Private funds help Westminster Schools ‘pay for success’ (Englewood Herald)

Column by Bill Christopher

Westminster Public Schools is off and running on an exciting pilot program involving full-day preschool. Thanks to a blend of philanthropic, county and state funding, the district implemented the full-day program in one classroom in each of seven elementary schools with the start of the fall semester this year.

The pilot program is being administered at Hodgkins, Flynn, Tennyson Knolls, Sherrelwood, Sunset Ridge, Westminster Academy and Fairview Elementary schools. The curriculum is expanded from the current four half-days per week for three hours per day to focus on social and emotional behavior and learning.

The classes are seven hours per day for the normal five-day school week. The fundamental premise is that students impacted by the effects of poverty would benefit more from a full-day, five-day-a-week schedule and it would help working parents as well.

Private funds are utilized

The key to getting this important program expanded to full days and five days per week comes from a program called Pay for Success. It is based on private investors or philanthropists paying upfront for proven social programs such as preschool for low-income children.

Two Denver-based funders have stepped up to provide $500,000 for the first year of the pilot and will give additional funds next year. Altogether, the pilot program is receiving $1 million over three years. Gary Community Investments and the Ben and Lucy Ana Walton Fund of the Walton Family Foundation are to be thanked for their generous commitments.

Plenty of interest in this opportunity

As you might expect, there were plenty of interested parents to place their children in the program. Approximately 400 families registered for the program with 112 students selected.

A key factor in the selection process is that the district contracted with the University of Colorado to select the students and administer the assessment. CU conducted the assessment of the students to establish baseline learning at the outset of the pilot.

The project will give district officials, the two funders and other interested parties some good insight into whether full-day preschool is a viable Pay for Success project for future participants. The outside contractor will provide definitive data on the pilot's results, including such preschool outcomes as kindergarten readiness and frequency of special education referrals.

An enthusiastic start

Westminster Public Schools' Director of Early Childhood Education Mat Aubuchon is quite enthusiastic about the pilot program and where it could take these preschoolers. He pointed out that Chicago and Salt Lake City were early models of getting the program started. A $100,000 grant to do a feasibility study on this concept was realized in the spring of 2015 and led to the Pay for Success commitment.

An important finding from the feasibility study was the issue of mobility. Transportation of the students is the responsibility of the families.

Pay for Success is known for its national focus. Among 57 projects that have received seed money from federal grants, nine are in Colorado. The focus in Colorado started over two years ago with a group of prospective funders who originally focused on early childhood efforts, but have since branched out.

Two Colorado projects in the mill involve Boulder County's Early Childhood Council, which is studying the possibility of expanding its home-visitation program and Growing Home's potential expansion of a different home-visiting program called Parents as Teachers.

Growing Home, which is an Adams County based non-profit organization known to many of us, does yeoman service in a variety of ways for low-income families.

Creative partnerships needed in the future

Congratulations to Westminster Public School District officials on this public-private collaborative endeavor. The potential benefit to the students could well be the path to higher academic achievement as the kiddos progress from K-12.

It is taking more creative funding constructs to make programs like full-day preschool financially viable. With Colorado being at the "bottom of the barrel" in state funding for public education, more examples like Pay for Success are needed now.

Kudos to the staff at the school district for putting this together and having an enthusiastic leader in Mat Aubuchon to guide it.

Bill Christopher is a former Westminster city manager and RTD board member. His opinions aren't necessarily those of the Westminster Window.