Parents Wrestle with School and Care Choices in Pandemic

Parents Wrestle with School and Care Choices in Pandemic

Melissa Tyler of Ontario, Ore., worries about sending her 5-year-old son into school this fall during a pandemic. But she’s even more concerned about Mason, who has Down’s syndrome, slipping behind.

“I think socially he could be losing ground; that is my biggest concern,” says Tyler, a bank teller in the town on Oregon’s eastern border. “He thrives in a classroom. He needs that social interaction. He hasn’t gotten it since March.”

Candice and Adolfo Jimenez have enrolled their daughter, Xitlalli (pronounced seet-lolli), 4, and son, Necalli, 10, in a Spanish immersion program at the private International School in Portland. They know their kids will get a pared-down version of their education through distance learning, but they prefer that over exposing their children to COVID-19.

“We feel most comfortable with being virtual because it provides safety in a time of uncertainty,” says Candice Jimenez, research manager for the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board.

Parents of Oregon’s youngest students express varying views on how best to resume education this fall. They all must weigh the risk of infection against the risk of their children losing ground at a critical time in their early education.

“Some folks want to go back into the brick-and-mortar no matter what,” says Don Grotting, superintendent of Beaverton School District. “Others say, ‘Until there is a vaccine, we are not sending our kids to school.’”

And parents who work outside their homes must find a place for their kids at a time when child care has become even scarcer than it was before the pandemic.

“Even if I can afford child care,” says Grotting, “where are those places going to be?”

Learning at a distance

Beaverton, like Portland, North Clackamas, Tigard-Tualatin, Salem-Keizer and other large districts, will open virtually at least through mid-November. Gov. Kate Brown has declared schools cannot open classrooms to students until statewide and county COVID-19 metrics meet certain criteria for three weeks in a row. With the positive virus rate still above 5 percent in mid-August, all public schools will open with only distance learning.

There could be exceptions. “Subsets of schools” in smaller communities, state guidelines say, will be allowed to return to in-person instruction based on the local level of virus spread, prior to county and state metrics being met. This guidance also makes allowances for limited in-person instruction for groups of students K-3 students, English learners, and students experiencing disability. These allowances, however, are not mandates. Schools and districts are expected to offer in-person provisions for priority populations “to the extent possible,” as determined at the local level.

State and district leaders are doing research and working to build educators collective capacity around what works best in providing distance education to young students, says Jennifer Patterson, the state’s assistant superintendent for the Office of Teaching, Learning and Assessment. They want to balance virtual teaching with applied learning, where children engage in off-screen projects and activities with learning objectives, she says.

The state also is encouraging teachers to help households exploit their assets, says Patterson. If they have extended families living nearby, for example, they could tap siblings, grandparents and other relatives to help teach young children with the help of online teachers. They could use games, play, songs and projects to help young children build skills in literacy, numeracy and vocabulary, Patterson says.

The Jimenezes say they are fortunate to both be working at home so they can trade off helping their children with online education. They worry more about their children’s social and emotional development and its relation to their academic growth, Candice says.

“You want to keep having that social system for them so they are getting to know other kids,” she says. “I worry about their social and cognitive development in relation to other kids in the community.”

Other parents worry their young children will lose academic ground at a time when the quality of their education can dramatically affect the trajectory of their lives.

Dove Spector, Clackamas, a colleague of Candice Jimenez and project specialist for the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board, and her husband, Kyle Dexter, a screen printer, have enrolled their 4-year-old son in the Portland Parks Preschool. They worry their child is going to miss critical socialization because the school is opening remotely.

“I worry about giving him the proper tools to be successful academically,” says Spector, a Nez Perce tribal member. “It really stems from my own experience with racism in the education system.”

Learning in the classroom

Whenever schools do physically open their buildings to children, most parents clearly want them to do so with an abundance of caution. The Oregon Department of Education’s Early Learning Division surveyed 3,060 parents in need of child care, including preschool. The parents collectively had 1,139 children two or under, 1,955 children ages 3 to 5 and 890 kids ages 6 or older.

About one in five parents were uncomfortable with their children receiving meals prepared by staff, more than half were uneasy with their children going to public parks or using public play equipment and two thirds were nervous about their children going on field trips.

In the small district of Yoncalla 45 miles south of Eugene, nearly nine in 10 parents want to see their children back in school this fall, says Superintendent Brian Berry. Parents are heavily involved in plans for health and safety measures that meet state guidelines.

“I feel like we can do this and still have our kids in school,” says Mary King of Yoncalla. Her 4-year-old daughter, Rosemary, will be in the district’s preschool, created in partnership with the Children’ Institute’s Early Works program. “I have faith in my school district and in the preschool that the cleaning precautions will be increased.”

The parents felt strongly that schools and child care providers:
  • Require staff and children with COVID-19-like symptoms to stay home.
  • Follow all Oregon Health Authority sanitation and clearing guidelines.
  • Have a plan in place to communicate with families about COVID-19 issues such as infections, policy changes and contact tracing.
  • Have flexible staff sick-leave policies for cases of sickness or virus exposure.
  • Require children and staff to wash their hands for 20 seconds frequently throughout the day.
  • Check all children and adults entering the building for fever and virus symptoms.

