Hickman Mills shifts resources to kids’ earliest years

Special to the Star

The Hickman Mills School District has stepped into the early childhood education limelight, sporting its new Ervin Early Learning Center.

The school provides free, all-day pre-kindergarten instruction, along with kindergarten, to more than 800 children. The district spent $10.5 million to renovate the former middle school building that houses the center, which celebrated its official opening on Friday. About 100 people attended.

“To my knowledge, this is the only school in the state that offers full-day pre-K, free and with bus transportation,” said Kansas City Councilman John Sharp, who lives nearby and attended the event.

Renovation started in May 2014, and the first phase opened in August for pre-kindergarten. The project was completed in January, when kindergarten instruction started. The district now provides all of its early childhood schooling at the Ervin Center and the Freda Markley Early Childhood Center, which offers pre-kindergarten instruction only and has nearly 300 students.

Providing instruction at the two schools will cost about $3 million a year, district Superintendent Dennis Carpenter said. The district had to cut back on some instruction services, including tutoring, in order to channel funds to its early childhood programs.

Carpenter said the emphasis on early childhood education, though, is crucial to students’ ongoing learning. He said he’d often referred to the district “as a resurgent school district that tried to build a model based on reacting to rapid change, with necessary remediation. Now we’re being proactive.”

Money spent for schools like Ervin also eventually helps decrease crime, incarcerations and students’ mental health problems, he said.

“There are essential things that are necessary to provide an early childhood program,” said Shaunda Fowler, the Ervin Center’s principal. “Research shows that learning is a lifelong process, and it benefits the local community, society and the nation as a whole. When you think in terms of what it means for students who typically don’t go to pre-kindergarten — they’ll get social skills, and literacy and math skills.”

LaRaya Griffith, a 5-year-old kindergartner at the Ervin Center, stopped reading aloud a book called “A Fly Went By” just long enough to critique her school.

“I like learning and I like reading,” she said.

Brittany Murphy’s 6-year-old son, Jason, also attends kindergarten at the Ervin Center.

“I love the building,” Murphy said. “I worked for Jumpstart for four years, and you learn a lot about how kids at early ages learn. They like lots of bright colors and letters and words displayed on the walls.”

Jumpstart trains community volunteers and college students to help preschool-age children in low-income neighborhoods.

Councilman Sharp said he loved the building, too.

“I can walk here,” he said. “I live right down that way. It’s great to see the Hickman Mills School District be a leader again in public education.”

Kansas City Mayor Pro-Tem Cindy Circo also attended Friday’s event.

“This school is extremely important,” Circo said, “because there’s so much data about the importance of early learning. These kids are a sponge, and it’ll help them throughout their schooling.”