Fewer than one in three kids in poor families in Ohio start kindergarten with the skills they need – things like counting, rhyming and sounding letters into words. So in high-poverty urban districts like Canton and its rural counterparts like Minerva, the achievement gap can seem like it’s locked in.
For the last 15 years, an effort called SPARK Ohio been underway to change that, one hour at a time. Now, the first group of kids who launched the program are getting ready to graduate.
Those kids were once a lot like 4-year-old Elijah Rowland, who pushes the storm door open long before Missy Beebe gets near the porch steps.
As he leads her to the kitchen table, he chats about Halloween and spends the next hour filling her in on dinosaurs, volcanoes, dinosaurs-in-volcanoes, patterns and panthers. He also corrects a laughing Beebe on her colors, counts, compares, and creates a book.
But what made this a red-letter day was Elijah writing his name unassisted, shouting out each letter, but really relishing the last one: “E-L-I-J-A-H!
Beebe said that would be a highlight in her report from this visit.
“‘He wanted my help and he always says, ‘I can’t do it, I can’t do it.’ And you try to encourage him,” said Beebe.
The key this time, she says, was “when his mom said, ‘You did it yesterday; I know you can do it.”
Beebe is what SPARK calls a parent-partner -- one linchpin in a program focused on one-hour visits, once or twice a month, to the homes of 3- and 4-year olds. The visits include assessments, lessons and support for the other linchpin: the parents, guardians and others who are the kids’ “learning advocates.”
Beebe said the setting makes a big difference in the relationship.
“That’s a big thing, having a stranger come into your home,” Beebe says. “And I take it really serious. And I try to respect them, their home, their rules.”
SPARK stands for Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids. It started with 140 kids in two Stark County school districts: urban Canton and rural Minerva. Under the auspices of the Early Childhood Resource Center – a mission of the Sisters of Charity Foundation – it now works with 2,000 kids from East Cleveland to Cincinnati, targeting high-poverty urban and rural districts.
In Stark County, SPARK has expanded to eight districts, and 15 years of research by Kent State University shows why. Pre- and post-test results show significant improvement in reading readiness and number skills.
Scott Hasselman, the head of the Early Childhood Resource Center, pulled up the stats showing how Stark’s SPARK kids did in the 2017 Kindergarten Readiness Assessment. SPARK kids did significantly better than comparison groups in math, language, physical well-being and motor development – a pattern that’s been replicated throughout the years since the Kellogg Foundation first funded the SPARK effort in 2003.
Hasselman noted that researchers have identified a “magic number” on the language and literacy section of the test that “predicts whether the kids will pass the crucial third-grade reading test.”
For non-SPARK kids, the odds were 50-50. For Spark kids, nearly two-thirds hit that magic number.
Overall, 40 percent of SPARK children ended up fully ready for kindergarten, compared to less than 28 percent of those who don’t participate.
“The Secret Sauce”
SPARK director Mary Brady said the connection with parents, grandparents, and guardians is a crucial difference.
“Parents are the secret sauce,” she said. “We need their commitment to the program. Kids will learn, but it’s much faster learning when a parent is engaged. It scaffolds.”
The secret sauce in Elijah’s life is his mom, Alisha. She had just finished the midnight shift making potato chips at Shearers but joined her son and Beebe, coloring, counting and storytelling.
“You can’t just let them do it. You have to work with your child, too,” Alisha said. “It’s all about practicing. The more you teach them, the more they see things, the more they’re going to remember.”
So, as she does after each of Beebe’s visits, Rowland will continue to work from a SPARK kit – one that always includes a new book and activity card, and often has extras like Playdough, stampers and stickers.
SPARK provides other services, including speech therapy, referrals and other support for families. It also acts as a bridge with the kindergartens the children will attend.
But the program has its limits. It’s voluntary, and parents and guardians most likely to stick with it are those most likely to believe education matters and they have something to contribute.
So recruiting can be tough, especially in far-flung rural districts like Minerva. No-shows can be a problem, especially in high-poverty districts like Canton.
The progress of Canton kids was lagging those in other SPARK district, so they began a pilot programs last year to ratchet up to twice a month, and made that citywide this year. Brady said the same content is covered, but paced differently. And she said it’s building a stronger relationship between the families and their partners.
“In a lot of the families’ lives that we work with, a week can make a huge difference in what they might be facing. So more communication increased more engagement,” Brady said. “They knew they had someone reliable coming that they could trust and talk about their problems with.”
Another partner is the schools.
Aaron Bouie is principal at Schreiber School in Canton, an early partner with SPARK. He said the program, along with quality preschools, is part of an intervention at an early age that pays off years later.
Canton reconfigured its elementary schools four years ago to subdivide them by ages. Schreiber has preschool through second-graders, and the very tall Bouie dwarfs his very small charges.
But he says he can often pick out the SPARK kids, because they stand a little taller.
“It’s almost a little bit of a strut of confidence,” Bouie says. “As in, ‘I know what I’m doing here, I know what I’m supposed to do.’”
And, he added, their parents stand a little taller, too.