SPARK prepares Alliance preschoolers for success in kindergarten and beyond

More children in Alliance are entering kindergarten ready to learn thanks in part to a program through the Early Childhood Education Alliance, called SPARK.

SPARK, which stands for Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids™, is an in-home program that helps children ages three to five prepare for school by building reading, language, math, and social skills.

The program began as collaboration between the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Canton, and it has expanded to 22 school districts across nine counties in Ohio.

Elizabeth Hibbs, director of Early Childhood Education Alliance, operates the SPARK program for the Alliance community. Since the program began in 2007, it has made a tremendous impact.

In 2018, 72.3 percent of SPARK Alliance participants demonstrated readiness for kindergarten on the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment (KRA), compared to only 51.6 percent of their non-SPARK peers.

“SPARK program participants in Alliance scored higher than their non-SPARK peers in every subscale category on the KRA, and this is consistently true every year,” she said. “It goes to show if you do what’s right for kids, you’re going to get the results.”

Hibbs said with the current high poverty rates in the Alliance community, all students at the Alliance Early Learning School receive free school meals. But that obstacle hasn’t hampered their education.

“When you connect families with the appropriate resources, you get results,” she said. “As a community, everyone in Alliance is doing everything they can to ensure kids are ready for school. It shows that if you’re willing to invest your time and your money in quality early education and experiences, any obstacle can be overcome.  The children are going to be successful, because you’re investing in not just them and their future, but ultimately, your community’s future.”

Supporting kids and their parents

The SPARK program is free to all families, and there are no income-based requirements to qualify. Through the program, a parent-partner provides up to 12 in-home lessons every three to four weeks. Hibbs said a key component to the program’s success is working directly with the parents during that time. 

“The unique thing about SPARK is we’re not just teaching the children. We’re guiding the parents and connecting them with local resources and tools,” she said. “We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to support and empower the parents, so they can be the best advocates for their child and continue to support their child’s education when we step out of the picture.”

Watch how the SPARK program is helping kids like Kevin open up and meet new people.

The program provides the books and supplies needed for every lesson, which the students get to keep.

“We couldn’t do it without United Way of Greater Stark County,” said Hibbs. “The support and funding we get from United Way allows us to help families, and I think it’s important for donors to know that. They’re impacting these children. Their dollars are making a difference. Look at the data and look at the results we’re seeing.”

Connecting resources

With Hibbs and three parent-partners, the program has the capacity to serve up to 140 families in the Alliance community each year.

Beyond the immediate educational benefits, the program is also key for early identification and screening.

“We have responsive services. We meet once a month as a team with the school psychologist, a counselor from Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health, a speech pathologist and the director of special education for the Alliance City School District. If there’s a need or concern, we determine how we can address it,” said Hibbs. “It might be that the child needs referred for speech therapy or counseling. We’ve also had kids who need communication devices. We get the support in place prior to kindergarten, so that child has a greater likelihood of being successful.”

Hibbs said she hopes that the results of the SPARK program show why investing in quality early childhood education is critical for communities.

“We’re empowering these families to be their best advocates for themselves, not only now, but later in life,” said Hibbs. “We’re doing work that’s not just going to affect them right now, but it’s going to affect the community for the entire life of these kids and beyond.

The SPARK program in Alliance has continued to operate virtually throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. If you or a friend is interested in signing up your child for this free program, please email Liz Hibbs at [email protected].