Bright Spots are written and produced by the Campaign to showcase the work in Grade-Level Reading communities to make progress on school readiness, school attendance and summer learning by 2016. Continue reading below or download a PDF version.  

Getting to preschool is a breeze for young students at Pine Ridge Prep in Topeka, Kansas. The free public school program is located in the public housing complex where most of the students live, thanks to an unusual partnership including the Topeka Housing Authority.

“This is beyond what the typical housing authority does,” says Kim Ribelin, at United Way of Greater Topeka, a member of Pine Ridge Partnership, which includes Topeka Public Schools, residents, businesses and many volunteers.

The Partnership’s award-winning work aims to improve the outcomes of children living in the complex and surrounding high-poverty neighborhood of Shawnee County, where 55 percent of new kindergartners do not have necessary pre-literacy skills to succeed.

“Getting high-quality preschool in a neighborhood that didn’t have one is huge and helps the community reach our 10-year goal of cutting in half the number of kids who are not kindergarten ready,” says Ribelin, whose organization leads Topeka’s grade-level reading campaign. “It opened the door to working differently,” offering services for both children and families in their community.

Pine Ridge Prep began in 2012 with 34 half-day 4-year-old students in a classroom converted from a former duplex at Pine Ridge Manor, a 207-unit complex with many single female-headed households with average annual earnings of $8,600.

By 2015, the preschool had 49 full-day students in two 4-year-old classrooms and a 3-year-old classroom, thanks to additional space donated by the housing authority. Another 50 children up to age 3 are served by Parents as Teachers, the national home-visiting program.


Preschool parents volunteer two hours monthly and attend activities ranging from a weekly “conscious discipline” class to a monthly literacy event. Teachers visit students’ homes twice a year. A full-time licensed clinical social worker provides family and individual therapy.

"We do a lot with parents — almost more than with kids,” says Shanna Russell, the preschool coordinator. “We can spend all day helping the kids learn but if we’re not influencing what’s happening in the home, we’re not going to get very far.”

The preschool’s teachers, teaching assistants, special education support staff, literacy coach, social worker and curriculum come from the school district. Funds come from sources including United Way, Topeka Community Foundation, the state and Head Start, the federal preschool program for low-income families.

The first graduates went from scoring as low as the 20th percentile on a pre-K literacy assessment to scoring above the 80th percentile. A five-week summer program was added in 2014 to strengthen results.

Pine Ridge Partnership’s first project, in 2011, created Topeka’s second Parents as Teachers location, based in an underused community center that now houses a playroom, lending library and space for parent gatherings.

In 2014, the Partnership’s work won honors from both a national school board group and a Kansas public housing organization. “We’re out-of-the-box thinkers,” says Russell. “If we see a need in the community, we try to figure out a creative way of meeting it.”

The Partnership “came together very naturally,” says Ribelin, with initial support from the school superintendent and housing authority chief. And both parties benefit. “The housing authority gives us access to these families,” says Russell. “And it has an easier time with tenant issues that come up because we already have a good relationship with families through the school.”

The preschool also has become a draw for community volunteers, including young professionals and retirees who mentor individual students. In 2014, United Way’s young leaders built a Born Learning Trail, offering outdoor learning activities for families. Also, an onsite “aquaponic” farm opened, where local teen volunteers raise fresh-water fish and vegetables.

“It has not only given my son a place that is close to learn and build self-esteem,” writes one Pine Ridge Prep parent. “It has given him a sense of pride in his community.”

For more information, contact Kim Ribelin at 785-228-5123 or Kim.Ribelin@unitedwaytopeka.org. Photos: Pine Ridge Prep; Publication Date: Winter 2015. To nominate a community to be featured as a Bright Spot, please contact Betsy Rubiner at brubiner@gradelevelreading.net.

Does your community have a preschool effort? If so, share your experience in the comments box!

Want more? Check out: 

How in in Baltimore, MarylandRaising a Reader (RAR), in partnership with Baltimore City Public Schools and Head Start programs, will provide books and family reading strategies to more than 11,000 Baltimore-area children. 

