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‘Proposition S’ Would Bring New Era Of Widespread, Free Preschool And Update Decaying Buildings

Jennifer Moore

On Tuesday, people living within the boundaries of the Springfield R-12 school district will be asked to vote on Proposition S, an 18-cent increase to the debt service levy that would fund 39 projects, including renovating and rebuilding several schools.  Proposition S would also make entrances more secure and improve accessibility for people with disabilities.

The list of projects that would be funded was developed by a task force of 30 people across the district.

“And one of the needs was an equity issue from a facility standpoint," said Stephen Hall, chief communications officer for Springfield Public Schools.

“Just the quality of the facilities within our district.  And the task force felt very strongly that Proposition S should address that, both from a quality learning environment standpoint, from a safety and security standpoint, and accessibility,” Hall said. 

Hall says the six schools that will receive the biggest makeovers have an average building age of over 80 years.

"And the reason why that’s important is because the task force said, ‘We must invest where there’s the greatest need. We know that there are more needs beyond this that Proposition S can address—but we have to start somewhere.’ And they felt like the equity issue was at the heart of where we start,” Hall said.

All six of the renovation or reconstruction sites also involve schools that report having higher percentages of kids on free and reduced lunches than the district average of 52.6 percent.

The plan to expand free, early childhood education

One of the elementary schools that would see both renovation and the addition of an early childhood facility is Williams Elementary on West Kearney Street. 

According to Springfield Public Schools, just over 88 percent of kids here qualify for free or reduced lunches, a determination that’s based on federal income guidelines.

For over a decade, Springfield has been looking at how ready kids are to start learning when they arrive at Kindergarten.  In 2016, a survey looked at the emotional and social development of local kids and found that nearly one in four kindergartners in Springfield were not prepared to start school.

Missy Riley is the director or early childhood and Parents as Teachers for Springfield Public Schools.

She says the district's Wonder Years program, the preschool program, had the opportunity to gain new funding to add spots for pre-K programming.

"But one big problem when it comes to expanding our services is that we don't have the facilities to do so," Riley said.

Riley said SPS has already shuffled spaces and squeezed in pre-K instruction where it could. 

"But we never know from year to year where our classrooms may be. So, as you can see, that might be problematic," Riley said. 

Proposition S would designate hundreds of more permanent spots a year for kids to attend free preschool.

And here’s where poverty comes in:  poverty directly impacts accessibility to early childhood education.

From the days she was a kindergarten teacher here at Williams, Riley says one thing she wished for was for all children to have a high quality preschool.

Prop S would allow the district to expand preschool classrooms all across the city:  here at Williams Elementary, in midtown, with a new Boyd Elementary School, which would also include preschool space. And then with a new, southwest early childhood center located near Carver Middle School.

Americans show bipartisan support for early childhood education

In an increasingly polarized America, high-quality, early childhood education is one of the few issues that transcends party lines, with people from both parties largely supporting it, according to a 2017 national poll conducted by the First Five Years Fund, an education advocacy group.

And there’s a reason why:  research.  According to the PEW Charitable Trusts, kids who get high-quality preschool are more likely to graduate from high school. They also make more income as adults and are less likely to get caught in the criminal justice system or depend on welfare programs.

“I’m an elementary principal here in Springfield, at York Elementary. We’re on the north side. And I served on the Community Task Force for Facilities,” said Lora Hopper.

Hopper says Prop S would benefit all children, not just those living in poverty. At the same time, it would send a strong message to the kids and families of schools in the district’s high poverty zones.

“What renovating or constructing a new building does for a community is it puts an investment in our neighborhood. And when students or parents that transfers to ownership. And when a student walks into a classroom environment that is made especially for them, they become more excited and grasp the learning," Hopper said.

Hopper says many of those older facilities don’t have good accessibility features for children and guardians with disabilities.  York Elementary is among the 31 schools that will get a new, secure entrance if the measure passes.

Proposition S has received widespread support from business and civic organizations. A small handful of critics of Proposition S has focused their attention on cybersecurity and facilities; we reached out to one leader involved in that opposition for a comment on how Prop S relates to poverty and learning, but did not hear back by deadline.

Ultimately, it will be up to voters to decide whether this investment is worth the cost.  According to SPS spokeswoman Teresa Bledsoe,  an 18-cent increase to the debt-service levy would translate into tax bills going up by $34.20 a year for residential property with a market value of $100,000—that’s an increase of about $2.85 per month.

For commercial real estate, Prop S would increase a commercial tax bill by $288, or $24 per month, for a commercial property with a market value of $500,000, according to the SPS website. 

The election is Tuesday.

Join us Friday afternoon for our tenth and final Sense of Community report on the impact of poverty on education.   We’ll take you inside the area’s largest domestic violence shelter, Harmony House, to see how trauma and transportation impact learning.