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After KC Voters Rejected Pre-K Sales Tax, This Preschool Decided To Improve Quality Anyway

Elle Moxley
KCUR 89.3
Pre-K students at the Upper Room Child Development Center learn through play.

Earlier this year Kansas City voters rejected a plan to improve pre-K access and quality with public dollars, but that hasn't stopped a child care center at 59th Street and Swope Parkway from trying to get better on its own.

The Upper Room, an education equity non-profit, has run a licensed child care center for about 15 years but only recently began to pursue state accreditation as an early learning center.

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Kris Collins, left, and Bethann Roitz, came to the Upper Room with lots of experience working in early childhood education.

“This was more of a day care where parents dropped their kids off and, for lack of a better word, we had babysitting services,” said Kris Collins, the director of education programs for the Upper Room. “What we wanted to do was turn it into a school where kids have a curriculum, where they’re assessed, with report cards and parent-teacher conferences. We wanted to change the whole mindset so we’re preparing kids for kindergarten.”

The Board of Directors pushed for the transformation because the 64130 zip code lacks high-quality pre-K programming. 

“All children deserve to have a setting where they feel safe,” said Bethann Roitz, director of the Upper Room’s child development center. “If it’s a trusted environment, they’re able to learn more.”

Collins and Roitz actually came to the Upper Room from the Kansas City Public Schools, where they helped open Woodland and Richardson, the district’s early learning centers. Collins said it helps to have administrators whose backgrounds are in early childhood because pre-K isn’t like elementary school. Very young children learn differently, through play and movement, and Roitz really likes to get the parents involved.

“We have them come into the classrooms, and they ... get to learn a little bit more about why we do the things we do, how important it is for them to go outside and use their large body muscles because when you’re moving, you’re learning,” Roitz said.

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
A student plays with blocks at the Upper Room, a child care center at 59th Street and Swope Parkway that's been trying to improve program quality and receive state accreditation.

Jay Lyons and his wife, Emily, swore to each other they wouldn’t be “those parents” when it came time to find child care for their 2-year-old daughter.

“You know, trying to get your kid into the greatest early childhood program to set them up to be President of the United States,” Lyons said. “But when we started looking at schools, we shot down a lot of them because of either dated stuff or lack of staff.”

But when they toured the Upper Room, it was clear that someone was investing in the center. Nearly all the classroom materials were new, and bright murals were going up on blank walls.

All told, it’s taken more than $800,000 in grant funding to step up program quality at the Upper Room. Administrators are waiting for state officials to do a site visit to complete their Missouri accreditation, then they’ll pursue accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which is considered the gold standard for early learning programs.

Pre-K costs tend to increase with quality. Turn the Page KC, the nonprofit literacy organization started by former Mayor Sly James, estimates high-quality pre-K costs about $12,000 a year, or about 25% of the median annual household income in Kansas City. For now, the Upper Room is charging about half of that.

Missouri remains one of the only states without a public preschool option. On Monday, Gov. Mike Parsons announced the state had gotten a $33.5 million grant to create a more effective early learning system. The goal is to improve coordination across state agencies and with organizations already providing pre-K, like Head Start.

But to enroll every 4-year-old in Missouri in public pre-K would require an additional $60 million in state funding per year.

Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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