Having quality, innovative early education options with quality teachers for kids under 5 is not optional, it's essential, says Deidre Anderson, CEO of @uicskc.
"There’s not a consistent base of funding for early childhood [education], so there’s no way we would meet the needs of all the children who need early childhood services without being innovative," said Deidre Anderson, CEO of United Inner-City Services, a multi-service community-based agency addressing issues of the urban core in Kansas City, Missouri. "How do I get creative in how I create and put together a puzzle that is less traditional?"
Anderson shares three goals to innovate her way to making quality early education accessible for all children under the age of 5.
In Kansas City, licensed home- and center-based care programs serve less than half of the population of children under age 5. Which means before Anderson can address engagement with enrolled families, there are cultural, systemic, and financial barriers that also require innovative thinking to get families through the door.
As Anderson and United Inner-City Services (UICS) scales its early learning services based at St. Mark Center, new programs and pilots will be launched in an effort to purposefully meet the realistic needs of families to make quality early education not only desired, but accessible.
This includes a sliding fee scale. "It allows us to fill the gap for families who either make more than would qualify them for assistance, or when there is no assistance available, but they can’t afford the market-rate tuition," Anderson said.
UICS also has a partnership with Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, which recognizes two major employment barriers many parents and caregivers face. "It’s the nexus of transportation and childcare for those that are trying to get jobs in places they haven’t had access to," Anderson said.
There will be seats provided at a discounted rate to KCATA employees as well. Those who work as bus operators, for example, often face major challenges with irregular shifts, so a trial of twilight services is planned to be available for families that work second shifts, or outside of the normal workday.
"I always tell people the magic of engaging with families happens at this age, because somebody in that family is walking in the door two times a day. They're dropping kids off, and they're picking them up. Not at the curb, they're bringing them inside," Anderson said.
This creates more opportunity for UICS to provide wraparound services for families with children at St. Marks. Full time family advocates partner with families to provide education, support, and empowerment, and to connect them with a network of community partners. Families are welcomed to participate in parent education, community events, health and safety awareness, and into early education curriculum, including kindergarten readiness and community arts engagement.
Anderson believes it’s important to change the perspective that early education is day care.
Decades of science have determined that the first five years of life are critical in setting a strong foundation for school and life success. Yet, the priority communities across the country put on early education does not often reflect its vital role in peoples’ lives.
"[Early education] is school for children under the age of 5 that is essential, not optional," she said. "If we ever think we’re going to make progress in K-12, we have to get innovative in the way we even think about pre-K."
At St. Mark’s, this includes an arts-based curriculum. From the musically-themed playground to the Mamie Lee Isler Early Childhood Theatre, exposure to the arts and cultural experience are infused into the students’ development. There are also therapeutic arts experiences for students who might have experienced trauma, and after-school art studio time for parents and students to "stay and play" together.
Anderson said it takes communities and families – in all their diverse forms and situations – to prioritize, access, and engage to produce quality early education. And to send children to school who are socially, emotionally, and academically equipped and prepared to succeed in kindergarten, she said it takes quality teachers.
"I need good teachers – that’s where it all starts," Anderson said.
She makes it a priority to provide professional development for her teachers and to compensate them financially as teachers – not day care providers.
"It's not easy to be a teacher," she said. "We're closed once a month for professional development, which I think in and of itself is an innovative practice in early childhood."
Anderson said it’s how they continue to foster creativity, imagination, cultural awareness, and identity formation with staff. It’s time to connect. "One of the heaviest burnout careers and highest turnover is in early childhood," she said.
Anderson also plans to provide job skills for students from nearby De La Salle Education Center. "We hope to be able to be some type of an on-the-job training site for those that either have an interest in going into early childhood or who may have children themselves that want some basic child growth and development training."
Learn more about St. Marks Center for early education and how the business community is investing in early education in Kansas City.
Interview by Laura Alvarez, community engagement – education consultant in Public Affairs for the Kauffman Foundation.