TULSA — Everyone here loves their universal, publicly funded prekindergarten.

The setup seems perfect. Oklahoma pays for every 4-year-old statewide whose family wants in.

And in Tulsa, zealous philanthropic support has poured millions of dollars more into preschools to lift the neediest children.

Georgetown University researchers praise Tulsa’s work. Accolades rain down from as high as the White House.

Look closer, though, and you’ll see a city still struggling to put more children on a clear arc to success.

As Kansas City moves toward a vote next year to raise property taxes for early childhood education, it can turn to Tulsa for a lesson in how hard it is, even with universal pre-K, to achieve results.

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A Kansas City effort to make pre-kindergarten education available to all families can learn a lot from the struggles and triumphs in Tulsa’s hard road to preschool for all.

The Tulsa elementary schools receiving the most pre-K resources — its highest-poverty schools — after years of investment are still getting an F on the state’s crude and controversial single-grade rating system.

Statewide, Oklahoma only in the latest results on the Nation’s Report Card finally caught up with the national average in fourth-grade reading and math — after 17 years of universal pre-K.

“It is not an inoculation,” said Steven Dow, executive director of Community Action Project-Tulsa, one of the city’s staunchest early childhood program champions. “We need to quit thinking of it that way.”

What children get in Tulsa, he said, is “a boost.”

So be prepared, Kansas City, he and others are saying. If Kansas City voters approve a property tax levy dedicated to early childhood programming, the work will still be hard.

Tulsa schools, as in Kansas City, still row against poverty’s steady current. Economic stress still batters state education budgets. Too many good teachers take their careers elsewhere.

There will be reasons to doubt.

If Kansas City is coming aboard on universal pre-K, take heed of what Tulsa has learned, said Paige Whalen at the Community Service Council, which has been serving a consulting role in Oklahoma’s and Tulsa’s pre-K efforts.

“Somebody needs to do it right,” she said.

It bears repeating. Whatever frustrations Tulsa may be experiencing, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who wants to take it down. That support goes statewide as well.

It’s telling that conservative Oklahoma, one of the reddest of the red states, carries on with the kind of programming often condemned as the work of a “nanny state.”

The law in 1998 that added pre-K in Oklahoma’s general education funding has stuck even though its author sneaked the original language into a bill unnoticed by most lawmakers.

It says something about the early education practices in America, where most parents intuitively put their children in some amount of preschool, to the extent they can pay, to get ready for kindergarten.

And now, as Oklahoma has built up its capacity with certified pre-K teachers and interest has grown, nearly eight out of 10 children in the state pass through state-funded pre-K.

“There is 100 percent support for universal pre-K,” said Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association. “There is no discussion of dropping funding from the system.”

Oklahoma was the second state after Georgia to make public pre-K available to all its children, and it is still one of only five states that have or are implementing universal pre-K.

The work at hand, though, is achieving tangible student growth to reward long-held faith that established gains in kindergarten readiness will blossom in broader student success on a citywide, and even a statewide, scale.

And Tulsa in particular is accumulating data, and educators are reacting to it, collaborating between the pre-K and elementary grades, trying to breed that elusive long-term success.

Kansas City is watching.

“That’s the good thing about Tulsa,” said Jerry Kitzi, the director of early learning for Kansas City Public Schools.

“It’s causing a shift,” he said. “They’re saying, ‘Hey, we’re sending you children who are ready. What are you doing?’ ”

Tough Start

Hold up a second. Consider the moment right before principal Jennifer Pense showed off Tulsa’s Skelly Elementary School’s pre-K classes.

A hurried dad had just dropped off his 4-year-old preschool child and two older siblings in the school’s office — way late.

Have they had breakfast, Pense asked. The dad said he didn’t know, and then he was gone.

There would be plenty of statistics to share during her tour — how more than 95 percent of the children in Skelly are economically disadvantaged, and how two-thirds of them are learning English.

And discussions to come would focus on the need in particular to help these families and develop strategies from pre-K up through higher elementary grades.

Pense would show off Barb Hansen’s class and the learning games underway and how her “hidden gem” of a school had pre-K teachers who knew the nuances of child development, who knew age “4 is not 5.”

These were teachers who know the importance of relationships with parents, who understand that especially in a school of such high poverty, “you’re teaching the whole family.”

But first, Pense had three hungry children at her feet.

Breakfast service was already shut down. She had to go in search of any of the morning’s meat slider sandwiches that might have been left over.

She found some, fed the children and sent them to their classes.

Now where were we?

Test Case

For Georgetown University researcher Bill Gormley, Tulsa presented a grand opportunity.

A very limited universe of pre-K research needed a test case like this.

Here were more than 100 classrooms in Tulsa schools serving more than 2,100 4-year-olds. These were “high quality” programs not just for high-needs children, Gormley said, but for children from diverse socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds.

Tulsa pre-K classes were not intense, high-cost programs but relatively affordable, extending similar costs of public elementary school to 4-year-olds at about $8,000 per student per school year.

Here was a chance to see how pre-K for all works on a large scale, if it is done well.

Now some 15 years and multiple studies into their work, teams of Georgetown researchers have made encouraging findings.

