percent of their child care revenue. MyVyllage leaders say that providers will recoup that money and more through discounts and efficiencies facilitated by the company.

The idea, Mackey said, is to “get businesses working so they’re making more money than they would without us.”

MyVyllage also gives veteran providers a way to boost their income. To that end, mentors receive a quarterly fee from the company for assisting new providers, though company leaders declined to specify how it’s determined.

Szymanski estimated that some mentors will be able to make $20,000 annually by mentoring 10 to 12 providers a year. In practice, that would probably mean providing a few months of intense mentoring to two to three providers at a time. It’s up to mentors how many mentees to take on at once, she said.

MyVyllage leaders are still testing different ways of charging mentors for tools, discounts, and benefits available through the company’s platform.

Currently, Steph Olson and and her husband Roger Olson are MyVyllage’s only mentors in Colorado. They run a top-rated child care facility called Kids’ Castle out of their Aurora home.

The pair launched the business in 2010 after leaving jobs in corporate America.

Watching the Olsons interact with toddlers and preschoolers in the sunlit front room of their home, it’s easy to see why they would be selected as mentors. They have a warm rapport with the children, a strong grasp of child care rules, and a wealth of activities and materials to keep the kids engaged. They also have an enormous waiting list.

One July morning, Roger read a book about a monkey who likes to play drums to a gaggle of children elbow to elbow on the floor in front of him. The Olsons’ dog Sugar, who looks a bit like a stuffed animal, meandered quietly through the room. A little later, Steph took notice of a little girl who tearfully admitted that she missed her mother.

“Should we gave Anna a huggie?” Steph Olson asked the children nearby. “Anna is feeling a little sad.”

A fresh start

Steph Olson is eager to help new home-based providers like Yemi Habte, who with her husband Wondi Gebrue, is now licensed to serve up to 12 children at Shining Little LIghts.

“I love paying it forward,” said Olson.

She also appreciates the sense of community MyVyllage is building among participating providers.

As she counseled Habte recently at the kitchen table, she said, “If you’re ever in doubt, just call me or email me, I’m here for you.”

Habte and Gebrue came to the U.S. from Ethiopia last year with their four children, ages 2 to 20. They moved across the ocean to be closer to Gebrue’s family. Prior to the move, Habte had been the general manager of a school. Gebrue had been a state minister of agriculture.

Habte, who is calm and soft-spoken, discovered MyVyllage through an online ad. Before she joined, she was interviewed by MyVyllage staff and toured Kids’ Castle. Steph Olson said she knew Habte had the right temperament for the job when she paused during the tour to help a child clean up spilled paint.

“To see that, I knew she had heart,” said Olson.

All told, the Olsons have provided about 14 hours of in-person mentoring — some at Kids Castle and some at Shining Little Lights. They also exchange phone calls and texts, and sometimes meet informally over coffee.

Habte explained her desire to open her home for child care, saying, “It’s my lifetime goal to be with children.”

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Yemi Habte cleans up for snack time with her daughters, Anna Mandefro 2, and Charis Mandefro, 9, during a session with Stephanie Olson, a MyVyllage mentor in her home. (Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post)

After she and Steph Olson finished going through forms at the kitchen table, they moved into Habte’s family room, which had been transformed into a kid-friendly haven with colorful foam matting on the floor, an appealing display of children’s books, and a row of crisp white cubbies built by Roger Olson. The pale yellow walls were decorated with flower and butterfly decals and a Disney princess clock.

With Olson looking on, Habte practiced conversational exchanges on her 2-year-old daughter Anna, who examined a collection of pine cones, river rocks, and seashells at the table.

“Label what she’s doing,” suggested Olson.

“Do you want to touch this one?” Habte asked Anna as she handed her a pine cone. “Can you touch it?”

As the little girl looked over the items, Habte picked up a green and purple plastic magnifying glass and offered it to her daughter.

Digital generation

One of the things that excites funders and observers about the new crop of companies trying to strengthen the child care industry is that many are run by young tech-savvy entrepreneurs.

Stoney, of Opportunities Exchange, said she suspects that some millennials have come to see child care as ripe for innovation as they’ve become parents themselves.

Before that, she said, “Quite frankly, they really didn’t have a reason to care about our field. … It wasn’t until they started having kids and said, ‘Wait a minute.’”

The Denver-based funder Gary Community Investments has invested in several shared services newcomers, including MyVyllage and Wonderschool. It also awarded money to WeeCare and Pie For Providers through a national early childhood competition last spring. Gary also recognized Early Connections in the contest, but the organization didn’t win prize money.

Gary is also a Chalkbeat funder through the Piton Foundation.

Steffanie Clothier, child development investment director at Gary, said she’s encouraged some of these groups have plans to launch thousands of new child care businesses.

It’s exciting these groups are thinking about scale from the beginning, she said. Given their backgrounds and talents, they are the kind of founders that can say, “What is the kind of business model that can help a lot of providers?”

Jon-Paul Bianchi, a program officer at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, said, “I think we should have those kinds of ambitious goals … because the need is clear.”

Bianchi, who said Kellogg has funded shared services work for about seven years, said it helps build critical capacity in the child care world, including in communities that serve low-income families and children of color.

“It’s been tough to get other funders to engage in it. It’s not super sexy. It’s not super splashy … It’s real nuts and bolts stuff,” he said.

Deadlines

90 days until no paycheck: Time running out for Illinois child-care providers in subsidy program

PHOTO: Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images
Daycare children on a long leash and their caretakers enjoy a walk through a Chicago park

It’s hard to dispute the importance of training child-care providers on how to administer CPR or how to properly report suspected child abuse.

