Des Moines school district leaders are pitching a plan to use $3.9 million in federal funding to allow an additional 120 children from low-income families to attend full-day preschool, a move they say would better prepare children for kindergarten and allow more of their parents to work full-time.
Meanwhile, the Des Moines Public Library is asking for $1 million over three years to hire more librarians and expand their outreach to child care centers and local organizations to promote literacy. Both programs share a common goal — to improve student learning and lift up test scores.
"We want everyone to reach their potential," Des Moines Public Library Director Sue Woody told the Des Moines Register. "Kids cannot reach their potential if they can't even read. All the more reason to give them more attention, more funding, and help."
The programs made their pitches to the Des Moines City Council at a work session last week. They're seeking to secure the $4.9 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding that City Manager Scott Sanders set aside for child care-related programs. Des Moines received about $95 million from the federal pandemic relief program, which can be spent on community needs such as water, sewer and broadband infrastructure, economic recovery or equity-focused services.
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Woody said the difference between public school system reading scores in the city and those in the suburbs is shocking. Across grades three through eight, Des Moines ranks in the low-40th to mid-50th percentile for language arts. Communities such as Ankeny and Waukee are both in the high-70th to high-80th percentile range,according to data from the Iowa Department of Education.
"Our kids suffered deeply during the pandemic, and we're getting them back to where we were, but that's not good enough," Woody said.
The City Council is expected to vote on the proposals in the coming weeks. ARPA funds need to be committed by the end of 2024 and disbursed by the end of 2026.
Des Moines Public Schools operates nine early learning centers and classrooms and partners with 14 programs in the city. The majority of its programs — 72% — are half-day and are funded by the state, Susie Guest, early childhood programs administration director, told the City Council.
But Guest said half-day programs can be a barrier for low-income and working families because they may keep parents from working full-time or sending their child to preschool at all, due to transportation challenges or cost. Refugee families, in particular, face transportation and language barriers, she said.
Through the school district, preschool is free for up to 15 hours a week to all families regardless of income. To attend full-time, families who are above 200% of the federal poverty level must pay tuition. A family of four earning $55,500 is considered at 200% of poverty level.
And though the school district has several state and federal grants that help cover tuition for low-income families, the need for assistance is high, Guest said.
In Des Moines, 50% of students who attend a preschool program through the school district are funded throughthe Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program, a state-funded preschool program for 4-year-old children. Another 22% are funded through the same voluntary preschool program but attend classes held by one of the school district's partners.
Twenty-one percent of students qualify for Head Start, which serves families most in need, at 100% of the poverty level or less. A family of four earning $27,750 a year qualifies.
Guest said she tries to "braid" all different sources of funding together to help a student attend full-day preschool. But at this point, "I've braided all that I can," she told City Council members last week.
Guest said the district wants to use ARPA funding to create six additional preschool classrooms with up to 120 slots, including after-school programs. They would be available to students in families at 200% of the poverty level or below. Classrooms would likely be added to elementary school buildings with the highest need, she said.
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A portion of the funds would go to partnering programs so they can expand from half-day to full-day preschool for families at the same income level. Many of the partner programs already have full-day programs, but if a parent can't pay, their child may attend only half a day, Guest said. With the new funding, the partner organizations could offer scholarships.
Getting more children into full-day preschool should have a positive impact on kindergarten readiness, Guest said.
Reading and math benchmark scores for children in kindergarten through fifth grade are higher for students who attended a Des Moines Public Schools preschool program versus those who didn't, she said. For example, 46% of K-5 students who attended a preschool program met benchmarks in the literary assessment Fastbridge Fall, compared to 31% of students who did not attend a program, according to data collected by the school district.
In the 2021-22 school year, 38% of kindergarten students attended a school district or partner prekindergarten program, down from the typical 50%. Guest said the decrease could be lingering from the pandemic.
The ARPA funds would provide for only three years of programming, but the city's investment would increase the number of children who qualify for statewide and federal funding. Through the added classrooms, statewide and federal funding would continue to sustain preschool children for at least half-day slots after the ARPA funding runs out. Guest added the school district is always seeking more funding to help get more children enrolled in full-day programs.
Several council members expressed their support for funding at Monday's meeting, including Connie Boesen, who said expanding the programs isn't just crucial for students' success, but for parents as well.
"Every student you help makes a difference," Boesen said. "Every student that we can give a full-day program to is tremendous for parents, if they can go to work. If this is inhibiting people from working, this gives people an opportunity to get back to full-time employment."
The library is seeking $1 million in ARPA funding over the next three years to expand two existing initiatives. The first, Simple Steps: Read, Write, Talk, Sing, Play, is a preliteracy program that encourages busy parents to practice reading with their children by doing simple, daily activities like crossing off items on a grocery shopping list or reading signs while walking around the neighborhood.
The funding would help spread the word about the campaign through commercials, social media and bus stop ads, said library community engagement supervisor Ashley Molzen.
As the world emerges from the pandemic, families have been forced to make choices between meeting kids' basic and emotional needs, and literacy has taken a back seat, Molzen said. "It's just not that daily focus always, and it can be," she said.
The hope is to instill daily habits that will have a long-term impact on families who may be too busy to read with their children for 20 minutes a day.
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The second initiative is to hire three additional staff members to expand the library's existing outreach programs such as visits by library mascotRosie Reader to preschools, second-grade classrooms and after-school programs. Library leaders hope more staffing can help tap into and build relationships with other community organizations such as the Young Women's Resource Center, New Directions shelter and preschools outside of Des Moines Public Schools to promote reading.
Though Des Moines Public Schools' students' test scores have rebounded since the pandemic, the school district's scores still lag behind those across the state, specifically in English language arts and math. While Des Moines ranks in the low-40th to mid-50th percentile in language arts in grades three through eight, average statewide scores were in the high-60th to mid-70th percentiles, according to data from the Iowa Department of Public Education.
Factors including socio-economic differences and a large number of new American and non-English-speaking families moving into Des Moines may feed into the disparities between the city and its suburban counterparts, Woody said.
The library wants to do its part to support early childhood educators and to raise awareness of easy steps families can take to help get their children ready for school, she said.
"As a city grows, we know that there is a lot of growth in the suburbs, but we cannot abandon our core," Woody said. "It's going to take a communitywide effort to focus on scores for our Des Moines kids."
When it comes to getting children to read, Woody says it's about finding that "spark."
"That's what we as librarians do," Woody said. "We try to find those books or those topics, those subjects, that connect with children."
Virginia Barreda is the Des Moines city government reporter for the Register. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @vbarreda2.