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KC pre-K schooling first needs pre-K teachers

Updated: 2013-09-06T04:06:01Z

By JOE ROBERTSON

The Kansas City Star

To understand what lofty-minded Kansas City visionaries are up against in carrying out a plan for universal pre-kindergarten, consider this:

Even a college program director helping to train the necessary army of pre-K classroom teachers was once ready to abandon the early-childhood education field.

Waiting tables seemed a better way to go.

“I was this close to giving it up,” Rebecca Curtis said, with just a sliver of light between her thumb and forefinger.

She was a new teacher then, living with her parents and not making enough money to go out on her own. She felt the same financial stress that still weighs on early-childhood teachers.

It’s the same stress crippling the entire industry. Low wages. High turnover. A scarcity of skilled teachers.

“My teaching career was doomed,” said Curtis, now the director of the Francis Institute for Child and Youth Development at Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley.

“I could either get a master’s degree and go the administration route, or … become a waitress somewhere.”

Last week, the Kansas City Public Schools’ Early Childhood Education Commission finished its summer-long work, shaping a plan to provide high-quality classrooms for all 3- and 4-year-olds living within the district boundaries.

Myriad hurdles lie ahead to create what could eventually cost $38 million a year to serve some 6,000 children.

The bulk of the cost, and the heaviest task, will be recruiting, preparing and keeping hundreds of well-trained front-line workers.

While the merits of such high expenditures of public and private dollars will be debated in the months to come, some truths are clear.

Most families want early-childhood education.

In cities and school systems that now provide universal pre-K programs, 70 percent to 80 percent of the children in the communities enroll.

In communities like the Kansas City area with limited options, hundreds of families put their names on waiting lists for public school pre-K slots. Families who can’t afford private programs with degreed teaching staffs seek out inexpensive options. Many get by with minimal day care.

A survey of the Kansas City area by the Metropolitan Council on Early Learning in 2010 estimated that 77 percent of children in early programs were in sites that met only basic licensing standards.

Most early learning professionals earned “near poverty level wages” between $17,500 and $23,800 a year, the survey showed. One out of four center-based programs reported staff turnover rates in excess of 25 percent.

The Kansas City Early Childhood Education Commission has set a target of making high-quality programs available to 80 percent of the 3- and 4-year-olds in the district’s boundaries within five years, regardless of a family’s ability to pay.

They want children in quality-rated programs that use research-based curriculum taught by certified early-childhood teachers.

As much as possible, they want to build on the millions of private dollars already supporting programs.

They recommend a commission that will gather and distribute funding across a network of public and private providers that have earned a quality rating from another, independent rating commission.

The Kansas City school board will hear the commission’s proposal at its Sept. 11 meeting. If the board puts the plan into action, the commission would at first stretch the program as far as it can on existing revenue and on whatever further private funding can be raised.

But within five years, if the commission is to reach its universal goal, the school district probably will have to go to voters and request a tax levy increase.

Whether enticing funders or convincing voters, promoters of the universal pre-K dream are “selling an outcome,” said Jerry Kitzi, director of early-childhood programs for the Kansas City Public Schools.

That means showing more children will enter kindergarten ready to learn. More will be reading on grade level by the third grade. More will graduate high school and go to college or into careers.

Fewer teenage pregnancies. Fewer needing public assistance. Fewer in prison.

Nothing is more essential toward that outcome than the teachers, said Steve Bennett of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

“Almost all of the money,” he said, “is in that.”

The institute has paid particularly close attention to the universal pre-K programming that was court-ordered for the 31 poorest school districts in New Jersey in 1999.

The state channeled millions of dollars into elevating the skills and the pay of early-childhood teachers.

Programs provided scholarships to help teachers get higher degrees. Teams of coaches were established for ongoing training. And the pay scales and benefits were made equal to those of elementary school teachers.

“This was transformational,” Bennett said. “The teachers viewed themselves as true professionals.”

Pre-K programs that had been providing schooling that was “poor to mediocre” were now “good to excellent,” he said.

“The constant struggle is that people want results,” Bennett said. “But you can’t get it without paying the teachers. There isn’t a cheap solution.”

Most young teachers trying to support themselves or a family can’t abide the current climate’s low wages, Curtis said. And many won’t have the means or the persistence to pursue the master’s degree and administrative opportunities that kept Curtis in the field.

Early-childhood programs typically don’t have the kind of support that Penn Valley’s program does, seeded and supported by the Francis Family Foundation.

“We’re here in a $5 million building,” she said. All around her, children in the institute’s laboratory school came walking, jumping and dancing in from water play on a hot summer morning, soon to settle down to coloring, or reading picture books with their teachers.

She’s glad she stayed in early-childhood education, she said. She hopes the rising tide for better programming will help more children get this kind of experience.

“I don’t want to watch another cycle of children go by and think we’re not making a difference.”

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

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