Early education schools’ aim: Give impoverished opportunities

12/28/2013 5:05 PM

12/28/2013 5:06 PM

People who know Barry Downing say he tends to research things thoroughly.

About 12 years ago, he began intensely researching child poverty from the top down. It was a subject he knew well from the bottom up.

By that time he had money and wanted to contribute to Wichita because he’s fond of the place.

At first he considered investing in several charities serving several community problems. And then he realized that he could attack several problems at once by investing in one thing.

Two years later, in 2003, he opened the first of three early education schools in an organization he named the Opportunity Project, called TOP for short.

He wanted early education to be done boldly. He wanted to model nationally how to inspire and educate kids who live in poverty.

And he hired auditors to track every student after they left TOP to see how they fared in school, to see if what they were trying to accomplish was working, to see whether they were indeed providing an opportunity.

“Children are pretty amazing if we give them a chance,” Downing said.

Equipping people

Downing has given interviews about all this only grudgingly, in part because he’s more than tired of hearing his own story recited again. He doesn’t think that’s fair to the many parents whom he said try hard to get out of poverty. They never get enough credit, he said.

He has also said he doesn’t want the story of their success to be cluttered with anecdotes about how Barry Downing’s father worked in a filling station. Or how when his dad drove him around in a clunker of a 1949 Chevy, Barry Downing would scrunch down, hoping no one would see him wearing the cheap trousers with iron-on patches.

He knows the reason that story is so compelling is that no one back then knew what potential he had. But he’s uncomfortable with hearing other people say how he became a multimillionaire and an advocate for children.

The main thing he wishes people would quote him on has nothing to do with charity, he said. It is a fact, he said, based solidly in our own collective self-interest.

We could save a lot of our tax money if we’d embrace a truth he learned, first from poverty, and then from success, Downing said.

“I believe people should earn their way,” he said. “But we have to have compassion enough to understand that there are people who are not equipped to perform at a high level.”

‘Great deal of potential’

What Downing really accomplished with TOP, according to longtime TOP director Janice Smith, is more complex and instructive than a rags-to-riches tale would be.

Downing made a lot of his money in real estate and health care. It wasn’t only that he was smart; he was careful.

After he set up TOP, he brought in outside auditors, from Wichita State University and the Wichita school district.

They have tested TOP kids for years, after they go on to school, and the auditors say the hundreds of children tested appear to be much better prepared to do well socially and academically than children who don’t get what his schools give.

So far, TOP schools have educated and nourished 1,400 Wichita and Derby kids, most of them drawn from poverty.

What he really did 12 years ago was look for a way to equip them, starting early, when a child’s mind is most curious and pliable.

“There is a great deal of potential in young children,” Downing said. “We need to quit looking at them as an expense.”

TOP offers early education programs and 10-hour-long day care. Because Downing still believes people should pay their own way when possible, TOP sets expectations: If a family gets a TOP scholarship that puts their kids in TOP for free, the parents must show up for most of the scheduled parent-teacher meetings and work with TOP counselors who connect them with low-cost help with everything from financial counseling to learning English.

Classes include subjects like science, language and math, all heavily enriched by games, playtime, visuals and hands-on learning. Smith and the TOP staff created their own education recipe over time. They borrowed some of the high expectations and standardized teaching methods of public schools, along with looser “dance outside the box” techniques of private schools.

At TOP’s northwest school, 2665 N. Arkansas, nobody was sitting in rows listening to a lecture one day earlier this month. There was a lot of noise and excited laughter, but the kids were working on projects or being read to.

The TOP system teaches 630 to 660 kids at any time, but the atmosphere can be relaxed. On this day, when Smith showed up at the northwest school and sat down on a classroom couch, a girl named Ashley Rayl Evers hopped in her lap.

Smith opened a book about sneezing and began reading to her, complete with sneezing sound effects.