Scarce child care

Some parents, including a disproportionate share with low-income jobs, must work outside the home and find care for their young children while they do so. Yet they often cannot afford child care, which averaged about $1,200 a month before the pandemic. What’s more, the state’s licensed child care capacity has been cut by more than half, from 106,000 slots a year ago to 48,000 today. The state’s child care guidelines allow only emergency child care providers who give priority to children of first responders, health care workers and other essential personnel to operate. The state has, since May, awarded $22 million in federal coronavirus relief to about 2,800 child care facilities. That’s far fewer than the 3,787 providers operating in January, and, under state health guidelines, most centers still functioning must do so with fewer children than before the pandemic.

While K-12 public schools, along with government-funded preschool programs like Oregon Pre-K and Preschool Promise, have responded to health and safety guidelines by closing for in-person learning, they continue to receive funding and will remain intact through the crisis, retaining their workforce and continuing to provide virtual learning opportunities to students. The vast majority of child care programs are not in the same boat. Because 70 percent of child care and preschool funding comes from parent tuition, which is only paid when a child is able to attend, providers who have had to close or who are operating at a decreased capacity, without comparably decreased overhead, face enormous financial hardship and may be forced to close permanently, with impacts to the availability of child care lasting long into the future.

Tyler of Ontario, a single mother, has been able to rely on her nearby parents to watch Mason while she works at a bank. She doesn’t know what she would do without their help, she says, as she cannot afford child care. Plus she would have a hard time finding it. With less than one child care slot for every three children, her Malheur County already qualified as a child care desert before the pandemic hit. Now there are even fewer seats. By late summer, the 9,930-square-mile county had only 10 vacant school-age child care slots.

As of mid-August, the statewide capacity for child care for all ages stood at 47,622 children with 12,495 vacancies. Even at capacity, the state has enough child care slots for only 10 percent of its 467,000 children ages 9 and under.

With child care so scarce and expensive, parents like Tyler are turning to relatives or friends to watch their children. Others are quitting their jobs or hiring nannies. And some parents are grouping in bubbles so they can take turns babysitting or share costs for tutors.

Some local governments are looking for ways to provide more child care services, but as with so much in this pandemic, the majority of Oregon parents will be on their own.

Of course, what all parents want is a return to normal school, says Kayla Bell, Beaverton School District’s administrator for elementary curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

“We understand that,” she says.

Spector, of Clackamas, says she’s grateful she can work at home and help her son with his distance learning, but she worries about his future.

“It just feels like [the pandemic] is never going to end because of a lack of federal leadership,” she says. “I’m happy to do my part, but I’m frustrated. It’s hard not to feel that this is going to have a strong impact on my son as he grows into adulthood.”

Schools Push for Equity Against Forces of Pandemic

Schools Push for Equity Against Forces of Pandemic

After the pandemic closed Oregon schools this spring, teacher Nicole Odom and her assistants at McKay Elementary in Beaverton depended on parental help to remotely teach their preschoolers.

They prepared video lessons, learning activities, songs and Zoom sessions, all of which required help from parents. Some parents, however, worked outside the home, and only half of the 36 students in Odom’s two half-day classes showed up for Zoom video sessions.

“There were kids we would see or not see on Zoom,” she says. Her team looked for other ways to reach students who didn’t show. But whatever they did required parental help.

“Many parents were dealing with jobs, both remotely or in person, as well as many other significant challenges,” she says.

One of the powers of preschool is to reduce inequalities and prevent an achievement gap between less advantaged children and those with more support. The pandemic, however, is forcing preschoolers to get some or all of their learning at home, where learning opportunities are unequal, says Steven Barnett, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) in New Jersey.

“The pandemic has thrown us backwards,” he told reporters in a July webinar organized by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.

Among the scores of challenges facing schools as they open in a pandemic this fall is how to ensure all children get an equal shot at quality education, no matter their zip code, race or household wealth. State guidelines require schools to make their back-to-school plans through an “equity lens” with heightened attention to disadvantaged students.

COVID-19 already has put children of color and low-income homes at a disadvantage by disproportionately infecting their parents, who are more likely to work in risky jobs such as driving buses, processing food or caring for the elderly, says Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Department of Education.

“That’s another trauma that some children are going through that others are not,” he says.


Social interaction vital

Eighty-five percent of the parents in the small Yoncalla School District 45 miles south of Eugene want to send their children back to school this fall. District leaders want that too, says Superintendent Brian Berry, but if virus cases continue to climb in Douglas County, it may have to open with distance learning. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has declared schools must not allow students into classrooms until the statewide positive COVID-19 testing rate is at or below 5 percent for three weeks in a row.

Megan Barber, Yoncalla Elementary’s preschool teacher, is making plans to teach her students in person, possibly in smaller groups. She may wear a mask, keep students distanced, clean thoroughly and take other precautions.

If she must teach them remotely, she’ll face bigger challenges. Low-income parents, a majority in Yoncalla and many Oregon districts, often are single and working outside their homes. They cannot always help teachers provide young children lessons, activities and vital social interaction. Some lack adequate computers and internet connections.

