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How storytelling is giving voice to a small part of the early childhood workforce — men

Graham Carson, a teacher at Denver Cooperative Preschool, finger paints with a student.

In their own words, the men described the journeys that led them to work in the early childhood field — as teachers, counselors, coaches and administrators.

One, a software salesman, helped his wife with a nannying job then decided to go back to school for an early childhood degree. Another discovered his passion for young children after visiting a friend’s Montessori school in Beijing. A third dreamed of being an actor, but switched gears after a volunteer stint at a campus child care center during college.

The stories are part of a new digital storytelling project focused on a tiny and often overlooked segment of the nation’s early childhood workforce: men. The idea is to provide inspiration in a field known for its low pay and high turnover — and create a support system of sorts to combat the isolation that can come from being the only man on the job.

“Depending on your personality, it can be kind of daunting, said Soren Gall, the former preschool teacher who spearheaded the project.

Men make up just 3 percent of preschool and kindergarten teachers, and 5 percent of child care workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Gall, an infant, toddler and family specialist at Denver’s Early Childhood Council, felt lucky to have worked with two male teachers when he taught preschool years ago at a University of Denver child care center. Still, he knew that most men in early childhood jobs lack male co-workers or even a network of male colleagues in the broader community.

He wanted to change that. For awhile, he organized coffee shop gatherings for Denver area men who worked in the field. He also launched a Facebook group called Men in Early Childhood Colorado.

Then, with two friends and $2,000 raised through an online fundraising campaign, he embarked on the storytelling project, which features interviews with nearly 50 men who work in early childhood around the country.

While there are other advocates who champion the cause of men in early childhood — such as Bryan Nelson who heads a MInneapolis-based information clearinghouse called MenTeach — Gall’s idea was to support men in the field through story-sharing.

For Graham Carson, a Denver preschool teacher who was interviewed for the project, it worked.

“It was super inspiring and cool to hear,” he said. “It’s good to get stories out there…maybe to encourage other men to give it a try.”

In the 10- to 30-minute audio clips, Gall’s subjects, including 18 from Colorado, describe the sometimes winding paths that brought them to early childhood education and the experiences that kept them there.

Several said they liked being able to shape kids during the critical early years when so much brain development is going on. Others said they appreciate the infectious energy and joy that come naturally to young children.

Denver preschool teacher Graham Carson plays with children at the water table.

Tatenda Blessing, the interviewee who visited Beijing, said he discovered his passion for early childhood education when a little boy at the Montessori school approached him and said, “Hey, you’re my chocolate and I’m your cheese.”

Blessing, who is originally from Africa, was confused, but then the boy explained: “You are brown. I am yellow.”

“It was that moment that I just felt how these kids are beautiful,” Blessing said. “They’re so natural and pure in their approach to life … I said to myself I just want to be here.”

In addition to highlighting the fulfillment gleaned from early childhood work, many of Gall’s subjects touched on the benefits of men in the classroom — their different styles of play and communication, their ability to be positive male role models and the real-world gender diversity they bring.

“We’re a world full of men and women,” said Carson, who is “Mr. Graham” to the 4- and 5-year-olds he works with at Denver Cooperative Preschool. “I think it’s important to have a true reflection of our society helping teach kids.”

Travon Askew, a college student who’s worked in preschool classrooms, said, “All of us aren’t going to relate to a middle class caucasian woman … Just to have that male dynamic to relate to. To say I understand the functioning of boys and how they are because … I’ve been there before.”

Gall said such conversations about men in early childhood are particularly relevant now given the debate in Colorado and the nation about preschool suspensions and expulsions, which disproportionately affect boys of color.

He said bringing more men into the field could help reduce the use of such discipline tactics.

Perhaps a flip side to the benefits of having men in early childhood classrooms is the stigma that sometimes accompanies such a career choice. While some men say it’s gotten better, there’s still a sense that it’s not a masculine job.

A child in Graham Carson’s preschool class drew a picture of him.

Carson, who’s worked in early childhood for 13 years, said he’s gotten reactions ranging from “Oh, that’s cute” to “That’s really great that you’re a man and you want to work in early childhood education.”

One of Gall’s interview subjects, Camron Morton, of Colorado, spoke about being careful to create acceptable physical boundaries between himself and his young students.

“I think it’s a little … more risky for men, I guess, to open themselves up to children,” he said. “If they want to sit on my lap, I find a way that they’re always sitting on something other than me, but I’m still able to be close to them.”

Not surprising in Gall’s interviews was the sentiment that low wages represent a major barrier to attracting more men to the field. (Poor pay is a key problem for women in the field, as well.)

On average, early childhood workers nationwide earn $10.60 an hour, according to a 2016 report put out by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Those with at least a bachelor’s degree earn $14.70, about half of what other kinds of workers with bachelor’s degrees earn.

“There’s a challenge for anyone going into the field to meaningful support themselves,” said Geof Byerly, an early childhood coach in Colorado.

Carson agreed. He believes he’s fairly paid, but said his wages pale in comparison to his wife’s salary as a technical writer.

