Kansas education leaders collecting public input on early childhood development opportunities

Members of the public attended a listening session Tuesday to share their input on the state of early childhood development in the Shawnee Mission area.

Kansas leaders in education are seeking input from the public this summer on how early childhood development can be improved statewide.

Shawnee Mission Superintendent Mike Fulton welcomed attendees to the session, which was held at the Center for Academic Achievement.

Kansas education leaders are asking for public input on the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities in early childhood development. One of dozens of listening sessions statewide took place Tuesday afternoon at the Shawnee Mission School District’s Center for Academic Achievement.

Superintendent Mike Fulton welcomed attendees to the session, noting the importance of early childhood education opportunities to kids’ future academic success.

Kansas received a one-year federal planning grant totaling about $4.4 million to conduct a statewide needs assessment for early childhood development. Authorized by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, the Preschool Development Grant Birth through Five teams up four Kansas agencies to collect public input that will support the development of a comprehensive needs assessment and strategic plan for early childhood in the state.

The cross-agency effort is a collaboration of the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund, the Kansas Department of Children and Families, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the Kansas Department of Education.

‘The more voices, the better’

Melissa Rooker executive director of the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund

Melissa Rooker, executive director of the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund and a former state representative from Fairway, said the agencies are conducting dozens of listening sessions statewide and also providing opportunities for the public to give input online.

This is the chance for communities to weigh in. The more voices, the better,” Rooker said. “It’s bigger than just preschool or childcare. It has to do with the same three basic pillars: strong families, healthy development and early learning.”

The three open-ended questions for the public to answer about early childhood education in Kansas are:

  • What bright spots, services, or attributes does your community have to support young children and families that we should be amplifying and celebrating?
  • Tell us about your vision for early childhood in your community. What would you see, hear and experience?
  • What gaps do you see between the early childhood system as it is and your vision? What is one particular area we should focus on improving immediately?

Rooker said that of the handful of listening sessions she’s attended so far this summer, she’s heard one common thread: The benefits of early childhood development are known and desired.

“People understand the importance of giving our kids the very best start in life that we can,” she said. “It varies from community to community. We talk about bright spots and what’s happening currently.

“In some communities, there’s a lot of excitement and energy because of good things that are happening. There are other communities that are a little farther behind; they know where they want to go, but they’re not there yet.”

A variety of stakeholders, not just families but also businesses that want to spur growth in their communities, are having “very healthy discussions” about the realities and opportunities of early childhood across the state, Rooker said.

“I think there’s been a recognition that affordable, high-quality childcare is a really effective economic development tool,” she added. “There’s a tremendous amount of recognition that we have some challenges that need solving.”

Kansas leaders are collecting public input until July 31. After that, they will analyze data and enter a strategic planning phase this fall. Rooker said a strategic plan will position the state to apply for an implementation grant in the future, which would put infrastructure in place for early childhood development programming.

“I hope that we have a strategic plan that aligns our universe of programs and services for children in Kansas in a way that leverages existing dollars to help create a system that is universal, equitable, high-quality, surrounding our kids with all the supports and systems they need to be successful,” she said.

Funds for the project are provided by the federal Department of Health and Human Services and the Administration for Children and Families.