More affluent parents, on the other hand, are more often able to work at home and help teach their children. Some groups of parents this summer already have teamed up to hire tutors who will teach their children in what they’re calling pandemic pods.

A nationwide survey by NIEER shows these home inequities played out among preschoolers last spring. Efforts to serve preschool children were “a disaster,” says Barnett. “No one was prepared.”

The survey of a representative sample of 1,000 parents showed that while most of their 3-to-5 year old children received some remote educational support when schools closed, less than half continued to do so within two months. Of those who did continue, most participated less than once a week in preschool activities.

What’s more, most young children with disabilities experienced loss of services required by their Individual Education Plans, Barnett says.

Darcy Jeffs and Kevin Wolpoff’s son, Miles. Special education students like Miles, who is autistic, are facing additional barriers to learning due to the pandemic. 

Darcy Jeffs and Kevin Wolpoff live in Florence on Oregon’s coast, where Darcy can be at home for their son, Miles. But Miles, 6, is autistic and needs services harder to get in a pandemic.

Before COVID-19 arrived, the parents sent Miles to The Child Center, a non-profit in Eugene, for highly specialized therapy six hours a day, five days a week. The pandemic reduced that comprehensive schedule to six hours of distance teletherapy per week. Jeffs received training to help fill the gaps with home strategies.  Still, she says, “Without in-person access to his prescribed schedule, we were experiencing setbacks.”

Now the couple, like most parents, is weighing what to do this fall. They hoped to send Miles to kindergarten with a Child Center therapist, but the public school districts in their area will not allow that. Besides, most plan only distance learning. Miles will return to The Child Center late August, and one private school that plans to physically open might have room for him and his therapist. But these options risk exposing him to the virus.

“There are no easy decisions,” says Jeffs. “We face a health risk on either side. Do we risk exposure or losing access to a very necessary therapy for our son?”

After schools shut down in Drain, a small town near Yoncalla, Jessilyn and Nathan Whiteman received no special education services for their son, Christopher, who has autism spectrum disorder. A private speech therapist in Eugene provided Christopher some service on Zoom. The Whitemans hope Christopher can attend kindergarten in person this fall.

“Christopher is already behind,” says Whiteman, “and we are doing what we can at home. But he needs help from a special education teacher. When his academics are behind it also affects him socially and emotionally.”

Losing ground

Ericka Guynes, principal at Earl Boyles Elementary in Southeast Portland, is concerned her youngest students already have lost ground after the spring closure.

“It is possible they may have lost a year of learning,” Guynes says.

Earl Boyles offers half-day public preschool classes that enroll a total 102 children and, along with Yoncalla Elementary, is a partner in the Children’s Institute’s Early Works program.

Another inequity is inherent in Oregon’s patchwork of early education programs, which have never been open to all children. The state’s public preschool programs and the federal Head Start programs serve less than two thirds of the low-income children who qualify. And private programs have become increasingly out of reach for low- and middle-income families. The state provides child care subsidies for only 15 percent of the low-income families that qualify. Parents pay for 72 percent of all funding for early care and education and thousands of them have lost their jobs because of the pandemic.

COVID-19 has “exposed a fundamental and underlying challenge of the financial mechanism for supporting early childhood education,” says David Mandell, policy and research director for the Oregon Early Learning Division.

So even if Oregon’s preschools are able to open this fall, they will open only for a fraction of the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds. And if those students are taught remotely, the quality of their education will be lower, says Barnett, with learning losses “much deeper in things like language, math and social/emotional development.”  This deficit could have negative effects on children through life, he says.

Early education has a “profound impact on children’s development and their acquisition of social-emotional, language and cognitive skills, all of which are critical to their school and life success,” says an Early Learning Division report to the Oregon Legislature last December.


Reducing inequities

Oregon state guidelines emphasize schools must keep all students from falling behind whether they are disabled, learning English, homeless, in foster care, living in poverty or with parents who must leave home to work.

“It is not enough to make statements about equity without following those statements with concrete actions,” the guidelines say. The state recommends schools train staff on culturally responsive, anti-bias teaching; hire more diverse teachers; provide more individualized and project-based instruction; and help diverse students connect across cultures. Schools are urged to explicitly address systemic racial injustice exposed by the nation’s massive Black Lives Matter movement.

“Create learning opportunities that address white privilege and the dismantling of white supremacy,” the state says.

Education leaders say they will work to get more resources and support to the children who need it most. The state, for example, needs to steer emergency federal money for child care support to low-income communities where it always has been scarce, says Mandell. Oregon’s 275,000 children under six comprise its most diverse population sector, with one in four speaking a language other than English at home.

The Legislature created the Early Childhood Equity Fund last year to provide about $10 million a year in grants for parenting education, early literacy, native language preservation and other programs aimed at closing opportunity gaps for historically underserved families.

