Help is on the way for KC families caught in scramble for summer programs

The front page of the San Francisco-area parent resource website, InPlay, promises to match families to summer programs. The site plans to be available to Kansas City parents soon.

The front page of the San Francisco-area parent resource website, InPlay, promises to match families to summer programs. The site plans to be available to Kansas City parents soon.

The first time Rod Hsiao tried to provide a helpful summer learning guide, it was nothing like the slick online service — InPlay — that he’s bringing to Kansas City parents.

All he had then was a handwritten list he’d rustled up for an anxious neighbor in California, where Hsiao at the time was a school board trustee. The woman’s two sons had already dropped out of school and she wanted help sparing her daughter from the same fate.

Immediately, the mom started scratching out each of the programs on Hsiao’s list.

Too expensive. Too far away. Won’t take campers her kid’s age . . .

InPlay co-founder Rod Hsiao

InPlay co-founder Rod Hsiao

It became apparent the woman had already been trying hard to find something for her child and was at her wit’s end when she went to her school board member for help.

Hsiao was learning, he said, just how much families “struggle to find local and affordable programs” to keep their children healthy, safe and learning when school is out and parents still have to work.

There had to be a better way.

Since then, over the past five years, Hsiao (pronounced “SHOUW”) co-founded the website, InPlay, in the San Francisco Bay area. The non-profit site is available to all families but particularly aims to help those families with fewer resources find good programs and match qualifying families with scholarships.

All kids can flourish in summer programs, Hsiao said, “but if they’re never given a chance to experience that, they’ll never know.”

Mike English, the director of the Turn the Page KC early learning campaign, liked what he saw on the InPlay site. Soon the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation was interested too.

Improving summer learning is one of Turn the Page’s primary strategies in its quest to have all children in Kansas City reading at grade level by the Third Grade.

English and the Turn the Page team began crossing paths with Hsiao and the InPlay program as they circulated among summer learning workshops in recent years, English said.

InPlay was helping Bay Area families sort summer offerings online, sortable by cost, availability, program themes and location. Lower income families could sign up for a matching service through their school districts that connected them to summer programs that offered scholarships.

And InPlay’s mapping of programs — when compared to information on where inquiring families lived — provided system-wide data identifying parts of the city where programs were most lacking.

Turn the Page has long wanted to provided the same kind of help to Kansas City families.

At Turn the Page’s urging, InPlay is firing up a Kansas City website that Hsiao hopes to launch later in May. And the Kauffman Foundation is finalizing plans to provide seed funding for two years.

It is quite a scramble to get the site ready, but the need is urgent, English said.

Children in lower income families often do not get the same summer learning experiences as their more economically advantaged peers. The result is a steeper “summer slide” in learning that widens the gap in grade-level reading achievement.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s groundbreaking study in 2010 — Early Warning — sounded the alarm on the lasting impact on children’s lives when they aren’t reading proficiently by the end of the Third Grade.

Cities nationwide, including Kansas City, redoubled their efforts to help families get their children ready for kindergarten, strengthen school attendance and keep children learning through summer.

“The people we talk to feel there is a need for an interactive guide to help piece together a summer where their children are hopefully learning-engaged,” English said.

Hsiao knows that too many parents, like the mother he met with his inadequate summer list years ago, want to get it right for their kids.

“We want to save time for families, help them find relevant programs and give them confidence that they are taking care of their kids,” Hsiao said.

InPlay is reaching out to school districts and other summer program providers such as non-profits like LINC, and for-profit programmers to list services. It’s also drawing on existing camp information provided by groups like the Family Conservancy in Kansas City.

The site will be free for families. The anticipated funding from the Kauffman Foundation will support the site in its startup, and InPlay expects to charge a sliding scale of fees on program providers after two years to help sustain the service.

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