A 15-Year SPARK Prepares Preschoolers For Kindergarten Success

4-year-old Elijah Rowland holds a pair of scissors with SPARK parent-partner Missy Beebe
4-year-old Elijah Rowland works on a project with SPARK parent-partner Missy Beebe [M.L. Schultze]
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M.L. Schultze

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 has been underway to change that — one hour at a time. And the first group of kids who launched the program are now 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 and spends the next hour filling her in on dinosaurs, volcanos, dinosaurs-in-volcanos, patterns and panthers. He counts, compares, creates a book and corrects a laughing Beebe on her colors.

But what makes this a red-letter day is Elijah writing his name unassisted, shouting out each letter, but really relishing the “H.”

“E-L-I-J-A-H!

That will be a highlight in Beebe’s 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 was “when his mom said, ‘You did it yesterday. I know you can do it.’”

A Key Partnership

Beebe is what SPARKOhio 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 says the setting makes a big difference in the relationship.

“That’s a big thing, having a stranger come into your home. And I take it really serious. And I try to respect them, their home, their rules,” she said.

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.

Kindergarten Readiness and Other Assessments

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, pulls up the stats showing how SPARK kids in Stark County performed in the 2017 Kindergarten Readiness Assessment. They show the SPARK kids doing significantly better than comparison groups in math, language, physical well-being and motor development. 

It’s a pattern that’s been replicated throughout the years since the Kellogg Foundation first funded the SPARK effort in 2003.

Early Childhood Resource Center Executive Director Scott Hasselman

Early Childhood Resource Center Executive Director Scott Hasselman [M.L. Schultze]

Hasselman notes 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 are 50-50. For Spark kids, nearly two-thirds hit that magic number.

And 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 says the connection with parents, grandparents, and guardians is a crucial difference.

“Parents are the secret sauce. … We need their commitment to the program,” she said. “Kids will learn, but it’s much faster learning when a parent is engaged. It scaffolds.”

4-year old Elijah with his mom Alisha watching

Elijah Rowland’s mom Alisha watches as he works on his SPARK exercises. [M.L. Schultze]

The secret sauce in Elijah Rowland’s life is his mom, Alisha.

She has just finished the midnight shift making potato chips at Shearers, but joins her son and Beebe coloring, counting, and storytelling.

“You can’t just let them do it. You have to work with your child, too,” she 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: playdough, stampers and stickers.

Outreach and Limits

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 the parents and guardians who are 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. And no-shows can be a problem, especially in high-poverty districts like Canton.

The progress of Canton kids was lagging those in other SPARK districts. So SPARK began a pilot program last year to ratchet up to twice a month, and made that citywide this year. Director Brady says the same content is covered, but paced differently. She adds, 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.”

SPARK Director Mary Brady at a table with teaching resources

Mary Brady runs the SPARK program in Stark County [M.L. Schultze]

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.

He says he can often pick out the SPARK kids. They stand a little taller.

“It’s almost a little bit of a strut of confidence. As in, ‘I know what I’m doing here, I know what I’m supposed to do.’”

And, he adds, their parents stand a little taller, too.

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