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In transition to community model, USD 383 is removing labels from preschoolers

In the Maple Tree classroom in the College Hill Preschool, teacher Leigh Bailey only knows her preschool students as “seedlings.”

In fact, all of the center’s children are seedlings, and all of the classrooms are named after trees. At Eugene Field, the district’s other preschool facility, there’s a similar theme: kids are early birds and their classrooms are named after, well, birds.

But those are the only distinctions between preschool classrooms this school year following a yearslong process to combine and mix all of the district’s early learning programs. As a result, at-risk preschoolers, special education preschoolers, Head Start preschoolers and more all comingle in classrooms without labels.

Unlike regular K-12 education, the state of Kansas neither mandates nor publicly funds preschool education, so most of the state’s public school preschool programs run from a variety of other local, state and federal sources, particularly grants.

Historically, that’s led to “siloed classrooms” where school districts segregate the preschool children into classrooms based on funding sources, since each program has different requirements on how the classrooms are run and how the funding is spent.

Several other school districts across the state also have transitioned to the integrated, community learning model, but Manhattan-Ogden is likely the largest to make such a change, said Amanda Petersen, director of the state Department of Education’s Early Childhood Department.

One advantage that the Manhattan-Ogden school district had in making the change was the fact that it already operated all of the local public preschool options under one roof, Petersen said.

Elisabeth Nelson, director of early learning programs for the school district, said a task force charged with planning the change operated under a slogan: “Children aren’t soup cans, so why put labels on them?”

“I don’t think anybody thought about the harmful effects that might have on children, or the labels that we were inadvertently putting on kids,” Nelson said. “I think the thought was just that we’d open classrooms based on funding sources. We did a lot of good with that, and we were able to get a lot of funding that not all communities have and start that process of providing good early learning services, but in the process, we segregated kids based on certain factors.”

That led to inadvertent labels, she said.

“You don’t think a lot about that as an educator and you’re doing that, but I think you realize it when the community starts to say, ‘Oh, that’s the at-risk program,’ or ‘Oh, that’s the special education classroom,’” Nelson said. “I think when the external community can start to label how it works, it’s definitely alarming and concerning.”

Another side effect was that parents would shop around for programs and pit programs against each other, even though it was all within the district.

Families would sign up for several waitlists, and they would use spots in some programs while spots at other programs with perceived perks like lunch service opened up, Nelson said.

Several studies, including a 2015 study by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, have found that when elementary school students abruptly change schools (referred to as transiency or student mobility), the sudden change in school environment and classmate and teacher relationships often leads to severe impacts on test scores and high school graduation rates.

“When we look at research and what is harmful for kids, one of the big things that stands out is transient kids,” Nelson said. “Moving and transitioning during the school year is really harmful for kids, and we were in a way promoting that in our families.”

Making changes

With that in mind, the school district formed a task force to develop a vision for the early learning program’s future and goals. Nelson said just that step took some time, as even though the program’s employees and adminstrators worked toward the same goal of educating children, there were differences in philosophies and visions that the task force needed to align before moving in any direction.

From that task force came the idea to merge all of the various preschool programs’ funding and in turn merge the classrooms themselves.

Easier said than done.

For the move to work, the district would have to determine each student’s eligibility for the various funding sources and calculate funding for things like transportation, food service and teacher salaries based on the percentages of children enrolled in each programs. In any case, Nelson said this part of the process helped streamline things for parents, even if it caused some additional complexity on the district’s part.

Additionally, some programs had more stringent requirements, like academic benchmarks on sound and number identification, and some programs provided for things like transportation and food service while others did not. The Head Start grant also requires local programs to run for the full school day, or at least six hours, in order to receive the federal funding.

But the district realized that if it chose the highest standard for each benchmark, it would meet the benchmark for every program.

“We knew that if we always went the highest quality standards, we’d end up with a highest quality program by the end of the process.”

Although the physical move to integrated classrooms happened this year, the transition to common academic goals and curriculums has been in the process for the past several years. With a baseline of the 2017-18 school year, the early learning program increased the percentage of 4-year-old students who showed strong progress in sound identification up from 29% to 49% in the 2018-19 school year, falling just short of a goal of 50%. Meanwhile, the percentage of students who demonstrated strong progress in number naming increased from 41% to 53%, passing that metric’s goal of 50%.

“I think we ran a pretty good program to begin with, but I think as you look at it three years later after we’ve made curriculum changes and in how we train our staff, you see progress,” Nelson said. “That’s because we’ve picked the highest quality standards, and we’re helping our children be more successful than they ever have.”

