Seven-year-old Za’Kirah wasn’t born yet when Kansas City Mayor Sly James’ notion of a city-wide reading crusade for children first ruffled its wings.
The fledgling dream “had no plan, no staff, no organization,” said Judy Heeter, the former chairperson of Turn the Page KC. “And we didn’t have any money.”
“But,” Heeter told a luncheon crowd inside the Sprint Center Wednesday, celebrating how far the crusade has come, “we had a single mission.”
James, Heeter and the many community forces that would unite in Turn the Page’s work, imagined then what James said would become his most important work.
They imagined the Za’Kirahs to come.
Here she came, sweeping through an Andrews McMeel Universal-sponsored book fair at Turn the Page’s Summer Reading Splash Wednesday at the Sprint Center.
She and her summer schoolmates from LINC’s program at Santa Fe Elementary School in Hickman Mills joined some 2,000 children bused downtown from around the city for the extravaganza.
The book fair was a new addition for Turn the Page’s fifth installment of the annual summer reading event. Instead of just giving children books, they each got to pick out three books like shoppers.
The nearly 70 children from Santa Fe regrouped on the concourse floor, sitting cross-legged or stretched out on their stomachs, leafing through their books.
Za’Kirah looked over the richly colored pages of one of her chosen books, “What a Wonderful World,” based on Louis Armstrong’s classic song.
“Do I get to bring this home?” she asked an adult standing over her.
The answer given her, of course, was “yes.” And it lit up her eyes.
As much fun as the children had — and it was fun, with a lot of dancing to booming music in the spacious arena, screaming contests and a raucous sing-a-long to “Old Town Road” — this was serious business.
James would have relished the answer from another Santa Fe student — 9-year-old Temidire — when she was asked to tell her favorite part of the day’s events.
“That man reading,” she said.
That “man,” Temidire was told, was her mayor, who, with the help of Sprint Center’s giant video console, sat in a wide chair on the stage and read a picture book to all the children in the stands.
That has been the main attraction of the Sprint events — modeling the generous act of reading to children — just as James has done in smaller settings at schools more than a hundred times throughout his eight years as mayor.
Turn the Page, which became an independent non-profit organization so it can carry on its work long after James leaves office this summer, has joined many partner agencies, burrowed into research and advanced several strategies in pursuit of its mission.
But the work has always started here — a book in a child’s hands, a caring adult reading along.
“Turn the Page is the most important thing we do,” James said before going out into the arena one last time as mayor. “Because it affects kids lives in a way that gives them tools to build on for the rest of their lives.”
James rattled off other things the city has accomplished during his time in office — “I love the streetcar, I love the hotel, I love what we’ve done on the East Side . . . I love all that stuff, the airport . . .”
“But at the end of the day,” he said, “the things that are going to have the most impact on the lives of citizens is when their children — whether the parents or the children themselves — have more tools to succeed. That’s what it’s all about. It will help reduce poverty. It will help reduce crime.”
The Sprint Center summer events highlight one of the three major pillars in Turn the Page's strategy: Improving summer learning so more children do not slip back in their educational progress when school is out.
The other two pillars are improving school readiness as children enter kindergarten and reducing chronic absenteeism.
The overall goal is to help Kansas City see that all of its children are reading at grade level by the third grade.
When Turn the Page began in 2011, state data showed that 32 percent of third graders in the city’s public school districts and charter schools were scoring at proficient or above in reading on the state’s test.
Missouri has changed its reading test several times since 2011, making it difficult to directly measure progress. But 52 percent of the city’s third graders scored proficient or better in 2018, and the city narrowed its gap with the state’s overall performance.
Simply catching up with the statewide performance is not the goal, but just a step along the way, James said to the luncheon crowd.
As long as more needs to be done, he said, “I’m not going to be happy or rest.”
The work remains daunting.
Turn the Page Executive Director Mike English recited some of the alarming numbers: Area schools reporting that 1-in-3 children coming out of pre-school years are not kindergarten-ready; some schools reporting as many as 48 percent of their students suffering chronic absenteeism; and the summer slide still putting some children as much as an additional two months behind better-supported children.
Turn the Page has attacked the reading gap essentially as a ringleader, encouraging and informing the work that many agencies and individuals have been waging for years trying to help children succeed.
“We’ve become a nag — a busybody,” English joked, describing the effort to focus the city on reading.
The work will go on, even as James steps out of the mayor’s office. That was a message James made clear, knowing what the “collective impact” of so many agencies working together will bring to bear.
Turn the Page is thinking of Za’Kirah and Temidire and all their schoolmates and their families, and then of the children who are not here, who are not in summer programs.
“We find a way to get the job done,” he said. “For the sake of the children. For the sake of our city. It has been the honor of my life.”
“Thank you for what you are going to do for kids,” he said. “It will be the honor of their lives.”
By Joe Robertson, LINC writer