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So much more than school: Shawnee Mission, Olathe help disadvantaged students

All-day kindergarten is available for free to all children in the Shawnee Mission School District, including at Apache Elementary.
All-day kindergarten is available for free to all children in the Shawnee Mission School District, including at Apache Elementary. skeyser@kcstar.com

Cans of soup, peanut butter jars and boxes of cereal line the walls of a small food pantry.

It’s a modest space, but it has helped families at Olathe’s Fairview Elementary School who may need extra help getting food from week to week. The school calls it the “sharing center.”

“We really want to make sure that people have the staples of food that they would need,” said Kamiel Rawie, the school’s principal.

Across the hall, empty containers line the walls of the cafeteria, ready to be filled with breakfast supplies for the next morning. The school provides free breakfast for every student each school day. Sometimes it’s something warm like pancakes or cinnamon rolls, and sometimes it’s something cold like fruit or a cereal bar. But every school day, the students are able to eat the first meal in their classroom with their friends.

These aren’t the only extras the school — where about 78 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch — provides for its students. Fairview, in Olathe Public Schools, has also placed an emphasis on strengthening relationships between students and the adults in the school, who serve as positive role models.

“The relationships are what is going to keep them successful and keep them connected to school,” Rawie said.

The leadership at the school knows that for each student to find success, the school must meet more than a student’s academic needs — it also needs to meet their social and emotional needs.

It is able to do this through innovative programs and community partnerships, but Fairview isn’t alone. Across Johnson County, schools are going above and beyond to make sure they can meet the unique needs of students who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Both the Shawnee Mission and Olathe school districts were recently honored with 2015 Challenge Awards, given by the Confidence in Kansas Public Education Task Force to honor Kansas schools that are making a difference in student achievement despite facing significant challenges. In the Olathe district, Ridgeview Elementary School received the honor, which is given to schools based on Kansas assessment results, the sample size and socioeconomic status of those taking the assessment.

The Shawnee Mission School District had five Challenge Award winners and recently awarded Certificates of Merit to Shawanoe, Apache, Crestview, Nieman and Rising Star elementaries.

“To receive a Challenge Award really indicates that you had a larger hill to climb to begin with,” said Kevin Hansford, director of elementary title and early childhood for the Shawnee Mission School District.

Hansford said the award is a way of honoring schools that are faced with the sometimes-daunting task of not only helping students learn daily but also helping students who are struggling to get back on track. The schools that earn the award have done the hard work necessary to help each student improve his or her academic achievement on standardized tests.

“To receive the Challenge Award, I think, is something that really helps continue to build your spirit,” Hansford said.

While the Challenge Award is given primarily to recognize academic achievements on state assessments, the Shawnee Mission and Olathe districts’ efforts to help students succeed extends far beyond academics. They also have programs in place to help make sure students are fed, that they have the supplies they need and have access to interpreter services whenever necessary.

“We have such good people in our district and our community that they really do just about anything to help support kids in poverty, all kids — but they do a lot for kids in poverty,” said Brent Yeager, executive director of general administration and elementary for Olathe Public Schools.


With a median income of $75,017 a year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Johnson County is Kansas’ most affluent county. But the reality is that poverty is still present across the county.

According to the Census Bureau’s quick facts for the county, 6.6 percent of people residing in Johnson County meet the definition of being in poverty.

In 10 of the Olathe district’s 35 elementary schools, at least half of the students qualify for either free or reduced-price lunches. The Shawnee Mission School District currently has 11 Title I schools, all of them elementary schools. To qualify as a Title I school in the district, a minimum of 50 percent of the school’s students must qualify for free and reduced lunch support.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service determines each year which families are eligible for the lunch support based on family income. For example, for the 2015-2016 school year, a student from a family of four would be eligible to receive free lunch if the monthly family income was $2,628 or less. That same student would qualify for reduced-cost meals if the family’s monthly income was $3,739 or less.

Johnson County school districts have systems in place to make sure all children succeed, regardless of their economic background; however, children living in poverty may face their own set of challenges.

According to the American Psychological Association, children who come from lower socioeconomic households develop academic skills more slowly than those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds and may face an increased risk of dropping out.

Administrators say children from families with lower socioeconomic backgrounds may also have less access to technology at home, have fewer resources to afford extracurricular activities or may face a language barrier.

District officials, teachers and administrators try to overcome these obstacles by focusing on the possibilities for each student, rather than placing limits on his or her growth.

“You are not predestined based on your socioeconomics and/or your family background,” said Ed Streich, chief academic officer for the Shawnee Mission School District. “Our goal is to try to take students from where they are at to where they need to be, and we have to scaffold the instructional support to ensure those students can reach their goals and potential.”


In Johnson County, school districts’ support for students starts early — sometimes even before they officially begin school.

In 2014, the Shawnee Mission School District piloted a program called Jump Start that gives incoming kindergarten students in some schools an opportunity to spend time in their future school the summer before kindergarten.

“That gives us the opportunity to have our youngest learners, our future kindergartners, in their schools for about three weeks in July, and we really work on basic numeracy and literacy skills and also give them the opportunity for that social time as well,” said Christy Ziegler, assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and assessment for the district.

The feedback from the program has been so positive that the district has continued to expand the program each year and plans to do so again this year.

Olathe Public Schools has also made a commitment to early intervention and offers full-day kindergarten at all of its Title I schools at no cost to parents to ensure students can get the extra support they need from an early age.

“A lot of our kids in poverty don’t have the early exposure to school through preschool and things like that,” Yeager said, adding that the district uses the federal Title I funds it receives to help staff the programs.