Tracking students

Smith said the schools now have 10 years of data and studies done by auditors from the Wichita school district and WSU. Downing wanted the auditors not only to train and demand high-quality teaching but to prove good results, if the results were indeed good.

They were.

But what the numbers really mean, Downing said, “is that we’ll have a lot fewer prison inmates and gang members to deal with in the future.” Fewer women needing the safety of shelters. Fewer kids with unwanted pregnancies.

“More people growing up to pay taxes and own homes,” he said.

Linda Bakken, a professor emeritus in educational psychology at WSU, set up an ongoing control group of children who had not attended TOP programs, then compared the two groups’ performances in schools year after year.

TOP takes in children from age 1 to kindergarten, so the study looked at how these children performed in school years after they left TOP.

In nearly every category, according to a five-year study by WSU, the TOP kids did better than their control group peers. In attendance, TOP kids did 5 percent better by grade three than the other kids. By grade six, 18 percent better.

“By third grade, special education placements for TOP children is 57 percent less often than placements of control (group) children,” Bakken’s report stated. “Regarding standardized tests, TOP children in fourth, fifth, and sixth grades have considerably lower percentage of students who do not meet standards in both math and reading, compared to the control group.”

By sixth grade, 83 percent of TOP students rank at either “meets standards” or are above standards in math, compared with 50 percent for the control group, Bakken wrote. In reading, 94 percent of TOP sixth graders ranked at “meets standards” or are above standards, compared to 76 percent of the control group, Bakken wrote.

None of this surprised Downing. One thing he learned from poverty: People who live in poverty don’t want to be there.

“We were poor, but my parents put a high value on education, and pushed me,” he said. “Some kids don’t have that. So when I think about a lot of these kids … my heart goes out to them.”

‘Like sponges’

As a child, Shannon Benoit used to make her brother sit with her stuffed animals while she taught them in a classroom she created at home. She’s the principal at Gardiner Elementary School now, but about to get promoted.

Downing and TOP went looking for an outside consultant seven years ago to audit TOP’s classroom teaching and teach the teachers. They hired Benoit as a part-time auditor; her full-time job at that time was as the early childhood teaching specialist for Wichita schools.

Benoit will start next month in her new job as executive director of the district’s 55 elementary schools. She is still auditing TOP’s performance, and in that job – because of her district job – she knows specifically how to coach teachers to prepare the children for the classrooms they will enter in Wichita and Derby.

She strongly advocates for early childhood education.

“You can’t really put a price on what it does for children,” she said. “Anything that gets kids started the right way early on is incredibly important. … They are like sponges at that age.”

Most national experts on education agree with that assessment.

“Policymakers are increasingly recognizing this,” said Nell Duke, a professor of literacy, language and culture at the University of Michgan. “Even in the face of major budget cuts, this past year the majority of states increased their funding for preschool education.

“By the time children reach kindergarten, there are already massive differences among them in preparedness for school and life success. If we want to reduce social inequality and improve life outcomes for many Americans, investing in early childhood education makes perfect sense.”

TOP serves mostly impoverished kids whose lives and learning can be diminished, either by hunger or lack of attention or getting behind in school early. Benoit sees every day what poverty does.

Ninety percent of the children at Gardiner, near Washington and Mount Vernon, qualify for free and reduced lunches, an indicator of poverty. According to the Kansas Food Bank, 25 of the students get backpacks of food every Friday to tide them over on weekends as part of the Food Bank’s Food-4-Kids program.

“I think sometimes kids in poverty can be fearful about what happens when they go home. Will there be food to eat?” Benoit said. “They sometimes convert that to irritability, to negativity.”

What they get at TOP is vigorous learning in mathematics, reading and social skills. Benoit worked with teachers to show them how to standardize what they were teaching, to chart work and progress, and build portfolios of accomplishment with the children.

The result of this kind of early education can be substantial and not only for the children, said Duke, the Michigan expert.