For now, he said, financial sacrifice is part of life in the early childhood world.

Starting early

Colorado’s state preschool program doesn’t serve English learners well, report finds

PHOTO: energyy | Getty Images
Preschool children doing activities.

Colorado’s public preschool program fails to meet most targets for effectively serving young English learners, according to a new state-by-state report released today.

Besides having just two of nine recommended policies in place for serving such youngsters, Colorado also doesn’t know how many of the 22,000 preschoolers in its state-funded slots speak a home language other than English.

These findings come from the “State of Preschool 2017” report put out by the National Institute for Early Education Research, or NIEER, at Rutgers University. This year, in addition to the organization’s usual look at state preschool spending, enrollment, and quality, the report includes a section on how states are serving English learners. Nationwide, 23 percent of preschool-aged children fall into this category.

Colorado fared about the same as last year — average or below average — on the criteria examined annually in the preschool report. It ranked 25th among 43 states and Washington, D.C., for 4-year-old access to preschool, 10th for 3-year-old access and 39th for state preschool funding. It also met only five of 10 benchmarks measuring preschool quality, worse than most other states.

Colorado’s state-funded preschool program, called the the Colorado Preschool Program, provides half-day preschool to 3- and 4-year-olds who come from low-income families, have parents who didn’t finish high school, or other risk factors. Seven states, mostly in the West, have no public preschool programs.

Colorado isn’t alone in having few provisions focused on preschoolers learning English. About two-dozen other states also met two or fewer of the report’s nine benchmarks, which include policies such as allocating extra funding to English learners, and screening and assessing them in their home language.

Only three states met eight or nine of the benchmarks: Texas, Maine, and Kansas.

Colorado education department officials said the NIEER report could help spur changes in the Colorado Preschool Program.

“This actually might be an opportunity for us to look at these more specific indicators of high quality practices [for] dual-language learners, to help drive improvements in our program,” said Heidi McCaslin, preschool director at the Colorado Department of Education.

To alter the program or its data collection requirements, she said the state legislature would have to change the law or the State Board of Education would have to change rules.

Authors of the new report say supporting English learners is important, especially early in life.

“For all children, the preschool years are a critical time for language development.” said Steve Barnett, senior co-director of the institute. “We know that dual-language learners are a group that makes the largest gains from attending high-quality preschool. At the same time they’re at elevated risk for school failure.”

Colorado earned credit for two of the study’s English-learner benchmarks: for allowing bilingual instruction and having policies to support families of young English learners. Those policies include providing enrollment information and communicating with the child’s family in the home language.

McCaslin mentioned one Colorado preschool initiative focused on dual-language learners. It’s a training to help preschool teachers distinguish between children who have speech problems because of a disability and those who have speech delays because they are learning English and another language at the same time.

Data dive

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

PHOTO: KIdStock | Getty Images
Boy standing near school bus.

Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates in school districts across Colorado. Some rural districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state. And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up.

These are a few of the findings from a new Chalkbeat analysis of three years of data on out-of-school suspensions given to students in kindergarten through second grade. Chalkbeat obtained the district- and state level data — some of it disaggregated by race and gender — from the Colorado Department of Education through a public records request.

Last year, rural district leaders and the lawmakers who represent them beat back a bill that would have limited the use of suspensions in the earliest grades. This year, advocates decided not to bring forward a new version after struggling to find common ground with opponents. At the same time, at least three large metro Denver districts have recently launched their own efforts to reduce the number of small children sent home for misbehaving — but not without some trepidation from teachers.

Amidst these discussions, we wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado’s public schools.

Supporters of policies that limit suspensions of young children say such discipline doesn’t work to change students’ behavior, harms them educationally, and disproportionately affects boys and children of color. Opponents of such policies say suspension is a tool sometimes needed to help restore classroom order, ensure student and teacher safety, and focus a family’s attention on the problem.

Young children are suspended for a variety of reasons, including hitting, biting, fighting, and chronically disrupting their classrooms.

It’s important to note that we examined the number of suspensions given out in each district, not the total number of students who were suspended. In some cases, individual students receive multiple suspensions during a school year. (Suspension numbers are self-reported by each school district and not independently verified by the state.)

Colorado districts handed out more suspensions to young students last year than they did the year before (or the year before that).

Even as local and national groups have recently spotlighted the harm caused by suspending young children from schools, Colorado schools have handed out more suspensions.

Even as the statewide population of kindergarten to second grade students has shrunk over the last three years, schools have handed out more suspensions to this age group.

Last year, districts statewide gave approximately three suspensions per 100 kindergarten to second grade students, up from 2.6 in 2014-15. The state education department first began disaggregating suspension data by grade level three years ago.

Three-year trends in Colorado’s K-2 suspension rates

This chart shows the number of suspensions given per 100 kindergarten through second grade students in rural districts, small rural districts and all Colorado districts over the last three years.

The highest-suspending districts are rural. (So are the lowest-suspending districts.)

