Kansas: Donor commits to early childhood education
People who know Barry Downing say he tends to research things thoroughly.
About 12 years ago, he began intensely researching child poverty from the top down. It was a subject he knew well from the bottom up.
By that time he had money and wanted to contribute to Wichita because he’s fond of the place, The Wichita Eagle reports.
At first he considered investing in several charities serving several community problems. And then he realized that he could attack several problems at once by investing in one thing.
Two years later, in 2003, he opened the first of three early education schools in an organization he named the Opportunity Project, called TOP for short.
He wanted early education to be done boldly. He wanted to model nationally how to inspire and educate kids who live in poverty.
And he hired auditors to track every student after they left TOP to see how they fared in school, to see if what they were trying to accomplish was working, to see whether they were indeed providing an opportunity.
“Children are pretty amazing if we give them a chance,” Downing said.
Downing has given interviews about all this only grudgingly, in part because he’s more than tired of hearing his own story recited again. He doesn’t think that’s fair to the many parents whom he said try hard to get out of poverty. They never get enough credit, he said.
He has also said he doesn’t want the story of their success to be cluttered with anecdotes about how Barry Downing’s father worked in a filling station. Or how when his dad drove him around in a clunker of a 1949 Chevy, Barry Downing would scrunch down, hoping no one would see him wearing the cheap trousers with iron-on patches.
He knows the reason that story is so compelling is that no one back then knew what potential he had. But he’s uncomfortable with hearing other people say how he became a multimillionaire and an advocate for children.
The main thing he wishes people would quote him on has nothing to do with charity, he said. It is a fact, he said, based solidly in our own collective self-interest.
We could save a lot of our tax money if we’d embrace a truth he learned, first from poverty, and then from success, Downing said.
“I believe people should earn their way,” he said. “But we have to have compassion enough to understand that there are people who are not equipped to perform at a high level.”
What Downing really accomplished with TOP, according to longtime TOP director Janice Smith, is more complex and instructive than a rags-to-riches tale would be.
Downing made a lot of his money in real estate and health care. It wasn’t only that he was smart; he was careful.
After he set up TOP, he brought in outside auditors, from Wichita State University and the Wichita school district.
They have tested TOP kids for years, after they go on to school, and the auditors say the hundreds of children tested appear to be much better prepared to do well socially and academically than children who don’t get what his schools give.
So far, TOP schools have educated and nourished 1,400 Wichita and Derby kids, most of them drawn from poverty.
What he really did 12 years ago was look for a way to equip them, starting early, when a child’s mind is most curious and pliable.
“There is a great deal of potential in young children,” Downing said. “We need to quit looking at them as an expense.”
TOP offers early education programs and 10-hour-long day care. Because Downing still believes people should pay their own way when possible, TOP sets expectations: If a family gets a TOP scholarship that puts their kids in TOP for free, the parents must show up for most of the scheduled parent-teacher meetings and work with TOP counselors who connect them with low-cost help with everything from financial counseling to learning English.
Classes include subjects like science, language and math, all heavily enriched by games, playtime, visuals and hands-on learning. Smith and the TOP staff created their own education recipe over time. They borrowed some of the high expectations and standardized teaching methods of public schools, along with looser “dance outside the box” techniques of private schools.
At TOP’s northwest school, nobody was sitting in rows listening to a lecture one day earlier this month. There was a lot of noise and excited laughter, but the kids were working on projects or being read to.
Smith said the schools now have 10 years of data and studies done by auditors from the Wichita school district and WSU. Downing wanted the auditors not only to train and demand high-quality teaching but to prove good results, if the results were indeed good.
But what the numbers really mean, Downing said, “is that we’ll have a lot fewer prison inmates and gang members to deal with in the future.” Fewer women needing the safety of shelters. Fewer kids with unwanted pregnancies.
“More people growing up to pay taxes and own homes,” he said.
Linda Bakken, a professor emeritus in educational psychology at WSU, set up an ongoing control group of children who had not attended TOP programs, then compared the two groups’ performances in schools year after year.
TOP takes in children from age 1 to kindergarten, so the study looked at how these children performed in school years after they left TOP.
In nearly every category, according to a five-year study by WSU, the TOP kids did better than their control group peers. In attendance, TOP kids did 5 percent better by grade three than the other kids. By grade six, 18 percent better.
“By third grade, special education placements for TOP children is 57 percent less often than placements of control (group) children,” Bakken’s report stated. “Regarding standardized tests, TOP children in fourth, fifth, and sixth grades have considerably lower percentage of students who do not meet standards in both math and reading, compared to the control group.”
None of this surprised Downing. One thing he learned from poverty: People who live in poverty don’t want to be there.
“We were poor, but my parents put a high value on education, and pushed me,” he said. “Some kids don’t have that. So when I think about a lot of these kids. My heart goes out to them.”