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 email@example.com.
Does your community have a preschool effort? If so, share your experience in the comments box!
Want more? Check out:
How in in Baltimore, Maryland, Raising 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.