Many districts, including Beaverton, acted last spring to close digital divides by providing computers and WiFi hot spots to families without Internet connections. Salem School District teachers connected with 95 percent of their students through distance learning, says Gill.

ode pandemic equity guidance

ODE’s companion guidance on equity works with districts, in part, to align federal and state requirements for the education of students furthest from opportunity. (Click image to view)

The federal government has given Oregon schools $115 million in pandemic relief money through the Cares Act, and they can use that money for distance learning technology. The state also received another $28 million to improve remote connections with computers, broadband and adult training.

Schools also can use their Cares Act money to sanitize facilities, organize long-term closures, and reduce inequities for children who are disabled, in low-income or minority households, English learners, homeless or in foster care.

Some districts are exploring ways to bring their youngest children in grades two and below into school a few times a week for socializing and “short bursts of instruction around numeracy and literacy,” says Gill. 

Educators also may need to provide at least some services to children with disabilities in person. Schools will need to determine what can be provided online and what must be provided one-on-one, says Guynes, principal of Earl Boyles. 

In its latest version of guidelines, released last week, the state told districts that they should prioritize in-person instruction for special education students, English language learners and other groups, even if county-wide cases are not low enough to allow a return for all students to the classroom.

Beaverton School District wants to address disparities resulting from race, poverty, language and other barriers, says Superintendent Don Grotting.

“We’re trying to look through our equity lens and make sure we come through with plans to address disparities.” Under COVID-19, he adds, those disparities are “growing wider and wider.”

Parents and Teachers Weigh Quality vs. Safety in Pandemic

Parents and Teachers Weigh Quality vs. Safety in Pandemic

As Oregon educators prepare to open schools this fall, they are searching for ways to give their youngest students quality education while keeping them safe in a pandemic.

That goal poses an enormous challenge if they physically open and an even bigger one if they don’t and instead teach at a distance.

District administrators are preparing under state guidelines to keep students in small groups on campuses, stagger school time with distance lessons, or teach entirely online. If they do enter classrooms, teachers and most students will wear masks, distance from one another and avoid touching common surfaces.

All of these safety measures work against best education practices for preschoolers and kindergartners, who learn concepts and socialization through play, touch, and close interaction with one another and teachers. Preschool teachers wearing masks can’t use facial expressions to help students sound out letters and words. They can’t group children on the rug for reading. They can’t let them explore the feel of water and sand on the sensory tables. And they can’t expect preschoolers to observe all of their safety protocols.

“Trying to keep a bunch of 3-year-olds six feet apart  it’s not even a reality,” says David Mandell, policy and research director for the Oregon Education Department’s Early Learning Division.

ODE reopen guide page

A page from ODE’s school reentry guidelines reflect the complexity of reopening decisions.

Choosing distance

Many districts such as Portland, Beaverton, North Clackamas, Tigard-Tualatin and Salem-Keizer already have decided to teach remotely at least until mid-November.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has ordered schools to use distance learning until the state’s coronavirus positive testing rate is at or below 5 percent for three weeks in a row. That poses even bigger challenges for teachers of preschool, kindergarten and primary grades.

“As a general rule, the younger the child, the more challenging distance learning becomes,” says Mandell.

Megan Barber, teacher of 22 preschool students at Yoncalla Elementary in the hills 45 miles south of Eugene, can attest to that. When Oregon closed its schools this spring, Barber did her best to provide lessons to her remote students. She read stories and sang songs to them on Facebook. She prepared individualized “care packages” of educational materials for each student and delivered them to their homes, where she would talk with them and their parents. She talked to her students on FaceTime. She sent them notes and birthday cards. But it was never enough.

“What we do in the classroom is magic,” says Barber, “and you can’t replicate that with technology.”

Barber this fall will be entering her fifth year as teacher of a public preschool created with help from Early Works, an initiative of the Children’s Institute supported by The Ford Family Foundation in Roseburg. The project, launched 10 years ago, is helping Yoncalla School District pool resources with other public and private groups to build a coherent education program for every child in the Yoncalla attendance area from birth to age 8. The goal is to ensure those children are prepared for kindergarten and later success in school and life.

One of them is four-year-old Rosemary King, who completed her first year of preschool listening to Barber read stories on Facebook while her mother, Mary King, helped her with educational activities at home. Mary King says she’s fortunate to be able to be home with Rosemary, whose father William King works nights outside the home. But she says she just can’t give her daughter the quality of education she was getting in Barber’s class.

“I watched her flourish,” she says. “I watched her come out of her shell and be part of a group.”

King hopes Rosemary can go back to Barber’s class for the full 5.5 hours, four days a week.

“The social interaction at her age is so important to learning that I feel like taking the kids out of school is hurting more than helping,” she says. “I hope there will be an option for the kids to go to school at least a couple days a week.”

If not, King plans to join forces with some other Yoncalla parents to teach their children in a group. She does have concerns about COVID-19, particularly because Rosemary has a restricted airway disease that puts her at higher risk for upper respiratory complications.

“It is always a worry, but I have a lot of faith in this school that they will be taking the precautions,” she says.

A classroom in the Beaverton School District before the coronavirus pandemic.

