A Great Early Start in Kansas City: Operation Breakthrough


A dozen blocks east of the Country Club Plaza is Troost, a traditional socioeconomic and racial dividing line in Kansas City, Missouri. Just a few blocks from the most affluent zip code in KC is the 3000 block of Troost where three of four corners are abandoned retail--an urban downtown strip 30 years past its prime. A former JC Penney houses one of the most remarkable early learning programs in the country.

Operation Breakthrough serves 420 learners ages 6 weeks to 14 years. Almost nine of 10 enrolled families live below the federal poverty guidelines--with an average income of less than $13,000. About one of five children are homeless or living in transitional housing. More than one in 10 children are in foster care or other placements due to abuse, neglect or other family crises.

Some parents may think they’re signing up for childcare but Operation Breakthrough is far more; it’s a sophisticated learning environment where the children often enroll with limited language and an inability to focus or interact yet leave ready for success in kindergarten.

Founded 45 years ago by two Catholic sisters, Sister Berta Sailor and Sister Corita Bussanmas, the nonprofit has a history of providing quality childcare for the working poor of the central city. Ten years ago, a renovation and expansion of the old retail story doubled the size of the facility.

Mary Esselman is the learning scientist behind the most recent emergence of Operation Breakthrough as an early learning leader. I met this remarkable yet understated urban educator in a middle school classroom five years ago. She was piloting a blended, personalized and competency-based math program in Kansas City. Students were getting the help they needed and progressing at their own rate.

Esselman followed a former Kansas City Public Schools superintendent to Detroit where they implemented the new system in 12 schools taken over by the state. The program was remarkable--a competency-based K-8 model with 18 levels managed by the Buzz platform from Agilix. We wrote about it glowingly and brought people from around the country to see it. But the rough and tumble politics of Detroit got the better of them and Esselman moved back to Kansas City and turned her attention to early learning.

Beating Poverty

“Exposure to environmental adversity is a primary shaper of development from the cellular to the behavioral and social levels,” said NYU researchers Drs. Blair and Raver.

“In classrooms where lots of kids are under varying degrees of stress, one child acting out can set off other kids and shut down the learning environment for everyone”, said Dr. Pamela Cantor. “If you have numerous children across the school with issues like that, you can produce a hugely negative culture and shut down learning in the building.”

Cantor’s program, Turnaround for Children, features social workers and wrap around services to give kids the skills and supports necessary to counter the negative effects of poverty-induced trauma. Cantor and Turnaround are highlighted in Paul Tough’s new book Helping Children Succeed.

Operation Breakthrough’s founders observed this trauma-induced disregulation and organized families into five “neighborhoods” staffed with wraparound services including full-time social workers, child and music therapists, behavior interventionists and a foster grandmother.

There are 10 remarkable features of Operation Breakthrough, the largest early learning center in Midwest.  

1. Rich, capable staffing. With 1:4 infant staffing ratio and 1:10 preschool staffing ratio, children get a lot of attention at Operation Breakthrough. Staffing comes from a couple different funding streams, includes seven Teach For America corps members and is augmented by volunteers.

Programs have capable managers with a wealth of experience. Many of the preschool staff have a bachelor’s degree and all of them get learning opportunities.

2. Social emotional learning (SEL). Every program and practice incorporates social emotional learning. Classroom practices and verbal queues teach “three big life skills:”

  • I can manage a big feeling
  • I can be OK even when others are not OK
  • I can do something even when I don’t want to

These preschoolers are learning to win….and lose graciously.  

3. Smart therapy. Building on SEL principles, music therapists (trained in a great program at UMKC) lead group singing while tracking individual progress on self-regulation, socialinteraction and language development. Music therapy is part of a continuum of behavior therapy that starts with infant theraplay and progresses to school readiness.  

4. Smart Lab. Young scholars learn coding and robotics in the Smart Lab (outfitted by Creative Learning Systems). Preschoolers code sound and motion, for example. After school middle schoolers take on more challenging assignments, like building prosthetic limbs for dogs.

5. Maker lab. Preschoolers spend 90 minutes (half that for 2-year-olds) in a well-equipped six-zone maker space. Laminated cards with state readiness indicators are color coded for desired student learning outcomes for each station--another sign that this is serious fun. In addition to paper constructions, stations include wind tunnels, electric circuits, coding, cooking, toy hacking and construction, textiles and an art studio.

6. Health. Operation Breakthrough features a medical clinic operated by Children's Mercy and a dental clinic.

7. Basic needs.  A food bank, clothing bank, furniture warehouse and birthday present bank ensure that basic needs are met.

8. Partners. Operation Breakthrough partners with many organizations to support scholars and families. Lawyers Encouraging Academic Performance (LEAP) provides financial support and volunteers in the after school program.

9. Blended learning. Operation Breakthrough is an Early Head Start/Head Start agency. They incorporate best practices including personal learning pathways. Preschoolers connectwith junior high reading buddies on Zoom.

The after school program includes a blended learning program (using Imagine Learning) where scholars accelerate reading and math skills.

10. Parent education. Classes are offered on childhood development and family management. Four family advocates work one-on-one to support the best childhood development environment. Adult therapists address mental health issues. Links are provided to family services including temporary housing. A community action board includes parents and community leaders.

Operation Breakthrough is supported by a variety of local foundations including the United Way, Missouri Children’s Trust Fund, Unbound, the Early Education Funders Collaborative, and many other individual donors. 

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Tom Vander Ark is author of Getting Smart, Smart Cities, and Smart Parents. He is CEO of Getting Smart, a learning design firm and a partner at Learn Capital, an education venture fund. Tom advocates for innovations that customize and motivate learning and extend access. Previously he served as the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Tom served as a public school superintendent in Washington State and has extensive private sector experience. Tom is Board Chair of Charter Board Partners, Director for 4.0 Schools, Bloomboard, Digital Learning Institute, eduInnovation and Imagination Foundation, and serves on several other non-profit boards.