How in Gulfport, Mississippi — faced with a lack of government funds and school space — South Mississippi PreK4Ward uses private donations and creative locations to provide free full-day prekindergarten to 132 children across two counties. 

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Betsy Rubiner is a writer and senior consultant with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

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  • I read this with great interest. What a great initiative. There are so many important elements to the work the Topeka Housing Authority is doing, and I know it will make a huge difference. In Holyoke, we are doing home visits through some of our full service community schools, and it is having a real impact.

    Housing providers have a lot to offer a 3rd grade reading campaign. Early literacy is a birth to 8 campaign. For many low income children & their families, public housing providers are likely to be a constant part of their lives for much of that time. Who better to bridge and forge relationships with pre-schools, elementary schools, home visiting organizations and other supports?

    In Western Massachusetts, we are really proud of the early literacy efforts led by the Springfield Housing Authority & its executive director, Judge William Abrashkin. Please take a moment to read more about what the SHA is doing here:

    http://www.readby4thgrade.com/blog/connecting-the-dots/breaking-cyc...

    I wish Public Housing Agencies across the country would join Topeka & Springfield; and do whatever most helps promote early literacy for their youngest residents.
  • I was thrilled to read this bright spot about the housing authority in Topeka, Kansas supporting preschool at their housing site. This is a perfect example of place-based programming at its best. Studies have shown that families participate at a greater level if the programs are easily accessible and they don't have to travel away from home.

    In my work with housing authorities, there is a great deal of interest in providing place-based programming and services to help their children and their families succeed in school and in life. I am very excited to be working with the housing authority of the City of Santa Barbara which recently submitted its letter of intent and is beginning its work on the Community Solutions Action Plan to become a member of the Communities Network. We hope to be able to welcome them to the Network later this year.

    And I'm equally thrilled to share that we just had two convenings in CA that brought together Campaign communities with housing authorities to develop or strengthen relationships between the two groups. The dialogue was rich, the enthusiasm real and we are in the process of determining when we will bring them together again. So much is happening!
    • Thank you for sharing all of this Alicia. Clearly, there are many synergies with the role of housing authorities and the grade-level reading goals. I wonder, would it make sense to connect the California housing authorities with other housing authorities in GLR coalitions?
  • I just recalled that we did webinar in 2012 titled Housing Authorities Supporting Early Literacy. Preston Prince, CEO/executive director, Fresno (Calif.) Housing Authority spoke about housing authorities as an often-overlooked source of support and information. During this webinar, the housing authority in Fresno, Calif., shared their work to ensure positive outcomes for kids. It's a good resource if you're considering reaching out to a public housing authority as a potential partner.

    Slide deck: http://api.ning.com/files/R9XIwqbdD-9E4Gam-Y8ILvTyVgjl29f5JEf0QL1BL...

    Recording: https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/recording/5781033472526630656
  • Thanks to both Betsy & Mary for the work on this!! We have amazing partners and could not have done it without all of them. From the Housing Authority, to Topeka Public Schools to our UW Young Leaders Society. We are so blessed with remarkable staff at each of these organizations who are committed to doing things "different and better" in our community to truly creating lasting impact and change.
  • This is such a promising model, Betsy. Thanks for sharing. I love the focus on parents -- as we know, they are the secret sauce! Between the collaboration approach, using an evidence-based model like Parents as Teachers, and engaging the Housing Authority -- this is indeed unique and out-of-the-box. Kudos to Topeka, KS!!
    • Thanks Yolie!
    • You're welcome - agree great work on this front!
  • Betsy - Thank you so much for this! It's great to have others be excited about this work! We entered into this work really focused on the children but the transformation we see happening in the community is equally exciting. We have seen an increased sense of community because of this work. For the first time that The Housing Authority can remember children actually trick or treated in their own neighborhood, parents are outside building snowmen with their children, and we are seeing crime decline. The most magical thing about this partnership is that we all own the work and are very flexible with our roles. We fill the role that is needed to do what's needed at the time. It's all so exciting. Betsy, thanks again for writing this piece.
    • Wow, Miriam. It sounds like the quality of life in the community has really improved. Relationships are truly at the heart of this work. There's a lot for Topeka to be proud of.
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