TOPEKA, Kansas — Gov. Sam Brownback is hoping to connect Kansas schools with other organizations to improve student reading proficiency, following a model he introduced in 2011 to boost technical education.
He said Friday during an informal gathering with Statehouse reporters that the effort to bring school districts and technical colleges together to create more career-ready students was showing gains once groups started pulling in the same direction.
"To me this is about what government has to do to get synergies among different entities," he said.
His next target is reading, starting with an initiative funded by $9 million in federal money to provide afterschool reading programs for students who aren't making the grade in reading. The program expands a model used by Save the Children, an international child welfare organization, which has been in place for more than a year in Pittsburg and other southeast Kansas communities.
The Republican governor said there will be some discomfort for some groups that worry they are ceding their missions to new groups, but Brownback said the reading challenge is big enough for multiple solutions.
"If you set turf aside and not look for the hidden agenda, there is no hidden agenda," he said. "We're trying to get kids to read."
Kansas has awarded a $9 million grant using federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Family reserve funds that will help expand Save the Children's efforts to 45 rural school districts. An urban component will use other resources to enhance literacy programs through the Boys and Girls Clubs in larger cities, including Topeka, Kansas City, Lawrence and Wichita.
Critics of the proposal don't question the goal but rather the use of federal money that traditionally has been used to help needy families get through temporary financial woes. The average monthly check in Kansas is about $403 for a family of three.
"It's robbing Peter to pay Paul," said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat.
Pittsburg's demographics have changed over the past 30 years, said assistant superintendent Brian Biermann. The district has about 3,000 students, of which 70 percent qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches. There is also a significant English language learner population that requires additional resources to ensure students are successful in school.
Andrew Hysell is a consultant working with Kansas and a former associate vice president for policy and advocacy with the Save the Children program. He described the efforts in Pittsburg and other southeast Kansas communities as a prototype for boosting student achievement and battling poverty for the rest of the state.
"We are going to have a model that is going to be great for Kansas and potentially great for the country," Hysell said.
Biermann said the Pittsburg program integrated literacy with physical activity. Students complete their school day then go to the program where they may engage in games or playing sports before working with staff on reading skills.
Pittsburg is expecting a shipment of books that will be distributed in the district to encourage reading. Last year they received soccer balls to help get students active, he said.
"Gov. Brownback even came and busted a sweat," Biermann said.