Daisuke Riley laughed as the Big Bad Wolf — in the form of a leaf blower with a illustrated face taped to the front — inched closer to the house he had constructed in a Comanche Elementary classroom this July.
The 5-year-old had built a structure out of foam blocks with his parents, Jonathan and Kimberly. After the “wolf” held by teacher Nancy Abraham blew his house to the ground, he discussed why lighter materials are less sturdy with Abraham and his parents.
For the past four years, the Shawnee Mission School District has offered the Jump Start program as a chance to expose incoming kindergarteners to the classroom before the beginning of the school year.
This summer, a two-year $373,000 grant from the Early Education Funders Collaborative at the Greater Kansas City Foundation helped lengthen the Jump Start program from three to four weeks, expand the program to new sites and pay additional teachers.
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In addition, it allowed its directors to add bus transportation, breakfast and parent engagement days, like the activity the Rileys participated in, to the program.
“It was immediately something we were interested in,” Jonathan Riley said. “…The extra opportunity for (Daisuke) to learn more and have those extra interactions with other kids and teachers.”
The Shawnee Mission School District’s early education programs — including the Jump Start summer program and the district’s pre-kindergarten programs — have expanded this year as school leaders revamp the district’s pre-kindergarten offerings, an effort outlined in the district’s most recent strategic plan spearheaded by former superintendent Jim Hinson.
Since former district communications director Leigh Anne Neal was named to a newly created position, assistant superintendent of the district’s early education programs, earlier this year, the district has announced several ways it has increased enrollment in existing programs.
This year, roughly 300 incoming kindergarteners from 19 schools participated in Jump Start, an increase from the 230 students last year when the program primarily funded by Shawnee Mission Education Foundation grants from groups like H&R Block Foundation and federal dollars set aside for needy students served 13 schools and about 230 students.
And starting this school year, the district will also double the number of school sites in its pre-kindergarten program — the program for 4- and 5-year-olds who are not eligible for kindergarten — and offer programs at 14 sites during the 2017-18 school year.
“We’ve been able to offer services (before), but in a limited fashion,” Neal said. “I think there is a growing discussion about the value of early education. Now, we are starting to see some action.”
Traditionally, early education programs in the district have been focused on serving disadvantaged families and held at sites that receive federal Title I dollars that help with this purpose.
For the first time this school year, the district is offering tuition-based pre-kindergarten at Trailwood and Briarwood for families that don’t meet qualifications for a free program. The cost is $75 per week.
Enrollment in both the no-fee and fee programs are around 75 percent, and offered at a first-come, first-serve basis. Families can continue to sign up for pre-kindergarten online, Neal said.
Shari Hardinger, an administrative intern with the program, said the idea behind pre-kindergarten and other programs such as Jump Start is to give kids a head start on social, emotional and academic skills — students received breakfast and a snack, participated in literacy and math exercises and worked on social skills that are expected in a school environment, like raising your hand or walking in a line.
“I have heard a lot of teachers and principals say they can tell when (kids) have been to Jump Start,” Hardinger said.
Parents like Nick Withington say they see the emotional benefits of programs like Jump Start as much as intellectual strides made by their children.
Pre-kindergarten was a time of major meltdowns for his 4-year-old twins, Withington said. His daughter, Ashley, cried: “Mommy, don’t leave.” A principal had to help carry a sobbing Zoe from the car to the classroom.
“We didn’t want to go through that again,” Withington said. “We figured (Jump Start) would be a good program to help them acclimate.”
On a recent Friday, Withington joined his girls for a parent activity involving measuring — creating handmade beanstalks they learned about after reading Jack and the Beanstalk.
Since he intentionally asked for his daughters to be placed in separate classrooms, he worked with Ashley first, helping her apply green construction paper to a paper towel roll.
Soon, he would slip away to participate in a Three Billy Goats Gruff activity in Zoe’s classroom.
Ashley, focused on the project at hand, didn’t seem bothered at all.