Giant test

Many education leaders say figuring out how to sustain education in a pandemic poses the biggest test of their careers. Beaverton School District Superintendent Don Grotting says this “is the most challenging time I’ve ever had” in 24 years as an administrator. “I’ve never seen people work so hard. I’ve never seen people have to pivot so quickly.”

Kayla Bell, Beaverton’s elementary administrator for curriculum, instruction and assessment, agrees. “There is nobody on the planet that can give you advice,” she says.

Ericka Guynes, principal of Earl Boyles Elementary in Southeast Portland, which offers preschool to 102 students and is also an Early Works partner, says that planning for the fall has been difficult and surreal. Even so, she’s looking for ways to improve.

“We have an opportunity to really innovate, too,” she says.

Uncertainty clouds everyone’s decisions. Some research suggests children under 10 do not easily contract or spread the virus, though it is inconclusive, and conflicting research shows children are highly contagious. Virus infections have surfaced in some Oregon child care centers. Lake Grove KinderCare in Lake Oswego had an outbreak of 29 cases in June, and Oregon Child Development in Nyssa and Hall Boulevard KinderCare in Tigard each had five cases this summer.

No one knows how well Oregon will be able to contain the virus by fall. Some teachers, particularly those older or with medical problems, are wary of returning to classrooms. Parents’ opinions cover the spectrum, says Mandell, whose division surveyed 3,600 parents.

Some insist the virus is no worse than a cold and want school, sports, and activities fully restored, says Mandell, while others say “there is nothing a state agency could do to make me feel safe putting my child in child care” or preschool.

Birdie Wermy, a project director for Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board, is getting help from her retired parents while her son, 4, and daughter, 7, attend preschool and second grade online. While Wermy works out of her home, her mom, who lives nearby, will help her children with their distance learning this fall. Her son will be attending Tualatin Elementary’s preschool, which will be online for at least eight weeks. Even if school opens later, Wermy will be reluctant to send her children to school and risk having them bring COVID-19 home to her parents. But she also worries about the quality of education they’re getting online.

“I know that my son would probably do better in an actual classroom setting and being around other kids,” she says. “In the back of my mind, I ask “what is this going to look like five years from now? Is there going to be this huge cohort of children who were 2020-21 preschoolers basically left behind because they didn’t learn their basics before kindergarten?”


State guidelines

BothOregon’s Department of Educationand its Early Learning Divisionhave issued guidelines, 29 pages for young children and 46 pages for older ones, on opening schools this fall. They provide requirements and suggestions for a range of activities, including family engagement, group size, personal protective equipment, student drop-offs, food, hand washing, and response to confirmed virus cases. 

Each school is expected to follow guidelines in developing a plan, or Operational Blueprint for Reentry. That poses an enormous task for small districts with a handful of administrators working summer months. Adding to the complexity, guidelines are being revised as the summer unfolds, according to how the virus spreads. In its latest version, released last week, the state told districts that they should prioritize in-person instruction for special education students, English language learners and other groups, even if county-wide cases are not low enough to allow a return for all students to the classroom.

“I can tell you from a small, rural school perspective, the guidelines are totally overwhelming,” says Brian Berry, superintendent of Yoncalla School District. 

Most parents in Yoncalla want to see the schools open classrooms for students in September, he says. That’s what Barber wants too. She says she’s never missed her students so much as after the state closed her school. 

“I’m so grateful to go back,” she says. “I don’t care what it takes, what regulations we have to put in. Just so I can see them.”

Rural Parents Scramble to Get More Special Education for Young Kids

Rural Parents Scramble to Get More Special Education for Young Kids

Miles Wolpoff, 5, with his family, photo courtesy of Darcy Jeffs. Photo by Dan Haberly.

One Oregon couple in a rural town south of Eugene sends their 3-year-old autistic son on a two-hour round trip bus ride so he can attend a special state-sponsored preschool.

A couple living on the coast rent an apartment in Eugene where the mom lives during the week so their 4-year-old autistic son can get services beyond what the state provides.

A single-mom on Oregon’s eastern border makes 90-minute round trips two or three times a week to the Boise area in Idaho so her son with Down syndrome can get therapy unavailable locally. 

Oregon Lacks Resources for Young Kids With Special Needs

Administrators and parents say Oregon lacks resources and professional staff to adequately help young children with special needs, especially in rural areas where services are strained by distance, limited public transportation, a scarcity of therapists and language barriers.  

As required by federal law, the Oregon Department of Education provides early intervention for children under 3 with developmental delays and disabilities and early childhood special education for children 3 to 5 until they enter kindergarten. The Early Intervention/ Early Childhood Special Education (EI/ECSE) program operates through Oregon’s education service districts (ESDs) and their contractors to help children with physical, cognitive and social-emotional development.

But providers and parents say Oregon’s resources have not kept pace with rising costs and a growing number of young children eligible for services.  By investing more in these children early, Oregon could reduce the number needing special education later, says Judy Newman, director of Early Childhood CARES, which is based at the University of Oregon and contracts with Lane ESD to provide education and therapy services for 1,500 children countywide.    

“We know from brain development research, the earlier we get on this, the better chance we have of minimizing or eliminating problems,” says Newman.     

But sometimes in Oregon, especially in rural areas, it is not so easy to act early.

