Among the many changes that have come to the Shawnee Mission School District or have been proposed in the last year, revamping early childhood education could be one of the most important and it is one of the strategic themes the district has identified.
“(It has) the largest impact of anything we could do” to influence student achievement in school, says Superintendent Jim Hinson. The district currently provides a centralized half-day program for at-risk four-year-olds at the Shawnee Mission Instructional Support Center (SMISC) called Smart Start. Parents must provide the transportation.
The district already has announced plans to create five early childhood centers, one in each high school district, and move the programs into the elementary schools. Highlands and Crestview will house two of the early childhood education programs. The district is planning to eventually raze the SMISC building as it consolidates its administrative functions.
Hinson has often pointed to data that show students who cannot read at grade level by third grade are four times less likely to graduate by age 19 and when poverty is added to the mix, they become 13 less likely to graduate than their peers. “Early intervention is absolutely the key,” he has said. The value of early intervention has been proven by programs around the country, he says. It is difficult for students to catch up if they don’t have base vocabulary early.
Parents are now asked to come from a distance. Moving the programs out gives parents greater accessibility. “A big part of the program is parent involvement,” Hinson says. “School has to adjust to the needs of families.”
The district also plans to expand the program to a full-day option and make it available to three and four-year-olds. Full-day programs may not be appropriate for every family, but will be essential for some, Hinson says. The district also plans to “braid” together state money that supports Smart Start with Title I federal dollars and a parent pay option (for those who don’t qualify otherwise) to support the expanded program. Focusing Title I money into early intervention has a bigger payoff for student achievement results, Hinson says, than spreading it around.
The next step down the road is to put early childhood programs in every school, Hinson says, and provide a continuity of service that is close to the home and moves seamlessly into a full-day kindergarten availability. The district will continue to work to lower the cost of full-day kindergarten to families who don’t qualify for free services.