Kansas City Mayor Sly James sits in a comfy chair, holding up a book featuring a bow tie-wearing owl with a striking resemble to the mayor.
“The name of this book is ‘Our Home, Kansas City,’” James tells a group of 4-year-olds from Operation Breakthrough.
“It’s my book!” shouts a child.
“No,” says James, “this is my book.”
Everyone in Early Learning Hub laughs as James begins to read from the book, which Turn the Page KC published last year. The nonprofit wants to get every Kansas City kid reading at grade level by the third grade. That means making a significant investment in kindergarten readiness.
“The entire space is meant to not only encourage parents to play with their kids that day, but to take it home and to carry that behavior throughout the day, throughout the week, throughout the month,” says Executive Director Mike English of the Early Learning Hub at 2401 Campbell Street, which opened to the public Thursday.
There’s a trained parent educator on staff available to help facilitate play. Families can also check out books and educational toys through the United Way’s Success by 6 initiative.
“The moment a child is born, we have tools and books and toys that are are age-appropriate that will benefit any child and help them really begin to learn right away,” says United Way President and CEO Brent Stewart.
On average, children who grow up in poverty hear 30 million fewer words than their affluent peers by the time they enter kindergarten.
“This kind of lab and the work United Way does through Success By 6 really allows a child to have a level playing field so they’re able to quickly close that gap before they enter school,” Stewart says.
James founded Turn the Page KC in 2011.
“It’s not a problem, it’s a crisis when we have cities where only 6 percent or 11 percent or 15 percent of the third graders are reading proficiently,” James says.
In 2011, only 33 percent of Kansas City third graders were reading at grade level. Today, 53 percent are.
— Elle Moxley (@ellemoxley) March 23, 2017
James holds up his book. “‘The Nelson-Atkins Museum is where we will start, full of paintings, sculptures, and great works of art!’” he reads. “‘Monet and Rembrandt were painters, you see, maybe an artist is what you will be!’”
He asks the 4-year-olds if there are any future artists in the group. A few kids raise their hands.
“What about astronauts?” James asks.
One little girl wants to be a ballerina. Another wants to be a toy maker. The mayor has to hide a smile when one of the kids says he wants to be an owl when he grows up.
“We can be whatever we want to be, but you have to work in school – and you have to learn to read.”
Elle Moxley covers Missouri schools and politics for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.