The Long Bus Ride

Jessilyn and Nathan Whiteman discovered the formidable challenge of getting services for their autistic son, Christopher, when he reached his third birthday. Until then, the Douglas ESD based in Roseburg sent specialists 40 miles north to the Whiteman’s home in the small town of Drain to help Christopher with speech and occupational therapy twice a month.

But once the boy turned 3, he had to go to the ESD’s special education preschool in Green, a small town just south of Roseburg, for services.

Jessilyn, 35, works at an insurance company in Drain and her husband, Nathan, 36, works for a railroad company on the Oregon coast. Neither could take Christopher to the preschool. So, on the advice of professionals, they reluctantly put him on a small bus alone and sometimes as sole passenger for two-hour roundtrips to the Green preschool twice a week. Strapped in his seat on the long bus rides, Christopher sometimes screamed, threw his shoe at the bus driver, and vomited.

Christopher Whiteman, photo courtesy of Jessilyn Whiteman.

 “There were things he liked about it,” says Jessilyn. “But to go to a two-hour preschool, he would be gone four hours…Too much.”

Administrators elsewhere in Oregon, however, say it is not uncommon for parents to put their 3- and 4-year-old children on long bus rides for special education services. Children, for example, sometimes ride an hour from rural outskirts of the 688-square-mile Columbia County to preschools supported by the Northwest Regional ESD in five cities, says Cindy Jaeger the county’s EI/ECSE service center administrator.

The Whiteman’s have since moved into the big, boxy home Jessilyn grew up in among trees and fields on the edge of Yoncalla, a small town six miles from Drain. Now four mornings a week, Christopher attends school at Yoncalla Elementary, both in the preschool established with help from the Children’s Institute’s Early Works program years ago and in a second special education preschool the Douglas ESD recently opened there. The ESD also gives Christopher a weekly half-hour of speech therapy. Having him close has produced enormous benefits, says Jessilyn, who also home schools her older son.

“If he is having a meltdown at school,” she says, “I can just drive over there and get him.”

Once a week, Jessilyn drives her son 44 miles north to Eugene for an additional hour of speech therapy. Despite his dramatic improvements in speech and behavior, she says she wants to somehow do even more for Christopher.

“I’m nervous about kindergarten,” she says, “because I’m not sure he’s ready.”

Some, But not Enough

Like the Whitemans, rural parents across Oregon get state help for their young children with special needs, but many feel it is just not enough.

In Tillamook County, for example, the Northwest Regional ESD provides early intervention visits to children under 3 only one hour a month, though occasionally two hours a month for children with severe needs, says Kim Lyon, the county service center administrator. The ESD operates preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds only two hours a day twice a week.

Services are “very limited,” Lyon says.

Neighboring Columbia County has seen the number of children qualifying for services jump by 49 percent, from 150 to 223, over the last two years with a minimal budget increase, says county administrator Jaeger. The county employs “excellent professionals,” she says; “There are just not enough of them.”

Early Childhood CARES, the program directed by Judy Newman, operates a preschool in the coastal town of Florence that was a godsend for Miles Wolpoff, the 5-year-old son of Darcy Jeffs, 39, and her fiancé, Kevin Wolpoff, 42.

Miles Wolpoff, photo courtesy of Darcy Jeffs. Photo by Dan Haberly.

Miles, who would soon be diagnosed with mixed receptive expressive language disorder with autism, enrolled in the preschool in September of 2017 for three morning hours four days a week. Darcy, a freelance graphic artist, attended school with him for two months and saw that he struggled to “fall into line” with the class of eight, all with special needs. Sensitive to loud noises, for example, Miles would stray when children were grouped in a circle to sing or dance.

But when Darcy revisited the class the following April, she was astounded by changes in her son. He could follow directions, both verbal and those represented by photos and pictures.

“He’s sitting for circle time,” she says. “He was singing. He was doing all the motions. I started crying.”

The state-sponsored preschool in Florence helped Miles take big leaps in his speech, social, and daily living skills. Even so, says Darcy, “I felt like he needed more.”

To get more, she had to leave Florence. She’d already been driving him each Friday 75 miles away on the winding State Highway 126 to Eugene for an hour of speech and occupational therapy. The parents then enrolled him in another Eugene program offered by a non-profit agency called The Child Center, which combines applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy with preschool for six hours a day, five days a week. Enrolling Miles meant Darcy drove three hours round trip daily. Fortunately, she soon found an affordable Eugene apartment for her and Miles during the week.

The Right Therapy Makes a Big Difference

The ABA therapy is data driven, designed specifically for autistic children and has powerfully improved Miles’s communication, adaptive, emotional regulation, and social skills, says Darcy.

“Communication has been the biggest hurdle,” she says. Now, after his Child Center experience, she says, “not only can he tell us what he wants to eat or activities he wants to do, but he also can tell us what he doesn’t want to do.”

Miles’s gains come at the cost of missing time with his father, a contractor in Florence, who reads bedtime stories to him via Facetime. Darcy says she knows other Florence parents who cannot afford to take their children with special needs to Eugene.

