By Matthew Hansen, Managing Editor
The mother and daughter reach the bus stop just after dawn each school morning. On some mornings, like this one, it snows and the No. 14 bus is late. Sometimes it takes Shana Wilkins and her 3-year-old, Artellia, an hour and a half to get from their home to 30th and Ames, the temporary location of Pinewood Elementary.
It doesn’t matter. They are on that bus each and every morning. They are on that bus because both Mom and her toddler want to be.
Shana Wilkins says of her daughter, Artellia, 3, "I want her to be able
to inspire someone else, like she's being inspired here."
“My baby got on that bus this morning and she said, ‘I’m going to see Miss Crum?’ And I said yes, and she squealed because she was so happy. She loves Pinewood. She is so happy to come here. And I am, too.”
Something called the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan has been in place in Omaha for four years now, offering hundreds of students in 11 different Omaha-area school districts a range of services that start at birth and run through third grade.
Many Omahans have never heard of this plan. Even people who know of it often don’t realize that it’s unlike anything else in the United States—that it’s the biggest, boldest plan that any metro area has adopted to try to improve the futures of young children by educating them well from Day 1.
Four years in, there are signs that the plan is working, though it will be years before research shows whether the Superintendents’ Plan is closing the so-called “achievement gap” between Omaha’s richest and poorest students, and between its white students and its students of color.
But Shana Wilkins doesn’t need to see the research. She knows that it’s transforming her daughter’s life, and her own, in a simple and profound way.
“My grandma always told me, ‘It takes a village,’” Shana says. “Well, my baby is 3, she’s coming to school, and it feels like the whole school is helping her out. It’s our village. It’s our big family.”
Not so long ago, Artellia would whisper when she spoke to anyone who wasn’t her mother. That’s if she spoke at all.
Shana worried that Artellia, an only child, wasn’t learning the social skills she would need for school. She worried that her daughter might be behind the other kids when she reached Kindergarten.
Enter Tierra Stennis. Tierra is a home visitor hired by Pinewood with funds from the Superintendents’ Plan, which is funded with taxpayer money through the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties. The Buffett Early Childhood Institute worked with the superintendents to create the plan and is supporting schools in implementing it.
She has been meeting with Shana and Artellia once a week since Artellia was 6 months old. She worked with Artellia on language and literacy skills, social-emotional skills, on self-regulation. She got Artellia together with other children in the “Panther Den,” a room inside the school named after the school’s mascot—a room filled with books and toys and chances to learn how to play with other kids.
Artellia started bringing three or four books home from the Panther Den every week. She started reading more with her mom, Shana, and watching less TV.
“Shana is great. We just added to what mom was already doing,” Tierra says.
And now that Artellia is 3, she’s at school on a daily basis. She’s in a PreK program at Pinewood. By the time she hits Kindergarten, she will feel like Pinewood is a second home—a familiarity that research says makes the transition to Kindergarten smoother and more successful. This type of family engagement is a key finding of success in this year’s Superintendents’ Plan evaluation report.
She’s not the only one learning. Her mom, Shana, says she also has learned much from Tierra and Mary Ellyn Dunn, Pinewood’s family facilitator, who has also worked extensively with Artellia.
Shana now lets Artellia complete daily tasks, like putting on her coat or picking up her toys, without jumping in immediately to help her. Her parenting now has more structure, she says, similar to the structure that Artellia gets at school.
“I am learning. It feels like we are learning together,” Shana says.
Artellia’s teachers are also learning thanks to the Superintendents’ Plan. The Buffett Institute regularly hosts free “Professional Development for All” sessions that build teachers’ knowledge on how to best teach young children.
That professional development is part of a mind shift happening inside schools in the Bellevue, DC West, Millard, Omaha, Ralston, and Westside school districts. Not long ago, these schools were unavailable to young children until the day they started Kindergarten. Now these schools increasingly welcome toddlers and babies—and their parents—into the school on a regular basis, a process that grows familiarity and trust. These schools are becoming hubs where early education, parental partnerships, and food for hungry children are delivered.
An annual evaluation of the Superintendents’ Plan conducted by researchers at the University of Nebraska ̶ Lincoln, the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and the Buffett Institute shows that classroom quality has gotten significantly better in the schools that are part of the effort.
School administrators increasingly recognize the importance of building relationships with families, the latest evaluation says, and those school-family partnerships are growing at a steady pace.
The experts believe this work will eventually lead to increased school readiness and better test scores for students like Artellia who are working their way through the program on their way to Kindergarten.
Shana can already see the difference. She can see it when she rides a bus to drop off her 3-year-old at school every morning, and when she picks her up after work every afternoon for the bus ride home.
At the end of our interview at Pinewood Elementary, I ask Shana what she wants for Artellia when she grows up.
“I want her to be able to inspire someone else, like she’s being inspired here,” she replies. “I want her to be able to hit somebody’s heart…”
Shana turns to address Mary Ellyn Dunn, the Pinewood family facilitator, who is listening to us talk.
“The way you guys have hit her heart,” she says to Mary Ellyn, who begins to cry.
“I want her to have the skills to be able to pay this forward, you know? To always pay it forward. No matter what.”
Matthew Hansen, the managing editor of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, is an award-winning journalist tasked with telling the stories of the Institute's work and early childhood care and education in Nebraska and beyond.
His columns can be read at https://buffettinstitute.nebraska.edu/news-and-events/early-years-matter.