The higher quality preschool education should correlate to better student outcomes and success as the children enter the K-12 system, superintendent Marvin Wade said.

“With all of these indicators, we ought to be able to expect, and really demand, that as these students come in with these skill sets, that they will be better and continue to get better down the road, in kindergarten and all the way through the system,” Wade said. “We’re going to continue to do the best that we can but we’re happy and I think the board is happy with some of these results we’ve seen.”

‘Renewed sense

of enthusiasm’

Peterson said she and a team of state officials had visited Manhattan a few months ago, and they were impressed with the initial results of the transition. She said other school districts could look at Manhattan-Ogden as a model in planning their own transitions.

As with any change, Nelson said there was some initial reluctance from teachers, but in bringing the teachers together and making sure there were consistent standards, expectations and policies, most teachers now buy into the district’s shared vision. The program keeps tabs of student learning by writing students’ name on sticky notes and tracking their progress as they move from at-risk (red) to moderate progress (yellow) to strong progress (green). That’s helped humanize the data for teachers and has built buy-in.

“I think a lot of that came real when they could see the real faces, instead of graphs and percentages. They could see those names and move them across the board to the green area,” Nelson said. “That resonates with teachers, and they can see their impact on the kids. It’s created a renewed sense of enthusiasm.”

Teachers also have adapted by creating a uniform handbook to ensure consistent policies and expectations from teachers.

The district also has to make sure that monthly attendance doesn’t drop below 80%, so teachers now follow more intense attendance reporting procedures.

Food and participation in physical activities can’t be used as rewards or punishments, either. Nelson said that although those rules might seem like red tape, the educators have to remember that there are reasons for the rules, and rules against food parties or using physical education as punishment might stem from issues like childhood obesity.

Even items like trips to the bathroom need consistent rules and expectations, Nelson explained.

Under the early learning community model, teachers are not told about a child’s circumstances or funding source, with the intent of reducing implicit biases. Those biases lead to subtle, unintentional judgements people may not even realize they make, and Nelson said that’s especially concerning in education.

“If a kid is from a low-income family, we might think they come from a hard life, and without knowing it, we might feel sorry for them and not push them as hard as we could,” Nelson said. “I don’t think any of it is intentional, but it’s best when we see children and families as children and families.”

Over the next couple of years, the preschool facilities will see a combined $15.7 million in bond improvements that will add classrooms and make other renovations. The College Hill facility, which is currently operating out of Trinity Presbyterian Church while construction is underway, is scheduled to open in fall 2020, while the Eugene Field construction starts in June and wraps up in fall 2021.

Nelson said the program’s biggest challenge going forward is sustainability, especially in enacting the new learning model. She said sustainability also means keeping the program eligible for grants and meeting yearly requirements.

“People get tired and it’s easy to want to go back to what’s comfortable and familiar, but I think it’s important that we keep our eyes focused forward on what we set out to achieve,” Nelson said.

Gibbs named next Riley County Health Department Director

Riley County commissioners Thursday announced Julie Gibbs as the next Riley County Health Department director.

She has served as the director of health promotion at the Lafene Health Center at Kansas State University since June 2010.

Gibbs is replacing Jennifer Green, who announced her resignation in August. Green and her family are moving to North Carolina.

In other action Thursday, commissioners:

  • Heard an advanced voting report from county clerk Rich Vargo. He said 777 people submitted ballots so far. The election office received over 600 mail-in ballots and around 64 people filled out ballots in-person as of Thursday morning, he said. During 2017’s city and school board election, 651 people voted during the same time period, said Susan Boller, elections supervisor. That is a 19.3% increase from 2017. Advance voting began Wednesday and ends Nov. 4 at noon. The general election is Nov. 5.
  • Held an executive session on acquisition of real property for about 10 minutes. Commissioners did not take any formal action following the executive session.
  • Approved platting two unplatted tracts into two residential lots. The site, comprised of about 13.24 acres, is near the southwest corner of South Manhattan Avenue and Collins Lane, officials said.
  • Listened to an update from Gary Fike, county extension director. He said 4-H is hosting a civic discourse meeting about mass shootings with students in grades 7-12 at the Staley School of Leadership Studies at Kansas State University from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Oct. 26. People can register for the event on the Kansas 4-H website, officials said.
  • Thanked Riley County Police Department Director Dennis Butler and officers for enforcing speed limits in school zones. Chair Ron Wells and commissioner John Ford expressed their satisfaction with the department’s efforts. In addition, Butler reported the department visited Kansas City’s Power and Light district and a college town that he didn’t name to learn about security measures while planning to move the Aggieville substation to the new parking garage in Aggieville.
  • Approved the county’s Public Works department to move forward with drafting a resolution establishing a stormwater management program for areas outside of Manhattan. The areas outside of city limits within an urbanized area will be covered under the program, officials said.