The children who pass through Tulsa’s pre-K classrooms have arrived at kindergarten more prepared for school — cognitively, socially and emotionally.

Disadvantaged students benefited more, but all students benefited significantly, their research showed, arriving on average nine months ahead of peer students in reading, seven months ahead in writing and five months ahead in math.

Georgetown has also taken its Tulsa data and blended it into formulas applied in other preschool research to project pre-K graduates’ improved earnings potential as adults. Georgetown estimates that Tulsa will gain $3 for every $1 spent on pre-K, based on adult earnings alone.

“Again and again,” Gormley said, research is showing that “Tulsa’s prekindergarten program is first-rate and it improves readiness for all of the children who participate in it.”

Questions in Scores

Oklahoma test scores, however, have not been a source of encouragement.

It’s impossible to isolate how pre-K might be working against all the other forces affecting state performance, but the overall picture is rough.

Elementary scores in reading and math have not grown since 2005 and have even slightly declined, even more so among economically disadvantaged children and students with limited English — the children who have benefited most from pre-K.

Perhaps, though, Oklahoma has turned a corner with the so-called Nation’s Report Card — the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

For many years, results on the national test were discouraging. Since the inception of universal pre-K, Oklahoma had been mostly losing ground as it tried to match the average national gains in fourth-grade math and reading, until now.

In 2015 results released in October, Oklahoma essentially caught up with the national average, only now nudging past where it had been before expanding pre-K.

Gormley warns that anyone looking to statewide test results or NAEP to judge pre-K — because of all the other factors weighing in — is running “a fool’s errand.”

But state and NAEP scores “do tell us something,” argued Lindsey Burke, an education policy fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

They are the “audit on how states perform,” she said. The lack of clear, sustained success on any large scale and the “scant body of research” should be enough, Burke said, “to question the wisdom of the large-scale government preschool.”

Keeping the Faith

Tulsa’s response?

Keep working. Keep sharing ideas — even as the state system around them starves for funds and loses teachers to other states and professions.

Kansas City can do this too, say pre-K teachers Sara Smith and Lisa Williams at Tulsa’s Kendall-Whittier Elementary School.

They believe they are bettering the chances of their children.

They switched from elementary to pre-K more than a decade ago, getting alternative certification at a time when the district “needed an army” to meet the rising tide of 4-year-olds, Williams said. And they have become masters.

Smith and Williams meet regularly with other pre-K teachers and with elementary teachers, seeking out ideas to help propel stronger pre-K gains deeper into elementary grades.

Play-Doh and Legos are getting more action now in higher elementary grades, incorporated into lessons because a new generation of children playing with computer touch screens were losing the hand strength to write well with pencils.

And the pre-K teachers are taking key words in the elementary teachers’ lessons and introducing them to their 4-year-olds, like early fraction thinking with “part, part, whole.”

Many of the obstacles they have encountered and continue to encounter figure to weigh on Kansas City as well.

The overall education system has lost ground in funding as the needs of students and families have grown, said Andy McKenzie, the assistant to the superintendent for early learning services for Tulsa Public Schools.

In many of Tulsa’s schools, more than half of the children move in or out within the school year, and those who move average four schools in that year, he said.

Meanwhile, when adjusted for inflation, Oklahoma’s budget for education has decreased 23.6 percent since 2008, according to the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities. Its 2012 average teacher pay, $44,156, ranked 48th in the nation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Missouri, at $46,406, was 44th. Kansas, at $46,718, was 41st.

“We’re strapped, no doubt,” McKenzie said.

It will be hard, said Whalen of the Community Service Council, to get university schools of education to ratchet up early childhood programming and produce the certified pre-K teachers who are the lifeblood of universal pre-K.

The mindset has to change, she said, that historically has equated a teacher’s move from elementary to pre-K as a demotion.

And the work has to continue, said Dow of Community Action Project-Tulsa, stretching the science and understanding of how children learn.

“We need to understand why, when we have invested heavily in (early childhood education), that children are not staying on the trajectory we want them to be,” he said. That is “the next step of what we need to do.”

‘The Key Window’

Through it all, the education and philanthropic worlds envy Tulsa.

Visitors frequently come, like Katherina Rosqueta, the founding executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania.

The center helps foundations around the nation look at research, link to other donor communities and learn from others’ challenges.

Early childhood, Rosqueta said, is one of the center’s primary recommendations, and the private-public partnerships in Tulsa serve as a powerful example.

“The research and evidence base on how brains develop show it is so obviously critical and important,” she said.

She was visiting one of Tulsa’s Educare sites at Kendall-Whittier, where intense early childhood education programs help families with children from infancy to kindergarten.

The schools and the philanthropic investors don’t doubt their mission.

The gap in learning growth between advantaged and disadvantaged children “is discernible at 18 to 22 months,” said Annie Koppel Van Hanken, senior program officer for the giant early childhood investor in Tulsa — the George Kaiser Family Foundation.

Even the youngest children “have an amazing capacity for growth cognitively and socially,” she said. “This is the key window.”

This story is being published with permission of The Kansas City Star. Reporter Joe Robertson can be reached at jrobertson@kcstar.com or (816) 234-4789.

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