"On your mark, get set, ready, go!" In the language of childhood, these words are an exciting invitation—and a signal that it's time to be at the starting line and prepared to take off in order to sprint to success. But what happens when children aren't ready for the most important race of their lives? Every year, four million children in America enter kindergarten, but as many as one in three won't be ready for school—and many of them will never catch up. Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids, or SPARK, a national initiative of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, was designed to get children at the starting line and ready to go. Seeking "ready children," "ready communities," and "ready schools," SPARK worked for over five years in seven states and Washington, D.C., to help communities unite resources to better prepare children for school and smooth the transition between pre-school and elementary school settings. The Children's Defense Fund's Southern Regional Office (CDF-SRO) was honored to be the grantee for SPARK Mississippi (SPARK-MS), a $5 million initiative that has improved school readiness for more than 800 Mississippi children ages three to eight—a concrete example of what's working to improve children's chances.
In Mississippi, as in many states, the early care and education "family" is bound by the common belief that all children should be well prepared to enter kindergarten. But, too often child care providers, Head Start centers, and even public schools are preparing children for the race on their own without working together. Using the SPARK-MS model, work is being done to align early childhood education with the K-12 education system in 10 targeted school districts. At the core of every SPARK-MS site is the creation of a Local Children's Partnership. As Ellen Collins, Executive Director of SPARK-MS, explains, "These partnerships are made up of community members representing early education, local school districts, business leaders, parents, health providers, SPARK staff, and other stakeholders who realize that the success of their community and ultimately the state rests upon meaningful investments in its children… They understand their community's livelihood is based on the children being ready for kindergarten, and they are working to address any gap or service need in their community and advocate for increased quality and access."
SPARK-MS's interventions include professional development and technical assistance for early learning center staff, resource fairs and cultural awareness activities for children and families, home visitation, and coordinating transition activities between early learning settings and public schools. Every site employs Learning Advocates who work with families on a one-to-one basis, serving as case managers, tutors, and friends. This unique aspect of SPARK provides a parent training track, and the families whose children participate in SPARK consider their Learning Advocates part of their own family. "She's like the preacher, the teacher, the mama, the counselor, the husband, the wife, all in one," grandparent Tena McNair said of her grandson Tamarius's Learning Advocate. "To me, she's everything." Tamarius started with SPARK at age three and is now a successful fifth grader. As she raises her grandson alone, Mrs. McNair is especially grateful for the assistance SPARK employees provide. "They are always just a phone call or a ride away. If it wasn't for them, I don't know what I would do sometimes."
Satoya Payne, whose son Ricky was one of the first SPARK participants in his school district, shares similar gratitude: "When he was in first grade, struggling with his speech, I didn't know what to do. Then SPARK came in, and it was a big turnaround." Learning Advocates petitioned the school district in order for Ricky to receive speech and language services and individualized tutoring, and equipped his parents with behavior management tools. Today, Ricky is a fifth grade honor roll student who wants to be a firefighter when he grows up.
The first cohort of SPARK-MS students began taking statewide standardized tests in spring 2009, and the encouraging results echo the positive impact we've already seen in children like Tamarius and Ricky. SPARK students who took the Mississippi Curriculum Test (MCT2) outperformed non-SPARK students from a comparable school district in both Language Arts and Mathematics. We have also seen more parents involved in their children's academic process and more community members taking an active role in advocating for changes to strengthen the early childhood development and learning system. With a proven track record and measurable results, SPARK-MS is now moving into the next phase. "We know the model works; now we want to focus on improving the system," says Ellen Collins. SPARK-MS is laying a foundation from which an early learning system in Mississippi can evolve—one that ensures children's health care needs are addressed, parents are supported in their efforts to provide nurturing and stable home environments, and early care and education settings provide high-quality learning experiences at the same time that they work with elementary schools to develop effective transition plans. As the Black Community Crusade for Children (BCCC), which CDF coordinates, issues a renewed call to action for our children, we know one piece of the solution is to build on models like SPARK-MS that are already succeeding in getting our children to the starting line and off to a strong start.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.