Nickolas Oatley / Staff photo by Nickolas Oatley  

Woodrow Wilson Elementary Principal Deb Nauerth leads students in the “Get Up” dance on Juliette Avenue Thursday. The school celebrated the opening of that stretch of Juliette.

Victim testifies during rape trial

A woman testified Thursday morning that she didn’t resist while being raped because she feared for her life.

The woman took the stand during the trial of Dexter Robinson, 27, who is charged with rape, two counts of aggravated criminal sodomy, aggravated kidnapping, aggravated robbery and two counts of aggravated burglary in connection with an incident that occurred in the early morning hours of July 13, 2018.

The woman said she planned to go to Aggieville with her friend and the friend’s boyfriend that evening. The woman was identified in court, but The Mercury usually does not identify victims of sexual assault. She said they had dinner and a few drinks that night. As they were walking to the bar district from her friend’s apartment nearby, the woman said she forgot her phone, ID and debit card, so she returned alone to the building to retrieve them.

Security footage played in court showed the woman enter the apartment building and a man walk in behind her shortly after. The woman said she grabbed the items and was preparing to lock the door behind her when she was startled by a man just up the stairs. She noticed him wearing a “white sheet” material that partly covered his face but didn’t think much of it at the time. She said the man came up behind her, covered her mouth and they went back inside the apartment.

The woman said the man asked her for money, so she tried searching in her friend’s room for valuables. She said the man told her not to look at him and verbally threatened he would pull out a gun, but she was not sure if he actually had one.

“I wasn’t going to fight back to protect myself from harm,” she said. “... I didn’t know what he was capable of. I had to expect the worst.”

The woman said he asked her to undress partly when he raped her. She said although he asked her to do certain actions, she felt like she had no choice to refuse. Before he left, she said the man said he was going to take an Apple Watch box she had pulled out earlier.

She said she thinks the whole incident took about 15 to 20 minutes. After she was sure the man had left the apartment, she called her friend, who returned to the apartment within minutes, and they called the police together.

She later had a sexual assault exam performed.

The woman said she did not know Robinson and was not aware of any connection with him.

Earlier testimony in the case said police used fingerprints on an Apple Watch box taken from the apartment and DNA on a disposed shirt to link Robinson to the incident.

The trial was scheduled to continue Thursday afternoon.

MATC looking to build off-campus facility in Wamego

Manhattan Area Technical College is zeroing in on buying a Wamego building that would be the college’s first off-campus facility as part of an effort to reach more of the region’s students.

The college’s board of directors unanimously gave MATC president Jim Genandt approval to start negotiating for a property near Wamego High School. Since the technical college just started negotiations, Genandt declined to give specific details on the property, including the exact location of the property or the amount the board authorized him to use.

Unlike the state’s community colleges, technical colleges have no taxing authority, and financing for the project will come from Government Capital Corporation, a public finance firm. Genandt said the college is confident that demand for classes will allow it to pay the financing back and eventually become a self-sustaining branch of MATC.

Packed classrooms in programs like nursing and welding have limited the college’s ability to bring in more students or programs, Genandt said, but the proposed center would allow MATC to pursue students outside of its typical area. The particular focus would be students from high schools in Pottawatomie County.

“It’s for us to capture a market we’re not capturing,” Genandt said. “Those students don’t come over here for classes. We have a great relationship with Manhattan High and get hundreds of students from there. But for students from Wamego High, Rock Creek — our campus is too far. So we’re going there to tap into that market. The school district is interested in us being there so we can provide those technical education opportunities.”

The center would mainly offer introductory courses for high school students to explore careers like auto repair, nursing and emergency medical technician training, and the college would not necessarily duplicate its Manhattan classrooms at the Wamego center.

Genandt said that with the new facility, MATC will work with Highland Community College, which also has a Wamego center and offers other training programs that MATC doesn’t offer, to meet the region’s needs. As the area’s technical college, he said MATC is responsible not only for training residents of the region but also developing the regional economy.

“We’re not leaving Manhattan,” Genandt said. “Manhattan is still our main focus, but this is a regional effort, and this is part of that effort.”