But Illinois officials are taking a no-holds-barred attitude toward enforcing the state’s latest round of safety training requirements, threatening to stop paying providers who don’t complete its to-do list in the next 90 days. Advocates worry that the state’s approach threatens a subsidized child-care program that serves 120,000 low-income children. The risk, they say, is further erosion of an already fragile and shrinking web of care, despite growing recognition and campaign pledges by Gov. Bruce Rauner that quality early education is crucial.

“It has been confusing — every letter they send out is confusing,” said Brenda McMillon, who runs a small, licensed center out of her Auburn-Gresham home and moonlights as a health and safety trainer for other independent providers. “I think it is great training, but I don’t like the way it was forced on people. You have to give it time to get it done and make it easy to get done.”

Three years ago, Rauner’s administration forced off tens of thousands of children from public child-care rolls when it rejiggered income eligibility criteria. The state ultimately reversed that decision, but many of those children never returned to the program.

Now Illinois could be headed toward further contracting subsidized child care if it cuts off providers who fail to comply with training rules.

The state began communicating the training protocol in January 2017. The original deadline to comply was Sept. 30.

As of July, only one-quarter of providers had completed the training, according to data provided to SEIU Healthcare, the union representing some of the providers. The state health services department, which administers the program, asked for an extension on a public records request from Chalkbeat for updated numbers and did not provide the request by deadline.

Meghan Powers, a spokesperson for that department, said her agency has sent 10 communications to providers in the last 19 months.

We have also promoted trainings on our website, social media and our child care phone line,” she said. The state also worked through a network of referral agencies to send email blasts and direct mailers.   

“Any privately funded child care center would be expected to be trained in these basic health and safety skills,” Powers said in a written response to questions, “and it’s only fair that children receiving child care through public funding receive the same level of care.”

Illinois’ last communication was dated Sept. 21. The state started verifying providers and gave them 90 extra days to submit any missing proof of training. After 90 days, the state’s letter read, “payments may be withheld.”

Brynn Seibert, the director of the child care and early learning division of SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana, said the letters and what have been continually moving deadlines are stirring up confusion and disruption.

“We’ve tried to engage the state about what that training looks like and how the training has been offered to providers, but what we’ve seen is that the state has moved forward without input,” said Seibert. “We’re concerned it is going to result in real chaos in the program and families and kids getting forced out.”

The state’s vast network of early childhood providers was rocked three years ago when Rauner’s administration changed income eligibility requirements for families seeking subsidized care then changed them back.

“That decision had a devastating impact on participation in the program,” said Dan Lesser, the director of Illinois policy and economic justice at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.

As of August, the state was serving about 122,600 children monthly, down 31 percent from 2015, when the income eligibility requirements changed.

Last year, to qualify for a state child-care subsidy, a family of five had to include a working adult and earn an annual household income of less than $51,000 or include a parent enrolled in a college or certification program.  

The number of participating providers plummeted, too. They’re down 56 percent from 2015 to 37,530 in June 2017, the latest public data available. Chalkbeat asked for an updated provider count but did not receive it by deadline.

Illinois developed its new training regimen to comply with a 2014 federal law.

But the way Illinois drafted its latest round of training requirements will harm the program, said Maria Whelan, who runs Illinois Action for Children, the state’s largest referral agency.

“This activity is going to have a dramatically compounding effect in terms of the shrinkage of this critical program,”  said Whelan, whose group administers the program in Cook County, trains providers, and helps connect families with child-care options.  

Whelan says that, beyond shifting deadlines, the reporting system is hard to navigate and requires providers to have access to a computer and internet. Many providers live in rural areas, access the Internet on their phone and only have computer access through public libraries. Or they are grandparents and not technologically savvy.

To qualify for the subsidy, providers also must undergo a home visit by a monitor. The biggest percentage of providers in Illinois’ program — 54 percent in 2017— are license-exempt family members who care for children in the child’s home and whom the state pays about $16 a day. But the state still demands they take the safety training and be visited by a monitor.

“We absolutely support improving quality in terms of care that children receive in all settings, and we have been advocating on that agenda for almost 50 years,” Whelan said. “But we think there is an element of intrusiveness in terms of sending monitors into children’s own homes.”

Her group unsuccessfully lobbied the state to exempt relatives from the requirements, which is permissible by federal guidelines.

Now Rauner is in a tough position, since he has pledged to increase the quality of programs but faces a long list of providers who haven’t met the state’s high bar.

Ireta Gasner, the vice president of policy at the national early childhood advocacy Ounce of Prevention, which is run by Diana Rauner, said other states have run into the same problems with their training requirements. Directors of established child-care centers can make a plan to arrange time out of their day to comply; but that same flexibility isn’t always conferred upon smaller, self-employed providers — particularly those who care for family members at the last minute or for children whose parents work third shift or weekends.

“As states try to formalize more of the child care roles and provide trainings and support, you tend to see some dropoff of people who don’t want to participate in the system,” Gasner said of national trends.

The risk, however, of those states casting a wide net is that advocates then lose contact with families and providers who drop out off the rolls.  

“When their providers are being paid through (the Child Care Assistance Program), we can send information to them about trainings and supports and connect them with other supports for their care,” Gasner said. “But when we don’t know where where they end up, we lose our line of sight into the services they have.”

McMillon, the trainer who runs a center out of her Auburn Gresham home, said that 13 providers signed up for her last scheduled training session, which was set for four hours on September 30. When she arrived that day, only five showed up. “One lady — she just quit,” McMillon said. “She’s a grandmother, and she told her daughter, ‘I just can’t do this.’”