“Seeing how much positive effect we’ve had from this more rigorous therapy, it just makes me feel bad for other families that can’t or don’t,” she says.

Melissa Tyler, 43, a single mom studying in college to become a social worker, also had to leave her town—and state—to get additional help for her 4-year-old son, Mason, who has the Down syndrome genetic disorder.

With state support, Mason attends a preschool in his home town of Ontario with a population of 11,000 on the state’s eastern border, and he gets 100 minutes a month of speech and occupational therapy. But it is “not enough,” says Tyler. She makes the 90-minute round trip two or three times a week across the border to the Boise area to give her son the additional therapy she thinks he needs.

“He has made huge improvements in his verbalization and in his fine motor skills since we started doing the additional speech and occupational therapy,” she says.

Mason Tyler, photo courtesy Melissa Tyler

Oregon’s Investment

Oregon’s Early Intervention/Early Childhood Special Education program, which includes some federal funding, operates on a two-year budget for 2017–19 of $228 million, about 15 percent of it federal. Between 2012 and 2018, the number of students in the program rose 21 percent to 13,832, and state funding per child climbed 33 percent to $8,726.

Despite funding increases, challenges remain statewide in getting adequate services, and those are compounded in rural areas by distance and limits on access to specialized staff, quality child care and early learning programs, says Kara Williams, director of EI/ECSE and Regional Programs for the Oregon Department of Education

The department reports one third of eligible kids under 3 get the recommended level of early intervention service they need. “Recommended level” means about average as opposed to low- or high-quality, says Newman, the Early Childhood CARES director. About two thirds of 3- and 4-year-olds in special education with low needs get the recommended level, and among those with moderate needs, the portion is 14 percent. Only two percent of those with high needs get the recommended level of service.

The state education department projects that if Oregon increased annual spending on early intervention and special education by $76 million per biennium, it could provide all children with recommended levels of services. That would save money downstream in kindergarten and public school by reducing the number of children in special education and the scope of services they would need.

Heavier investments early also could ease the stress, travel time, and costs that afflict so many rural parents striving to help their children succeed in school and life.

Echo Shaw Prepares Children for Kindergarten in Two Languages

Echo Shaw Prepares Children for Kindergarten in Two Languages

Echo Shaw Prepares Children for Kindergarten in Two Languages

 Echo Shaw’s full-day preschool teacher, Cesiah Vega Lopez, gets her students organized in the gym.

Five years ago, educators at Echo Shaw Elementary School, 24 miles west of Portland, worried their students would be overwhelmed by the state’s new, more intellectually challenging academic standards.

The Common Core standards would expect children to write more and master advanced vocabulary, multiplication, fractions, and linear formulas at a younger age. Kindergarteners used to learn about sides and corners of shapes, but now they’d be talking about vertices and angles.

Nine in ten of Echo Shaw’s students, nearly all Latino, lived in low-income households, and two-thirds of them were learning English as their second language. Most showed up in kindergarten already behind.

“At some point you get exhausted trying to fill these (achievement) gaps at third and fourth grade,” says Perla Rodriguez, Echo Shaw’s principal since 2012. “This wasn’t working for us.”

So Rodriguez and her staff gave their students one big advantage—an earlier start. They launched a half-day preschool class.

Today, Echo Shaw serves 37 4-year-olds in half-day and full-day Preschool Promise classes, a state program for students from low-income homes. Most of them will enter kindergarten on the cusp of reading or actually reading, says Rodriguez. And because Echo Shaw is a dual language school, teaching 430 students up through grade eight in both English and Spanish, its preschoolers show up in kindergarten speaking two languages.

Echo Shaw, which sits on the edge of the small town of Cornelius, ranks among a small, but growing number of Oregon public schools—many of them serving high proportions of children from low-income families—who have found innovative ways to offer preschool. The Children’s Institute has helped two elementary schools—Earl Boyles in East Portland and Yoncalla in the hills south of Eugene—launch early learning programs over the last seven years through its Early Works program. Six years ago, the Coquille School District on Oregon’s coast opened its Lincoln Early Learning Center, which now includes two half-day preschool classes, a Head Start class, and an Early Head Start class for 2- and 3-year-olds.

Leaders in all of these schools know early education better prepares children for kindergarten and school success and can prevent the achievement gap that so often leaves kids from low-income families behind. What’s more, investing early in education can reduce the costs of remediation and school failure.

State readiness tests show Echo Shaw’s students on average are better prepared for kindergarten than children elsewhere in the district and state, says John O’Neill, interim superintendent of the 6,000-student Forest Grove School District, which encompasses 10 schools, including Echo Shaw.

“This speaks to not only knowing the academic skills, but also the social emotional skills that set them up for school success day one of kindergarten,” he says. In addition, he says, offering preschool in a school district “begins a partnership earlier in a child’s career between the home and the school.”

Echo Shaw Prepares Children for Kindergarten in Two LanguagesEcho Shaw parents say the preschool has given their children social and academic skills they are hard-pressed to teach at home with demands of work and family. Jesus Narnajo Gallardo, 32, volunteers in the class and sees his son, Daniel, thriving under the structure. Without this class, the father says, “it would be either a cell phone or the TV that would be teaching him.”