“Quality early education also has a wide range of long-term positive effects, including improved language skill, higher math achievement, higher reading achievement, smaller likelihood of special education placement, smaller likelihood of grade retention, higher level of education attained, higher monthly earners, greater likelihood of home ownership, greater likelihood of car ownership, reduced use of social services and reduced number of arrests,” Duke said.

“In fact, one line of studies found that by age 27, $7.16 was returned for each public dollar invested in quality preschool education, and by age 40, $16.14 was returned for each public dollar invested.”

Level playing field

Before and after he left the boss’s chair at Cessna Aircraft, Russ Meyer was an advocate for general aviation in Washington, D.C. He also was known as someone with little use for government expansion or spending growth.

He and Downing got to know each other well when Meyer led an $8 million fundraising campaign for the Boys & Girls Club building that went up next to Downing’s second TOP school near 21st Street and Grove.

In Downing, he found a fellow financial conservative, but someone who also distrusted dogmatic people, whether conservative or liberal.

“We have people now so rigidly conservative that they think no one should have anything they don’t earn,” Meyer said. “But Barry, 10 years ago, when he gave me the concept of TOP, he literally told me, ‘I’m trying to level the playing field.’ ”

In the last 50 years, education has changed so much that anyone who doesn’t get early childhood education before kindergarten is behind and discouraged from the moment they go to their first elementary school, Meyer said.

“So think of what Barry has done,” Meyer said. “Those three schools he runs educate 700 preschool kids every year, mostly kids from poverty who would never have access to that if it were not for him.”

Improving the community

Downing co-founded but by no means funded all of TOP, said Smith, the TOP director.

What happened instead is more interesting, and it can teach us much about community building, Smith said.

Downing lined up 100 Wichita area partners to help build the three schools – the third is at 4600 S. Clifton – which cost $3.5 million apiece. That’s more than $10 million just to build the schools.

Running TOP and teaching the 630 to 660 students it educates and houses costs $4.3 million a year, but Downing’s contribution amounts to 3 percent of that: $150,000 a year from the interest off an endowment Downing supplied, she said.

Another 25 percent comes from grants, for which Smith writes the applications.

The rest of the cost, about 70 percent, comes from what TOP earns schooling early education children in contracts with the Wichita and Derby school districts, and with Head Start and Early Head Start.

In other words, Downing put together a community partnership; he didn’t merely finance a big operation.

Another key contribution, Smith said: Downing asks his company’s financial officers help TOP formulate budgets and long-range plans.

“Not many nonprofits have that level of financial expertise on financial side,” she said.

The other key contribution he made, Smith said, was to let his educators run the education. She said he listened to her.

“Poor man,” she said with a laugh. “He had to listen a lot.”

She met him when he was looking for an educator to lead all this. He wanted to get at those root causes of poverty and was thinking about building an elementary school. Smith at the time was a curriculum and assessment specialist in language arts for the Wichita district.

When she suggested he look at early childhood education instead of building an elementary school, he liked this.

“The one most powerful way we could make an improvement in the fabric of the community,” as he later said.

Downing himself said that his early ideas for what he wanted to do included financing everything from domestic violence shelters to preventing gang involvement, or pregnancy, or drug use.

“And then I realized that with early child education, I could tackle all those problems at once,” he said.

In July, he and Meyer co-wrote an op-ed piece for The Eagle, pointing out that one in five Kansas children lives in poverty, and that more than half of 3- to 4-year-olds in Kansas are not attending preschool.

Smith is about to leave TOP to become director of the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund; she will be replaced at TOP by Cornelia Stevens.

When she and Downing first talked years ago, Smith said, Downing didn’t talk much about his background. But it was clear that he saw potential in poor children.

It wasn’t just that he wanted to help them, Smith said. He wanted to tap their potential so they could help all of us.

She said he knew, better than most people, what potential these poor kids had when they were still small, curious and full of questions. He wanted all of Wichita to get to those kids before they got discouraged.

“I think he was thinking that there are probably lots of other little kids with potential out there,” Smith said, “so let’s go give those little kids a chance.”

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