KC area school districts make a push to put more students in pre-kindergarten

05/18/2014 11:28 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

That little boy over there — Misty Johnson’s 5-year-old boy — wants to see New York City.

And that’s not all, Johnson says.

“He told me, ‘Mom, I want to go to Japan!’”

A swelling movement toward universal pre-kindergarten, still scattered and starving for resources in Kansas City, can’t arrive soon enough for families like the Johnsons.

She watches her son, Greyson, burrowing his hands in a box of marble rocks with other children in a bona fide preschool — finally — at least for a few months.

She and her husband know the angst of waiting lists: being not poor enough to seize one of the preschool world’s precious free slots but unable to afford high-quality classrooms on their own.

“He knows his world is big,” Johnson says, watching Greyson. “I want him to grow in a school. I want the best school for him.”

More schools and communities, convinced of the value of early education, are scraping in every direction for funding where there has been little or none.

A Kansas City task force is discussing a possible election to raise its local tax levy.

Other groups are contemplating a push for a statewide tobacco tax increase.

Lawmakers are trying to carve sliver by sliver out of state budgets that haven’t even met obligations to fully fund K-12 education, let alone expand pre-kindergarten.

The Hickman Mills School District in southeast Kansas City, not willing to wait, will open school and provide transportation for all of its 4-year-olds this August at a cost of severe cuts to other programming.

In the Kansas City Public Schools, “We are at an important point in the evolution of education,” said Jerry Kitzi, who directs early childhood programming for the district.

“There’s a lot of talk from the president all the way down to me standing here,” he told a Kansas City school board audience last week. “There has never been this much chatter in my 40 years in this field.”

It’s hard to know just how many families are caught in what Deidre Anderson of the St. Mark Child and Family Development Center calls “a vicious wheel.”

Those are the families chasing a better living, stretching out of poverty, but then having to pay for the kind of pre-kindergarten schooling everyone desires for children to be kindergarten-ready.

Schools want pre-K programming, but they get little public funding to support it, typically serving only the neediest families or children in special education.

Parents want it, Anderson said, but many will sacrifice high quality and turn to home-based care or relatives, or bargain for half-day or partial-week attendance.

The Upper Room, a nonprofit social service agency in Kansas City, wants it for its families.

The agency, which serves the Town Fork Creek and Blue Hills neighborhoods, has developed a hefty menu of community programs, but it is sinking the lion’s share of the revenue it generates into early childhood programming.

“This is the future of our community,” agency director Jerry McEvoy said.

This is where Misty Johnson found a preschool spot for Greyson earlier this year, here in what is a pilot run of a school program the Upper Room will launch tuition-free for 40 children this August.

It takes funding for certified teachers, curriculum and all the materials of an engaging learning center. They also link to a network of other family support services.

“This is where it starts,” McEvoy said, talking of community revival. “(But) we’re struggling with it now. It’s not scalable.”

For Johnson — struggling on a “hit-and-miss” income as a beautician who has tried to open her own salon, and her husband’s new work installing Google Fiber — getting Greyson in the pilot program was “a great relief,” she said.

But beyond the 40 who are enrolled for August, said school director Helen Jones, there are, at last count, 62 on a growing waiting list.

Taylore Robertson and LaTonya Fisher know the drill.

Robertson is a school bus driver who is overqualified for the federal Head Start program and who had jumped onto several waiting lists trying to find a place she could afford for her 4-year-old son, Deyaad.

Fisher is the director of the Alphabet Academy private preschool in Kansas City — an educator who is constantly trying to work out ways for families to get into the academy’s classrooms.

“They’ve got car payments to make,” Fisher said. “They’re trying to stay ahead.” They look for help from family or friends. For one, “Grandpa is helping, picking up half (the tuition).”

It’s hard to charge less than $75 a week, “but three days for $60? We’ll do that.”

Robertson was able to get some assistance through the Missouri Department of Social Services’ Child Care Assistance Program, so Deyaad is here.

The letter of the day at Alphabet Academy was “D,” and Deyaad vigorously sorted it out from a handful of large, laminated letters, then shouted out “D” words.

“Dog! Dinosaur! Duck!”

“He’s not sitting around watching TV, like at a home day care,” Robertson said.

The strain of the sluggish economy has put more pressure on families in their search for preschooling, said Katrina Ball, the director of child care resource and referral for the Family Conservancy, based in Kansas City, Kan.

Of course they want high quality, Ball said. Parents ask for it. But they have to worry about driving their child there, and they are juggling often low-paying jobs.

“The questions come down to ‘What hours (are they open)?’ ‘Where is it?’ ‘What is the cost?’” Ball said. “It’s about survival. What can they do?”

One by one, new Hickman Mills Superintendent Dennis Carpenter posed for a picture with every incoming kindergartner on the first day of school last August.

It’s a district tradition he gladly inherited. Each child received a picture book as well, and Carpenter thought it good for the picture if the child held it open as if to read it.

He was startled, he recalled, at how many of the children — maybe half — weren’t familiar enough with books to know how to hold one.

Carpenter, who came from Georgia, one of a few states including Oklahoma with universal public pre-kindergarten, was already a believer in pre-K investment.

But he was becoming convinced that Hickman Mills, where more than 80 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, needed a full pre-K advantage.

The district of 6,300 students had been using its combination of federal and state-grant dollars to place about 250 pre-K students in half-day programming.

Come August, the district will be preparing to serve up to 600 4-year-old children in full-day school, with bus transportation provided the same as for all of its K-12 students.

It’s going to cost.

Programming costs will leap from $3.4 million to $5.8 million. Transportation will increase by another $450,000, the district is estimating.

The district is finding ways to make some needed budget trims, but finding close to $3 million is painful, Carpenter said.

One difficult cut is the elimination of reading specialists and some special tutoring in the elementary and secondary grades. He’d like to keep them, he said, but those programs had served primarily as remedial prep for the state tests, with short-lived benefits.

“You can keep playing the game (of cramming students for the tests), or you can try to make changes that are sustainable,” he said. “That’s the course I’m going to run.”

Jerry Kitzi would love to be able to promise a classroom seat for every 4-year-old within the Kansas City Public Schools’ boundaries. And every 3-year-old.

A community task force created by the Kansas City school board is trying to find ways to make it happen. Its charge is to locate resources without relying on new state funds, though they would welcome the money.

Missouri lawmakers pushing to add pre-K to the state’s general funding of schools sparked a small glimmer Friday at the end of the 2014 session.

They passed a bill that will allow unaccredited districts in 2015 to include preschool students in the general per-student funding from the state, though only for the number of preschoolers equal to 4 percent of all district students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

The intent is to reach some of those families who are under financial stress but who do not qualify for the existing federally and state-funded programming for high-needs children.

Provisionally accredited districts get to add the same limited number of preschool students in 2016. All districts could benefit beginning in 2017, but only if the state is fully meeting its K-12 funding formula, which remains unlikely.

The task force in Kansas City wants to reach far beyond that. It has imagined increasing the district’s programming and certifying a network of new or existing community programs to join in providing seats for 6,000 children ages 3 and 4.

The answer may come by asking voters to approve a levy increase, the task force has reported. Other groups are exploring the viability of a campaign for a tobacco tax increase dedicated at least in part to statewide support for pre-K.

For now, the school district serves 950 children in its pre-K centers — and their families with advocates, parent education programs and health services.

Many determined agencies are doing what they can, Kitzi said, but “we’re cobbling together a system to make it work. It’s piecemeal.”

But, at an estimated $8,000 a year per child, just providing universal pre-K for Kansas City’s 4-year-olds would require $25 million, “and you can’t piecemeal that,” he said.

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

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