Veronica Rodriguez Jimenez, 39, says her son, Jacob, is learning to share. “He is more social,” she says. “He tries to interact with the                                                          Jesus Narnajo Gallardo and his son Daniel                                    others.” He’s learned English well                                                                                                                                                              enough to help other immigrants                                                                                                                                                            with translating, she says.

Scherise Hernandez, 39, says her 4-year-old daughter, Sady, can write her name, tie her shoes, and “she helps other children.” Sady 

Echo Shaw Prepares Children for Kindergarten in Two Languagesspeaks Spanish at home, says Hernandez, but she “actually gets a lot of English” at school, and she’s speaking it. Without the preschool, says the mother, Sady would probably be spending her time in daycare.

Echo Shaw’s full-day Preschool Promise teacher, Cesiah Vega Lopez, says she sees herself as a facilitator. During “choice time” one January morning, for example, her students spread across the classroom to explore activities they pick—activities designed to develop their small motor skills while exposing them to letters, words, and color, shape, and number concepts. The room has the quiet hum of a busy office as children explore their interests. Dressed in a lacy pink skirt and a   white shirt bearing the words “Cool is being yourself,”                Four-year-old Sady speaks Spanish and English.                    Sady stands with several classmates around a table                                                                                                                        sorting through photographs of themselves. Four children sit at another table stringing beads over pipe cleaners. Nearby, four boys fit colorful plastic cubes together into beams and girders. A brown-haired girl alone at a third table copies the name Peyton on a white board with a black marker.

Student art and posters cover the walls. Books, toys, supplies, and bins of art fill shelves and cabinets. Everywhere there are words in English and Spanish. The light switch is tagged both with its English name and “el interruptor de luz.” The foyer portrays the school’s mascot with the words, “Home of the Eagles,” and “El hogar de las aguilas.” The phrases “We are safe” and “Somos cuidadosos,” stretch over one gym wall.

Echo Shaw Prepares Children for Kindergarten in Two Languages

Everywhere at the dual language school are words in Spanish and English.

Vega Lopez, 30, a licensed teacher now in her second year at Echo Shaw, knows the challenges many of her children face; she was born in Mexico, grew up in Forest Grove and learned English during her middle school years. About half her students speak Spanish at home. She teaches primarily in Spanish on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday and in English on Thursday and Friday. She teaches math in English, but science and social studies in Spanish. Her children are learning letter sounds, number concepts, and how to follow directions, express their feelings and self-regulate. She knows well what they must learn for kindergarten.

“I have the luxury of being able to visit the kindergarten teacher right next door to me,” she says.

Oregon Department of Education test results last year showed Echo Shaw children in grades three through eight performing nearly at state average in math and English. About 40 percent of them exceeded standards compared to about half that many in Oregon schools with similar proportions of minority and economically disadvantaged children. The benefits of preschool have yet to be measured as Echo Shaw’s first preschool graduates just reached third grade this year. But every grade at Echo Shaw is raising expectations for the better prepared students coming up from its preschool, say school leaders.

The dual language program has been so successful that a large number of seventh-graders are ready to take the college-level Advanced Placement Spanish course, says Superintendent O’Neill. “With a strong preschool foundation to work from,” he says, “student outcomes will only be enhanced.”

Rodriguez, the principal, personally knows the power of preschool because it helped shape her and her entire family. She grew up in Ontario, Ore., with parents who migrated from Mexico unable to speak English. She and her brother attended a federally-funded migrant Head Start program, which offered her mother wrap-around services, including driving lessons and a citizenship class. In time, her mother became a Head Start teacher and then director of a Head Start center. Rodriguez went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in bilingual education at Boise State University, her master’s in school administration at Concordia University in Portland, and her doctorate in education leadership at George Fox University in Newberg.

The principal has tapped a variety of funding sources to offer preschool at Echo Shaw. The school used federal migrant student support to pay for its first half-day preschool five years ago, which it expanded to three-quarters of a day in the following year. That meant, though, it could only serve migrant students in its preschool. In the third year, it was able to use both migrant and federal Title I money to offer two half-day preschool classes for all 4-year-olds. For this year and last, the school has used Title I money and support from Preschool Promise to offer a full-day and a half-day class. Last year, nearby Cornelius Elementary also started offering preschool with the help of a Preschool Promise grant. District leaders are exploring how to expand preschool district wide, O’Neill says. “There is definite support to do this,” he says, “but funding is a barrier.”

Rodriguez says she will continue foraging for every funding source she can find to keep her preschool thriving, and she hopes, expanding.

“It is not a silver bullet,” she says, “but I believe the kindergarten readiness we see in our preK students is worth every penny that we have put into it.”

Additional Resources on Preschool Promise
Toward Equitable Achievement in Oregon with Abdikadir Bashir Mohamud

Early Learning Multnomah

Preschool Promise: Quality Preschool for Lane County Kids

Preschool Promise to Help Hundreds, Statesman Journal

Preschool Promise to Help 170 Washington County Children Attend Preschool, Early Learning Washington County