Of the state’s more than 140 rural districts, several use suspensions in the early elementary grade at higher rates than any large district. For example, the 980-student Trinidad district in southern Colorado, posted the state’s highest rate last year, giving out 65 suspensions to students in kindergarten through second grade — a rate of 27 suspensions per 100 students.

Meanwhile, about 70 rural districts suspended no students at all last year. These include a few that are around the same size as Trinidad, including East Grand, Weld RE-9, and Telluride.

As a group, small rural districts — those with less than 1,000 students — are suspending early elementary children at about the same rate as non-rural districts — giving just over 3 suspensions per 100 students. Rural districts — somewhat bigger than “small rurals” but still under 6,500 students — suspend less frequently, giving out 2 suspensions per 100 students.

The state’s highest-suspending districts

A look at which rural school districts suspend young students at the highest rate. Rates reflect the number of suspensions given per 100 kindergarten through second grade students in 2016-17. Note: The state education department classifies Expeditionary BOCES as a “small rural” district, but it’s a single school located in Denver that pulls students from several area districts.

El Paso County is home to three of the five highest-suspending large districts.

Three of the large districts that used suspension in lower elementary grades most often last year are in El Paso County: Harrison, Colorado Springs and Widefield. One of the other two is in metro Denver and the other is in Greeley.

The three El Paso County districts have larger proportions of students from low-income families than some of their lower-suspending counterparts in that county — Falcon or Academy, for instance. However, other large districts, including Denver and Aurora, serve similar or greater proportions of students in poverty as the high-suspending El Paso County districts, yet have lower suspension rates.

Large districts with the highest suspension rates

This chart shows the five districts of Colorado’s 30 largest with the highest suspension rates in 2016-17. Rates reflect the number of suspensions given per 100 kindergarten through second grade students.

Large districts with the lowest suspension rates tend to be more affluent and white.

The five districts with the lowest suspension rates among the state’s 30 largest, are scattered geographically and range in size, but generally have fewer students from poor families and fewer students of color than high-suspending large districts.
One exception is the 7,000-student Eagle County district, which has the lowest suspension rate among the five. Students of color make up 55 percent of enrollment and 37 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, a proxy for poverty.

Large districts with the lowest suspension rates

This chart shows the five districts of Colorado’s 30 largest with the lowest suspension rates in 2016-17.

Suspension rates are dropping in Denver, and climbing in the state’s other four largest districts.

Of Colorado’s five largest districts, which educate about 75,000 students in kindergarten through second grade, Jeffco had the highest rate of early elementary suspensions last year, followed by Aurora. While the rates increased for both districts compared to the previous year, each has recently embarked on new efforts to prevent student suspensions.

Denver, which for years has emphasized restorative discipline practices and this year launched a policy limiting suspensions of preschool through third grade students, was the only one of the five largest districts to post a decrease in its early childhood suspension rate last year. Cherry Creek saw a jump last year, and Douglas County saw a smaller uptick.

Trends in Colorado’s five largest districts

A look at changing suspension rates in the state’s five largest districts over three years. Rates reflect the number of suspensions given per 100 kindergarten through second grade students.

Young black boys are disproportionately suspended nationwide. Colorado is no exception.

While black boys make up up only about 2.3 percent of the state’s kindergarten to second grade students, they receive almost 10 percent of suspensions given in that age group. Such disparities exist in all 14 of the state’s 30 largest districts for which data was available.

The Denver district, which educates more young black students than any other in Colorado, was close behind the three districts with the highest levels of disproportionality. Last year, black boys made up about 6 percent of Denver’s kindergarten through second grade population, but received 29 percent of suspensions given in that age group.

(In 16 large districts, suspension data broken out for black male K-2 students was unavailable because privacy rules require some data to be suppressed when group sizes are very small.)

Disproportionate suspensions given to black boys

Among the state’s 30 largest districts, these three gave out a particularly disproportionate number of suspensions to black boys in kindergarten through second grade in 2016-17.

Young Hispanic boys receive a disproportionate number of suspensions in many Colorado districts — but not all.

At the state level, Hispanic boys make up 17 percent of the kindergarten through second grade population, but receive 29 percent of suspensions. At the district level, the picture varies. Seven of the state’s 30 large districts, including two with relatively high suspension rates overall, did not suspend a disproportionately large number of Hispanic boys last year. Those include Colorado Springs 11 and Harrison — the two highest suspending large districts — as well as Aurora, School District 27J, Fountain, Pueblo 70, and St. Vrain Valley.

In the 19 large districts that showed some disproportionality in suspending young Hispanic boys, the severity ranged widely. Two districts with very low overall suspension rates — Poudre and Douglas County — had high levels of disproportionality. In contrast, Falcon and Widefield had relatively low levels of disproportionality.

(In 4 of the 30 largest districts, suspension data broken out for Hispanic male K-2 students was unavailable because privacy rules require some data to be suppressed when group sizes are very small.)

Disproportionate suspensions given to Hispanic boys

Among the state’s 30 largest districts, these three gave out a particularly disproportionate number of suspensions to Hispanic boys in kindergarten through second grade in 2016-17.

Look up your district’s 2016-17 K-2 suspension rate in the chart below.