Early childhood education spotlight is on KC

Early childhood education spotlight is on KC

Joe Robertson

Patience in priming pre-kindergartners for learning is pretty much gone.

It doesn’t matter that power saws were still buzzing on the other side of temporary plywood walls when Hickman Mills rushed its new child center into service last week.

It doesn’t matter, with Kansas City pushing a citywide campaign, whether the financing cavalry of federal grants, state funding or local levies is coming.

No one wants to wait. Not in schools, and not in homes and neighborhoods.

Kansas City is throwing its voice, clamoring to be heard all the way into the ears of every adult who circles around a child in a baby chair, with calls to action that everyone can apply:

All the world’s an early learning stage.

Not just in preschool. Not just in dutiful bedtime reading.

Everywhere. In wondering about the fruit in the grocery store. In watching the colored clothes swirling in the laundromat dryer. In laughing over a cartoon character’s motives.

They want us talking to children. Flooding them with language. Filling their heads with words.

Educators, social service providers, pediatricians, church leaders and policymakers are gathering in Kansas City Monday with the mission of deputizing the entire community for a campaign called “Talk, Read, Play.”

“Everybody has awoken to the idea that there are five years to kindergarten,” Libby Doggett, U.S. Department of Education deputy assistant secretary, told The Star. “And those are five precious years.”

Doggett, just in Texas where another city, San Antonio, was marshaling its community, will keynote Monday’s event at the Kauffman Foundation Conference Center.

Mayor Sly James, she said, is joining the leaders in the chorus. “They’re saying: ‘Cities can’t wait. These are our kids,’” she said.

The urgency, long heard but not always heeded, is stronger than ever, said Judy Carta, an early childhood and special education specialist with the University of Kansas.

“In 30 years,” she said, “I have never seen anywhere close to this magnitude on this issue.”

Carta and other researchers have been building on the work at KU’s Juniper Gardens Children’s Project in Kansas City, Kan., on what it takes to get all children prepared for school.

Families and communities need to help children overcome the word deficit described by researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley as the “30 million word gap.” That’s the cumulative difference in the number of words children hear in typical lower-income homes compared with the number typically heard in more-affluent homes.

That results in a vocabulary gap, at 36 months, of 900 words — 300 for lower-income children, on average, compared with 1,200 for more-affluent kids — that can cripple readiness for reading, Carta said.

Hickman Mills has heard the alarms.

Superintendent Dennis Carpenter wanted to make early learning classrooms and bus transportation available for all 4-year-olds in the 6,000-student district in south Kansas City.

To do it this school year meant hard cuts elsewhere in the budget and rushing the rehabilitation of a former middle school building. It meant starting before the construction was done.

But the school board and community voices urged the district on, he said.

“They said: ‘Don’t put it off. Don’t put it off.’”

The school district is one of a host of agencies, businesses and institutions planning to make commitments Monday to serve the citywide mission.

Hickman Mills’ remodeled school will have a parent center with resources to help them inspire these children and their younger siblings to come.

“Parents want to teach their child,” Hickman Mills pre-K teacher Amanda Haydu said. They are eager, she said. They are asking how they can help.

The district took in about 500 4-year-olds the first day and is expecting to get close to 600 when enrollment fills out in the next couple of weeks.

Kansas City Public Schools, while still working with many partners on how to get the community to universal pre-K, is expanding from 866 to about 1,200 children in its programs this year, racing its own construction deadlines to open a second center, said Jerry Kitzi, director of early education.

Past surveys by The Star have found every area school district to be looking for ways to expand early learning.

Kansas and Missouri are both trying to come from behind in dedicating more support for state-funded early learning. Kansas ranks 38th and Missouri 39th in the nation, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

Nationwide, 28 percent of the nation’s 4-year-olds are in state-funded pre-K programs, in addition to 13 percent in federal Head Start and special education programs.

The lengthy recession has taken its toll, the institute reported in its latest “State of Preschool” report for 2013. The number of children in programs has been edging up, but the spending per child has declined, diluting funding and raising concerns about quality.

The federal government, having dedicated $250 million for competitive preschool development block grants, is lending support, though the funding is spread thin.

More and more cities are taking matters into their own hands.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio made universal pre-K for 4-year-olds a campaign issue in 2013 and is working toward an income tax to enroll more than 70,000 by 2015.

San Antonio voters approved a sales tax in 2012 that has begun phasing in programming that aims to reach 3,700 4-year-olds by 2016.

Seattle’s city council passed a resolution in 2013 to make preschool available to all 3- and 4-year-olds.

Other notable campaigns have launched in Boston, San Francisco, Denver and Cleveland.

Carta particularly likes the “Providence Talks” campaign in Rhode Island, which is organizing communities to spur families to start talking to their children even before they are born.

She wants a “Kansas City Talks” movement.

The details of the road forward remain uncertain, said Jim Caccamo, director of early learning at the Mid-America Regional Council.

Money questions are hard. Ideas for early education revenue, such as a possible dedicated statewide tobacco tax or local levies through school or library districts, continue to look for footing.

But the focus on early learning, Caccamo said, has never been sharper.

“It’s no longer a matter of believing it makes a difference,” he said. “It’s a matter of will.”