Effecting social change in a community can often require millions of dollars, political capital and, as the saying goes, it can take a village. Sometimes, however, it can be done with frogs, lily pads and a bit of sand.
Those three unlikely elements will be key ingredients in the city of Boise's most ambitious social project to date: Partnering to introduce pre-kindergarten learning to the Vista neighborhood, which is bordered by Federal Way, the New York Canal and Roosevelt Street.
The 140 or so 4-year-olds in the Vista area aren't different from most Idaho kids but, beginning this November, things will be different for 60 of them as they will begin spending four hours per day preparing for a childhood full of engaged learning. That's where the frogs, lily pads and sand come in.
"As an outsider, you may think it's controlled chaos, but it's truly developmentally appropriate," said Stacey Roth, administrator of Student Programs for the Boise School District. "Picture a number of stations around a classroom. One might be a large table of sand where kids are drawing out their first letters. The kids think they're playing in the sand, but the directions are quite specific about forming those letters. Then at others, kids are learning math with a large lily pad and five frogs, but when one of the frogs jumps off the pad, the kids are doing math. Over at another station, kids are pouring water into containers, identifying volume."
The stations will be created with those young learners in mind.
"They're teeny tiny. Those hands and arms of a 4-year-old can be pretty short," said Roth.
That's about the only tiny thing in Boise's pre-K plan. The partnership with the Boise School District has already attracted a who's who list of financial donors: commitments have been secured from United Way of the Treasure Valley ($50,000); Micron ($25,000); Wells Fargo ($5,000); the Idaho Statesman ($5,000); and others. Nearly $100,000 has been raised to date. The start-up costs—covering equipment and supplies—will total approximately $80,000 and ongoing annual expenses are expected to be $182,000.
The city of Boise is committed, as well.
"You can look at the city as a bit of a guarantor," said Diana Lachiondo, director of Community Partnerships in Boise Mayor Dave Bieter's office. "We know what this will cost and whatever we don't raise from our partners, the city will fund whatever is left over."
Add to that the substantial in-kind donations from the Boise School District: administration and classroom space.
"We've already identified the classrooms at Hawthorne and Whitney elementary schools," said Roth.
It's no accident that parents living near the two schools in the Vista neighborhood will have the first crack at pre-K. The initiative is the first major outcome of the city's Energize Our Neighborhoods program, which in turn is part of Boise's Lasting, Innovative and Vibrant, or LIV, brand.
"You hear us say 'Boise is livable,' but we have to ask how livable a neighborhood is," said Lachiondo. "And when we look at Vista, it's not a bad neighborhood by any means. In fact, in some ways, it's a great neighborhood. That said, it has challenges and opportunities, and there are enough of them that we think we can make meaningful change."
Statistics on Vista neighborhood children reveal significant needs.
At Hawthorne Elementary, 72 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. It's an even higher 83 percent at Whitney. Compare those numbers to the citywide average of approximately 45 percent.
According to the Idaho Reading Indicator, a benchmark used to measure a student's ability to name and sound out the letters of the alphabet, nearly 50 percent of 5-year-olds within the boundaries of the Vista neighborhood are not "ready" for kindergarten. This is in spite of the fact that Idaho Kids Count, a nonprofit organization focused on "research-based discussions to improve outcomes for Idaho's children," reminds us that children who are "school-ready" are more likely to succeed in school both in and out of the classroom. Kids Count says prepared kids are statistically more likely to be successful readers, have better social and emotional health, are more likely to graduate from high school and go on to postsecondary education, and are less likely to commit crime as juveniles and adults.
The Idaho Legislature, however, continues to roadblock any effort to support state-funded preschool. A number of advocates say the Legislature's reluctance toward pre-K probably stems from the fact the Gem State doesn't even require children to go to kindergarten.
The Idaho Reading Indicator shows 62 percent of Boise kindergartners have a sufficient literacy score. Only 53 percent of Hawthorne students and 51 percent at Whitney meet expectations.
"These numbers are compelling. But it also raises a bigger question: What do the kids think about school, not just academically, if socially and emotionally?" Lachiondo asked. "If you're starting out with frustration on day one in kindergarten, you're not set up very well."
Studies show that for every $3,000 investment in a child for pre-K, the economy gets a minimum 7 percent return on investment through less remedial learning, less job training, greater opportunity for successful employment and less strain on social welfare safety nets.
Two major questions still loom for policymakers: how will they keep the lights on, and is it the city's responsibility to do what the Idaho Legislature won't?
For their part, city officials say they don't have the time or energy to wait for—let alone argue about—Statehouse politics.
"This is a lot more about the outcomes than it is about any existing policy stance from any other governmental entity," said Mike Journee, spokesman for Mayor Bieter. "The mayor has said on multiple occasions that he's committed to this."
That financial commitment is not bottomless, though. At least not yet.
"Neither the city nor the school district have unlimited dollars to go toward this," said Lachiondo. "But we can't bind a future mayor or council to this."
However, as the parent of a 6- and 3-year-old, she understands the value of preschool.
"It's not cheap, but is absolutely important," she said. "So many kids don't have the opportunity, so I'm very excited about this, on a professional and personal level."
The 60 inaugural students in the pre-K programs at Hawthorne and Whitney elementaries will be in three separate classes of 20 each: one morning class at Whitney, and one morning class and one afternoon class at Hawthorne. The children won't be the only ones learning.
"There's a lot of enthusiasm," said Roth. "We're already getting a number of calls from parents asking how they can sign their child up. There will a screening process with several contributing factors [including] income eligibility, and then there's the parent involvement component."
That means parents must commit to volunteer hours in the classroom and parenting education to encourage more reading at home.
"I promise you, this is nothing like daycare," said Roth. "But please don't picture a typical classroom, either. Parents should know that these kids will be moving around a lot. Don't picture these kids sitting in rows with workbooks."