At preschools in high-poverty areas, ‘We’re planting seeds for life’

William Eckels admits it: The pizza made him do it.

After picking up his son, Elijah, from The Opportunity Project learning center in northeast Wichita one day, he noticed a tower of pizza boxes in the common area.

“Elijah’s ready to eat and says, ‘Daddy, can we get some pizza?’ And I was hungry, too,” Eckels recalls. “So I sat down and heard something about, ‘Do you want to be a better parent?’

“Well, that’s not a ‘no’ answer.”

That evening Eckels attended his first “Parent Cafe” at The Opportunity Project, called TOP for short, a nonprofit group dedicated to early education for children living in poverty. Two years later, Eckels was part of a team that met with Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback to lobby for high-quality preschool.

“TOP is the best thing that ever happened to us,” Eckels said. “I’m not saying I didn’t care before, but now I know so much more about what it takes and … the power of that early knowledge.”

About 10 years ago TOP, which serves children from ages 1 to 5, began tracking how its students do in school after they leave TOP. The organization runs centers in three high-poverty areas in Wichita and Derby.

A study published this year in the Journal of Research in Childhood Education shows dramatic results:

Compared to a control group of children from similar backgrounds who had not attended TOP programs, the TOP students did better at nearly every grade level in every category – academics, social skills and attendance.

Reading assessment data showed that TOP graduates are more likely to perform at grade level than other low-income students, the study said. By third grade, TOP students were 19 percent more likely to read at grade level than their control-group peers. By eighth grade, 107 percent more likely.

“We can assert with increasing confidence that … TOP graduates outperform comparable students,” wrote Linda Bakken, a professor emeritus in educational psychology at Wichita State University, who authored the study.

“Thus, at least through the eighth grade, there are long-term benefits to a quality early education program.”

The results don’t surprise Cornelia Stevens, executive director of TOP Early Learning Centers. Her daughter was among the first group of students enrolled at TOP, and now her daughter is thriving in middle school.

Stevens, meanwhile, is an evangelist for high-quality child care and preschool programs, which she says are key to lifting people out of poverty.

“When you look at all of these other societal problems – crime, teen pregnancy, gangs, drugs – we know the thing that can make a difference is education. … And we know that has to start early,” Stevens said.

“With this, we’re planting seeds for life,” she said. “You may not be able to see an immediate change. But as we continue to track our children through middle school and high school, if we can continue to see that success, we hopefully will have the data to say, ‘We know this works.’”

TOP classrooms follow an educational philosophy developed in villages around Reggio Emilia, Italy, in which students are viewed as strong, curious, capable learners. Several times each day children choose their activities from a menu of choices, and teachers act as guides and mentors.

On a recent morning, 4-year-olds in one TOP classroom painted with cotton swabs, sifted through a sandbox filled with cardboard letters, played with slime and made “alphabet soup,” spooning blue plastic letters from one bowl of water to another.

Elijah Eckels, 4, knows most of his letters, numbers and colors and is learning to write his name. He’ll be ahead of many of his classmates when he starts kindergarten next year.

“But this school hasn’t just taught him,” said his father. “It taught me.”

William Eckels, a single father, gained custody of Elijah when Elijah was 10 months old. Elijah’s mother – William Eckels’ fiancee at the time – was killed in a car accident.

William worked odd jobs for low pay – mowing lawns, pouring concrete. He was barely able to pay his bills. He needed child care to keep working, but he worried about the kind of care his son would get for the money he could spend.

“I didn’t want him playing in a driveway,” he said.

A friend at church told him about TOP and encouraged him to apply. The program offers scholarships by blending funding from grants, private donors and child care subsidies from the Kansas Department of Children and Families, said Stevens, the TOP executive director.

“Families need to come,” she said. The three TOP centers serve about 600 children.

“Don’t just assume there’s no space,” Stevens said. “ … We want to help you help your children, so we say just give us the chance to find out if you qualify.”

Running the three TOP learning centers costs nearly $5.3 million a year, according to TOP officials. Funding comes from a combination of public and private sources, including an endowment from founder Barry Downing, grants, donations, and contracts with the Wichita and Derby school districts and Head Start.

At enrollment, parents sign a contract pledging to get their child to school at least 85 percent of the time. TOP counselors connect them to resources in the community where they can get clothes, food and health care, as well as help managing finances or learning English.

If a parent wants to pursue a high school diploma or associate degree, TOP partners with Butler Community College and Wichita Area Technical College to help with tuition.

“It’s amazing to be able to watch the change that happens, because people didn’t know that the opportunities even existed,” Stevens said. “If our work is to help children get out of poverty, we have to help our families, too. Because the children can’t do it by themselves.”

That’s where Parent Cafe workshops come in. The schools offer pizza or other snacks as an incentive for busy families to stop and learn about early childhood brain research, local library resources or how to advocate for your child at school.

Eckels, inspired by what he’s learned in his son’s classroom and at parent workshops, is considering returning to school to pursue a degree in education. He thinks he’d like to be a preschool or elementary school teacher.

“They say knowledge is power, and it’s true,” he said. “Once you’re empowered, you can do anything.”

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias

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