Malleki Louis, only 5, sprawled belly-down on classroom carpet, writing in a journal, unaware how he just might swing a Kansas City election come November.
A levy increase dedicated to universal pre-kindergarten for thousands of Kansas City children is in the works.
If the question makes it on the ballot in the Kansas City Public Schools district, voters may well consider the work of Malleki and his pre-K classmates in the neighboring Hickman Mills School District.
“Look, a zebra,” he said, holding up a spray of striped shapes drawn in his book under a pasted letter Z.
The end of the alphabet has arrived at Bethanie Cummings’ pre-K class, marking the end of the first year of Hickman Mills’ leap into universal pre-K.
“You are the smartest kids,” Cummings says to her tiny writers. “Those kindergarten teachers are going to be fighting over you.”
“Fighting?” several of the children say, wildly intrigued.
Just figuratively, Cummings explains in simpler words.
The same would go for voters potentially fighting over the merit of a Kansas City levy increase.
What the smaller Hickman Mills district has done with severe budget sacrifices the independent nonprofit Early Learning Commission wants to do with tax help in the Kansas City Public Schools.
The working plan is to ask voters for an increase of $1.05 on top of the Kansas City district’s current $4.95 levy — one of the lowest among area Missouri-side districts.
The levy increase would likely have a five-year sunset. In the meantime, the commission would seek legislative approval for a special taxing district that would give more voters the chance to stretch funding for universal pre-K across multiple Kansas City area districts.
Voters would have to believe in the promised economic benefits of a stronger generation of college- and career-ready graduates described by the commission’s interim committee chair, George Lopez, executive vice president at James B. Nutter & Co.
They’d have to believe that success would come because more children would be reading at grade level by the third grade, because more arrived ready for kindergarten.
They’d need to believe that the kind of investment made in children like Malleki works.
“We’ve done the right thing,” Hickman Mills Superintendent Dennis Carpenter said.
The district extracted $3 million through difficult cuts in other educational support positions and other budget trims.
It refurbished an early childhood education center, attracted certified teachers with the same salary structure as for elementary teachers and invested in training.
Different skill measurements and teacher observations suggest it is working, Carpenter said, but he knows the first real test will come in September — not long before Kansas City district voters would be heading to the polls — when Hickman Mills takes the annual assessment of its new kindergartners’ skills.
“I can’t wait to compare them to 2014,” Carpenter said.
Early childhood programming is an “it” thing.
Most every area school district is working to squeeze out funding to serve more families.
Support reaches through state legislatures all the way to President Barack Obama and Congress — struggling for pieces of strained state and federal budgets.
There are voices of caution, like the Brookings Institution, seeing weaknesses in the body of evidence that organizations like the National Institute for Early Education Research tout in pushing for universal pre-K.
But the appeal for offering more access to pre-K rides in part on the intuitive actions of the significant number of people who worked to put their own children in the best preschools they could afford.
If Kansas City could make free or low-cost quality pre-K available to all who wanted it, the city would be that much more attractive to young families, Lopez said.
“We see significant educational benefits,” he said. “And there are economic advantages and competitive advantages for the city and the district.”
Hickman Mills families took advantage of their opportunity.
Previously the district served some 250 pre-K students who qualified with special needs for limited seats funded through the federal Head Start program, special education funds and the Missouri Preschool Program. This year the district served more than 500 4-year-olds, which compares favorably to the some 560 children the district annually enrolls in kindergarten.
The advantages of offering strong pre-K programming are more pronounced with low-income households that otherwise find it more difficult to give children enriching experiences.
“Students in poverty can look like anyone,” said Shaunda Fowler, principal of Hickman Mills’ Ervin Early Learning Center. “If you can’t expose every child right now, today, to the best education you can provide, who do you say ‘no’ to?”
$8,000 per child
Twenty-eight million dollars.
That’s the money gap the Kansas City district needs to bridge to get where Hickman Mills has gone, and beyond — opening to all 3-year-olds as well as 4-year-olds.
To plug it with a levy, the Early Learning Commission not only needs voter support, but the cooperation of the public charter schools in Kansas City, which would have to agree to let their shares of the increased levy revenue pass through to the commission.
The commission estimates that about 6,000 children ages 3 and 4 live within the Kansas City Public Schools boundary. Based on the experience of other cities and states that have offered universal pre-K, about 80 percent, or 4,800, would eventually enroll.
The Kansas City school district has stretched federal resources and district funds to serve some 1,200 children this year in its early learning centers at Woodland and Richardson.
That leaves out another 3,600 potential enrollees. The cost per child to provide year-round, full-day, high-quality pre-K runs about $8,000 a year.
While the school district would likely expand its programming, the Early Learning Commission imagines a network of providers, with existing private and public preschools getting opportunities to meet the standards of a quality rating system and receive shares of the levy revenue, doled out by a separate committee in the commission.
The charter schools — which share the district’s desire for kindergarten-ready children — support the concept of the levy, said Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association.
Legal details still need to be determined in how additional levy revenue would divert into an early learning fund, Thaman said. “But we’re all on the same page.”
“…fifty-six, fifty-seven, fifty-eight…”
Montez Roberts, 5, was counting in head-bobbing rhythm.
His pre-K teacher Stuart Akin had just talked about where Hickman Mills’ universal program has led the children in his class.
“They’re wanting to learn beyond what we’re doing,” he said. “They know the processes. They want more challenges. They want more responsibility.”
When the school year started, “you wanted them to get where they could count to 20, but by December they were counting to 50,” he said.
Even 100, he said, looking at Montez, who saw a cue to show off.
“…seventy-three, seventy-four, seventy-five…”
Cummings taught kindergarten in Hickman Mills before moving to the expanded pre-K. She saw many children come to kindergarten “who had not held a pencil, who had not held scissors, knowing no letters or numbers.”
This year, her pre-K children have arrived at the end of the year able to write words. When she reviewed their study of butterfly life stages and held up a brownish cocoon, all of them shouted out, “Chrysalis!”
“I’m going to be excited to see how things go for them next year,” she said.
She’ll have lots of company.