No doubt there were skeptics. Mayor Sly James, five years ago, took the lead in a citywide crusade to make Kansas City children stronger readers.
The mission, Turn the Page KC, would have to navigate more than a dozen school districts and a host of charter schools in bringing new and existing education resources to bear — with the city’s fractured history of school politics ready to darken the path.
But an analysis by The Star shows the program to be a success — so far. Kansas City children at the critical point of third grade are stronger readers now than when Turn the Page started in 2012.
“The vision of the mayor has brought energy to everyone working in this space,” said former state Education Commissioner Bob Bartman, a member of the Turn the Page board.
The combined performance of Kansas City’s districts and charter schools shows that third-graders have narrowed the performance gap between the city and the Missouri state average.
The gap is narrowing within subgroups, as well — among low-income students, black students and Hispanic students.
National awards have come Kansas City’s way for its focus on reading tutors, kindergarten readiness, summer school expansion and attendance.
But reflecting recently on the work so far, James felt the weight of the difficulties that persist.
Turn the Page needs an even stronger swell to reach its goal of seeing at least 70 percent of the city’s third-graders reading at grade level in 2017’s test results later this year.
The percentage of the city’s third-graders scoring proficient or advanced in reading rose from 35 to 55 percent since 2011, but that still trails the state’s improved rate of 61 percent high performers.
With two years left in his tenure, James stands face to face with what he described to The Star as “the most difficult part — trying to understand the factors you can’t control.” Factors like city economic divides and disparate home environments.
The mayor’s education adviser, Julie Holland, knows her inquiries are reaching in complicated directions. She wants to study the debilitating midyear migration of low-income students between schools.
Social issues also effect school success, so she’s asking hard questions surround the effects of resegregation, she said. Will white families integrate? Can we call quality classrooms high quality if the color of the students “is monochromatic”?
Turn the Page KC’s shining moments, though, are far simpler for 8-year-old Gary Barbor.
He had three new books in his hands, given to him through the United Way of Greater Kansas City’s My Very Own Library book giveaway with Scholastic books.
He stood in a throng of second-graders at Primitivo Garcia Elementary School on Kansas City’s west side. Each child’s eyes searched across a sea of adults gathered by the local nonprofit volunteer recruiter Lead to Read.
“Hey, buddy,” a voice called to him. It was his weekly partner, Chato Villalobos, a Kansas City police officer, with a raised-fist greeting. Other adults there came from the Bryan Cave law firm and Service Management Group marketing company, giving up a lunch hour — all of them partners in the mission.
It was Valentine’s Day, and Gary hopped over to his friend with a handwritten card ready.
“Dear Mr. Villalobos,” his card said. “Thank you for helping me read words I don’t know yet. It means a lot to me…”
James said the heart of Turn the Page for volunteers had to be “as narrow and focused as possible.”
“We can sidestep a lot of the nonsense that goes on in large bureaucracies. It’s sitting down and reading with kids and getting them in school.”
Not in the original plan
James didn’t ride into office with a reading mission.
But it came soon after a conversation at his first U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Baltimore in 2011, sitting with Ralph Smith, director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.
Smith’s statistics were alarming. One out of every six children not reading proficiently by third grade drops out or doesn’t graduate on time — odds that are four times worse than for proficient readers.
Most won’t catch up, won’t achieve higher education, will be many times more likely to be arrested, will typically account for hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost earnings, taxes and productivity over a lifetime that is also likely to be shortened.
“I was in Month Two of being in office,” James said. “I got it. (I determined) we ought to do something here.”
By early 2012, Turn the Page came rolling out. The city brought together work groups, involving hundreds of people, including social services providers, pediatricians, librarians, health care providers, youth club workers, ministers, counselors and educators from multiple school districts.
The campaign’s message was “this is an urgent problem,” said Judy Heeter, its first coordinator and current vice president of the Turn the Page board. “And there is a role for everyone to play.”
They established targets:
▪ Improve attendance by working with schools and communities to reduce chronic absenteeism, and reduce out-of-school suspensions.
▪ Work against “summer slide” by helping schools and libraries draw more children into summer learning programs.
▪ Support early childhood programming to boost kindergarten-readiness.
Mike English, the executive director of Turn the Page KC, said numbers from school districts and charters show that the percentage of children in kindergarten through third grade who missed 18 or more days of school has dropped from 14 to 10 percent since 2013.
The percentage of low-income children across the city who attended summer school grew from 7 to 44 percent, with the most growth in Kansas City Public Schools.
The number of volunteers in schools has topped 1,500, and more than 240,000 books have been distributed to children.
Just how much credit for this growth goes to Turn the Page is impossible to know. The campaign mostly joined and encouraged work already underway by institutions and groups long invested in helping make children better readers.
But the impact should not be underestimated, said Brent Schondelmeyer, deputy director for community engagement at the Local Investment Commission, which has been running after-school programs.
James has visited nearly 120 schools since the beginning to read to children, and when you see him reading, Schondelmeyer said, “It’s a love fest going on. It’s one thing to poke your head in and say, ‘Hi,’ and another thing to pull up a rocking chair and gather up kids and read to them.”
Turn the Page has brought people and organizations together that didn’t work together before, Schondelmeyer said.
“I would credit the mayor with that urgency,” he said.
The city budgets $50,000 to seed the program, and the rest of Turn the Page’s $275,000 in expenses in its 2016 report were supported by foundations, grants and donations.
Much of the work is carried out by partners — either recruited to the city, like Literacy Lab, or existing programs that the city has endorsed, like Lead to Read — operating on their own budgets and revenue sources.
Literacy Lab, which trains AmeriCorps volunteers to provide intense reading intervention, is now in 16 buildings across several Kansas City districts and charters and will be expanding.
The Local Investment Commission and the United Way are helping distribute books. The public library systems and community groups are pushing summer reading.
The Family Conservancy has been enlisting everyone to take up early literacy with its Talk, Read, Play campaign in engaging children every day.
“Millennials are jazzed for volunteering — others, too,” said Pauly Hart, director of reader development at Lead to Read. “The bottom line is everyone wants our kids and schools to succeed. They see really good things going on in the public schools.”
On to Phase Two
Now, though, the work looks deeper.
The city is collaborating with the Kansas City Area Education Research Consortium to try to learn from what schools and their communities know about the transiency of families, particularly in lower-income neighborhoods.
They expect to pick into issues of public housing policy, the impacts of school discipline practices, the dynamics of race.
“The landscape is so complex,” said Karin Chang, the executive director of the research consortium. “The question is, how do we measure those things that are critically important, but hard to measure?”
James is making sure the work can carry on after his tenure ends. Because there will always be more work to do.
Turn the Page now operates independently of the city as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, with its own board of directors. It is establishing its own funding sources.
To James, this has been just the “first phase” of Turn the Page.
It’s set to run on its own, he said, “so there will be other people pushing the ball up the hill.”
It’s not impossible work, either, Heeter said.
“It’s not like boiling the ocean,” she said. “We know where the levers are, and we need a lot of people to help.”