The Olathe district also offers a summer school program at no cost for any student who is considered at-risk based on their math or reading achievement data. While this program isn’t based on income level, Yeager said it’s another opportunity to make sure all students have the resources and support to succeed.

District administrators point to research in the field to illustrate the importance of providing students in poverty with opportunities from an early age. For instance, two University of Kansas researchers, Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, published an article in 2003 that concluded that children from high-income families are exposed to 30 million more words than children from families on welfare by the age of 3.

It’s these staggering estimates that have prompted the Shawnee Mission School District to shift its focus to early education to get earlier access to students.

“There’s a lot of research that says that students who come from poverty — not all — come with a gap,” Hansford said.

Last year, the Shawnee Mission board of education decided to offer full-day kindergarten for all district students at no additional cost. The district also plans to expand its prekindergarten program into three new elementary schools next year.


The early intervention programs are just a few of the efforts in place to help students achieve their full academic potential.

Yeager said Olathe Public Schools has also made a concerted effort to keep class sizes smaller in schools that have higher percentages of students living in poverty.

“Our 10 title schools that are above 50 percent, they have a reading specialist and a math specialist in each of those schools to try to provide intervention and try to support those kids that may have gaps in their learning of foundational skills,” he said.

At Fairview Elementary, there are two reading specialists on-site who each work with about 10 small groups of students a day.

Through a partnership with Emporia State University, Title I schools in the Olathe school district are also able to get additional classroom support from student interns, who spend two full semesters at a school helping run reading groups and co-teaching with classroom teachers.

“Everybody benefits from having them here,” Rawie said.

Hansford said the Shawnee Mission School District currently uses the federal money it receives for Title I schools to provide instructional coaches in Title I buildings to work with teachers on innovative teaching techniques. The money is also used to pay for reading specialists in each building, as well as math specialists in some of the buildings to provide additional support for students who are struggling.

Johnson County school districts also work to incorporate technology into the classroom to ensure that even if students doesn’t have access to the technology at home, they are still able to keep pace with their peers by using it in the classroom.

One recent morning at Apache Elementary School, at 8910 Goddard St. in Overland Park, fourth-grade students were using iPads to record and investigate sound waves. They rotated through a series of stations that each had a different activity about sound and pitch.

At the end of the unit, they were going to build their own instruments to demonstrate their knowledge.

“Having it hands-on, they can relate it to real life,” said Mallory Combs, the teacher.

The activity was a hit with students.

“Mrs. Combs does a great job of making everything fun, but we’re still learning,” said fourth-grader Grace Maloney.

Apache Elementary was one of five Shawnee Mission School District elementaries to receive the Challenge Award. The award was given specifically to honor advancements made in the fourth grade.

“It definitely gives us confidence,” Combs said of the award. “It makes us really proud.”

Apache has recently been designated an innovative school within the district. The district plans to bring many of the best programs throughout the district into a central location, so that Apache can serve as a lab school where teachers and administrators can come visit to see the programs in action.


Academic achievement is a central component of any school system, but Johnson County districts also have programs that are designed to meet the social and emotional needs of students.

“We have a real mindset in our district that we don’t want kids to not have opportunity because they live in poverty, so some of the expenses that a family would typically incur to send a kid to prom, to have kids take an ACT, any of those kinds of things, our district does a really nice job of just having different mechanisms in place to help kids do that,” said Yeager of Olathe Public Schools.

Both school districts also place an emphasis on helping students develop healthy bonds with adults at school to create an environment where students feel comfortable and want to attend each day.

Olathe Public Schools has a youth mentorship program that pairs volunteers from the community with students who may need additional support. The pair then meets for weekly lunches at the school to talk about life, school or any problems the students may be facing.

Kansas City, Kan., resident Andre Tyler has been a youth mentor for about two years at Fairview Elementary and meets each week with three boys in the fourth and fifth grades. He said he’s been able to bond with the students over a shared love for sports, and he spends a lot of time during those weekly lunches focusing on relationships and the importance of being yourself and not succumbing to peer pressure.

“That’s really what I stress with them, is being an individual,” he said.

Many of the Title I elementary schools in the Shawnee Mission School District host family nights about once a quarter to get the families of students involved in the school community, as well.

“Relationships allow students to have the grit to begin to work on things that are not easy, and we really need to foster that — not just between the teacher and the student, but the school community, including parents,” Streich said. “We need allies.”

Both school districts also have interpreters on hand to help translate school documents or parent meetings to ensure there’s no loss of communication between families and the school system.

The Shawnee Mission School District is also developing a program this year to better serve the district’s homeless students.

Darren Dennis, director of supplemental programs, said the district has 375 students who qualify as homeless under the standards outlined by the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act.

This identification helps the district target students who may need additional resources such as food or clothing, but the district hopes to go a step further in a new program that would bring community resources such as United Way, KCP&L, employment agencies or charity organizations into one room to address student needs in a comprehensive meeting.

“We’ll bring these families in for an appointment and have all of these decisionmakers at the table who can work with them to remove barriers to try to be able to get the kids into a more stable situation so that they can finish school,” Dennis said. “And that is our ultimate goal — to get them to graduation and to be prepared for what’s next.”

These programs are just a few of the ways that the Shawnee Mission and Olathe school districts strive to meet the needs of the students they serve.

Whether its providing backpacks full of snacks for students over the weekend, partnering with colleges and universities to bring more resources into the classroom or finding a way to help a student pay for prom, both districts rely heavily on community partnerships to give students the opportunities and resources they need.

Yeager said without the community’s help, the district simply wouldn’t have the manpower to do it alone.

“I think by having great partnerships, it really gives the opportunity to focus on teaching and learning and the things we are here for.”

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