Recently, I watched one of the 4-year-old preschool students enrolled at Operation Breakthrough build and program a helicopter to turn its propellers and make a whirring sound. To prepare for the project, he had taken apart a ceiling fan at the hacking bench in the MakerSpace and had learned how to code at the coding table. His project is one of many that he and his peers have engaged in as part of Operation Breakthrough’s early STEM programming. When we introduced the MakerSpace in 2015 and a SMART lab in 2016, we wanted to not only ensure our children were kindergarten-ready but were developing into strong communicators, collaborators and problem solvers. When Dejuan isn’t constructing helicopters or building robots, he is focused on projects using alternative energy or circuits.
The resilience and habits of mind that develop with being a Maker are qualities that we hope to promote in the children and families we serve each day. We believe strongly in the importance of MAKING and early STEM learning for fostering the creativity and confidence children need to be successful at school and to become agents of change in their personal lives and in their communities. The good news is that our hands-on approach to learning is paying off. In both 2016 and 2017, over 90% of rising kindergarteners met or exceeded kindergarten-readiness indicators.
We know from numerous studies that children who receive high quality early education are more likely to show stronger math and reading skills and graduate from high school. In addition, early exposure to projects involving STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) not only supports children’s overall academic growth but also helps them develop critical thinking and problem solving skills. Research studies have shown the benefits persist well into adulthood.
For example, research conducted by The Rand Corporation has shown that programs that help children learn and grow in their earliest years can change a child’s life trajectory. This is especially important for children in underserved communities who often face obstacles to success from the day they are born.
Unfortunately, data shows that only two-thirds of American four-year-olds attend preschool or other early education programs. Kansas City is not much different. Of the 5400 4 year olds in Kansas City, 2600 have never been to preschool. A recent Harvard study noted that 40% of zip codes in our city are early learning deserts. The need is great. We could fill Operation Breakthrough several times over. We have several hundred children on our waiting list all of the time. Fortunately, we are about to make a dent in that waiting list as we take one step closer to realizing the Founding Sisters’ vision of serving more children with the purchase of the Jones Store across the street from our current center.
Through our upcoming expansion we will be adding critical early childhood seats and continued support to our before and after school-age programming which supports student success and keeps families working and moving towards sustainability. When school is out, OB is open to children who might otherwise be home alone in troubled neighborhoods. Today we serve 21 schools. We graduate about 85 children out of our early learning program to kindergarten each year - and because we currently lack space in our school age program, we have to tell 50 of them they can't stay enrolled. We work hard for 5 years to get them ready to excel and then have to turn them - and their families-- away the minute they reach kindergarten. We literally have had to TRIAGE our 5-year-olds by how much risk they face if they can't stay enrolled and believe me the ones we have had to turn away were certainly not without risk. Our expansion means that all our children can stay enrolled until they are 14 and their families can continue to work with us toward greater financial and emotional stability.
Our program expansion will include Health and Wellness programs, a gym, and a MakerVillage. Team sports and collaborating on STEM projects help children develop strong moral character. We want them to be good thinkers and good people.