It is fair to say that the Kansas Reading Roadmap program has had a rocky existence.
Some in Topeka objected to then-Gov. Sam Brownback’s decision in 2013 to divert millions of dollars of federal welfare support to pay for the after-school literacy initiative, which targets rural districts throughout the state.
And the program again made the news last year, when Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration announced it had found more than $2 million that was incorrectly paid to Hysell & Wagner, the consulting firm tapped by Brownback to administer the program. That spending was uncovered by Brownback’s administration but not disclosed.
But miles away from these clashes sits the town of Langdon, population 42.
Fairfield Unified School District 310 only has an enrollment of 300 and it is likely to see that number dip even further, according to Superintendent Betsy McKinney, with families leaving the slice of rural Reno County in search of better economic prospects.
But there is some good news for students in USD 310, and it came from the same reading program that had made headlines across the state for all the wrong reasons.
Ninety-three percent of students who participated in Reading Roadmap were reading at grade level after their second year, McKinney said.
USD 310 was one of the first districts to enlist in the program under McKinney’s predecessor, Nathan Reed, who later moved to Winfield and started a Reading Roadmap program there, as well.
The effort combines after-school programming with events with families and a separate summer school component and targets students starting in kindergarten through third grade.
"It was just revolutionary for us," McKinney said. "It absolutely made a world of difference."
But USD 310 and dozens of other districts are scrambling after the Kansas Department for Children and Families quietly ended funding for the program earlier this year.
The end of the road for Reading Roadmap came after the state first canceled the program’s contract with Hysell & Wagner in August 2019 following allegations that the firm offered bloated payments to executives, excessive travel costs and other expenses — all of which came out of a grant using federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funding.
That fact, DCF Secretary Laura Howard said, was the driving factor in why the agency opted to cancel the contract.
"I don’t have any issue with the school districts across the state who are getting resources from this to do after-school programs," Howard said at the time. "I just couldn’t sustain the level of funding going to the owner-operators of the company for little value, way outside of federal boundaries for how we should use TANF funds. Very little accountability."
The relationship with Hysell & Wagner was formally severed in May 2020.
The districts were not left out to dry, however. DCF announced they would continue funding the programs directly, without using Hysell & