This latest Pre-to-3 column focuses on a community-wide effort in Kansas City to raise awareness of the importance of education in the early years. Past installments of Pre-to-3 can be found here.
When the National Institute for Early Education Research releases its annual State of Preschool Yearbook every year, Kansas and Missouri don’t attract a lot of attention. Neither state has increased enrollment of 3- and 4-year-olds in public pre-K programs in recent years.
“There are large gaps in terms of the number of children who are accessing early-childhood services,” Halley French, an education program officer for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, based in Kansas City, Mo., said in an interview.
The foundation’s support of Pre-KC is an effort to change that. A campaign of the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, Pre-KC focuses on spreading awareness of the benefits of early-childhood education and high-quality programs throughout the Kansas City region — on both sides of the Kansas-Missouri state line.
To launch the campaign, Jasmin Williams, a project director at the chamber, reached out to Sesame Street in Communities, which has been partnering with public television sites to bring bilingual educational materials to families and early-childhood education providers, and to hold community events focused on various early learning topics.
Kansas City was one of the initiative’s pilot sites and KCPT, the local PBS station, held a “kids block party” last fall and a summit event for early educators on how to organize parent workshops.
“When I knew that we would be running an awareness campaign, it just kind of made sense to ask if they would continue working with us,” Williams said in an interview. “The whole intent of their work is related to becoming an integral part of the community.”
A key element of the six-month Pre-KC campaign, which continues through July, are Sesame Sessions, free workshops for parents, educators and others interested in early learning on topics featured on the Sesame Street in Communities site. The videos and materials cover issues ranging from early reading and math skills to explaining difficult topics, such as divorce or a family member’s incarceration, to young children.
Families and providers can also request free “subscription boxes,” which include the Sesame Street in Communities materials, plush character toys and passes to Legoland or other attractions. The de Beaumont Foundation provided funding for the boxes and other contributors to the campaign have included the PNC Foundation and the REACH Healthcare Foundation. Williams said she expected about 150 requests for the boxes, but the first month over 300 went out and in May, there were at least 1,000 requests. Sesame Street also donated over 5,000 to be distributed to children throughout the area, she said.
In addition to reaching the early-childhood community, the campaign is also targeting another audience — members of the local business sector.
“Quality early-childhood education is a long-term powerful, economic development tool,” chamber CEO Joe Reardon wrote in an op-ed appearing last month in the Kansas City Business Journal. “It’s an investment in our future workforce. If we’re going to create or grow our businesses, we’ve got to care. If we don’t grow our own talent, it’s at our peril.”
Watching the growth of other state pre-K programs across the country, Miles Sandler, the director of engagement in education for the foundation’s public affairs office, added in the interview that initiatives tend to start locally before spreading more broadly. i
“If a locality or region can figure out how to make it work,” it can be replicated, she said. “We are in the midst of trying figure out.”