Kansas City’s most essential economic development campaign could start right here.
Squirmy Brooklyn Hill, a month short of 1 year old, pawing and chewing at a book in new teacher Vanidee Nelson’s lap.
“I love children,” Nelson said, fully aware of what she can do one child at a time in Operation Breakthrough’s infant and toddler classroom. “I want them to be fully prepared.”
She’s stepping into just one role in an immense citywide effort that Mayor Sly James calls Kansas City’s greatest mission: Getting all children reading at grade level by the third grade.
“My most important economic development priority,” he says. “Bigger than Google.”
The plan to get there is uniting social service groups, pediatricians, librarians, health care providers, summer school programmers, youth clubs, ministers, counselors and educators from multiple school systems.
“It’s not just a school district issue,” said Judy Heeter, who is coordinating the campaign. “It’s a community issue. It has to be a clear vision with a clear structure and a clear way to measure success.”
The urgency comes with a lot of statistics.
One out of every six children who are not reading at a proficient level by third grade ultimately either drops out or does not graduate on time, according to research by the City University of New York for the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Those odds are four times worse than for their proficient peers.
Then consider that only one-third of the third-graders in public schools in Kansas City’s city limits scored at a proficient level or better in 2011. Those numbers draw from all or portions of 11 school districts, plus charter schools.
Consider further a national estimate, published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, that each dropout over a lifetime typically accounts for $260,000 in lost earnings, taxes and productivity.
That alone makes the reading crusade a matter of economics.
But more directly, said James, who has been a member of the board for Kansas City’s Genesis School and seen teachers like Nelson with children and books:
“It’s the right thing to do.”Many efforts, one goal
Creating a plan isn’t a matter of trying to conjure a new beast out of a lab.
It’s more like bringing everyone together to show what they’ve got in their hands, Heeter said. After all, determined people have been working on childhood literacy for generations.
Some 30 people on work teams have been gathering data, setting baselines and looking for successes that can be shared, merged and expanded to reach Kansas City’s far-reaching borders.
James has asked for $50,000 in the city budget to seed the effort, which also launches Kansas City in a nationwide contest to earn the National Civic League’s All-America City Award. The city filed its community solutions action plan with the civic league on Monday.
The group is drawing on experience gained by already engaged efforts like early childhood programs at Operation Breakthrough, the Guadalupe Centers and St. Mark Union Church.
They’re looking at YouthFriends, the Mid-Continent Public Library’s family outreach, the summer and after-school reading programs in the Swope Corridor Renaissance’s Upper Room and many more.
And as for how to take the message into homes, where it all has to start, the Center School District may have the ticket.
Call it “Made Smart.”
Center’s still-forming plan to blanket its community in the small south Kansas City school district now has planners thirsting to somehow eventually take it across the city’s 315 square miles.
Center this August plans to open connections with families throughout its neighborhoods with booklets, large refrigerator magnets and posters that they will be distributing even by knocking on doors.
The “Made Smart” campaign means to find all parents, whether already with a child in school or as they come home with a newborn, and tell them that their “smart steps toward college” have already begun.
The district hopes not only to put education tips in their hands, but also to foster collaboration between parents and teachers spanning their child’s growth, said Center’s public relation’s director, Kelly Wachel.
“We need real, personal relationships,” she said. The people inviting families in “have to be trusted.”
The project is daunting even just to make it work for Center, let alone the entire city.
The city is going to have to recruit and train volunteers, gather and master the use of data, and find money for staff and materials.
Kansas City Public Schools has been trying to provide universal pre-kindergarten programming since 2007, struggling to fill education gaps not funded by the state.
Basic state aid for schools begins at kindergarten, and the districts and charters in Kansas City generally provide little pre-K programming beyond the limited federally funded Head Start classrooms for low-income children.
“We need early childhood education,” Kansas City interim Superintendent Steve Green said, calling it his chief long-range improvement plan.
Both James and Green talk of the need for philanthropic support from foundations and businesses.‘Literacy is everywhere’
The multiple efforts the city will require to reach its goal will be wide ranging.
The swarm of learning tools surveyed recently by Donna Cook, an education coordinator at Operation Breakthrough, would be on the high end.
Preschoolers in small groups gather around teachers with books and writing pads, or play in play areas plastered with word labels and scattered about with more books.
Charts on the wall mark their classroom agendas. Teacher notes on each child’s progress are logged in individual binder folders, and entered into computer files along with regular assessment data.
They involve the parents. They monitor children’s health and help link families to resources in hope of stabilizing homes.
“Literacy is everywhere in everything,” Cook said. “We do it multiple ways. We do it in everything we do.”
Success will depend on those kinds of efforts, but on simpler ones as well, James said.
He’s been sending out a regular reminder by Twitter, he said.
“Don’t forget to read with a child today.”
People have already contacted the mayor’s office wanting to help — a “deluge,” he said — and he expects more.
“This has real potential,” James said, “to show the quality, generosity and seriousness of Kansas City people.”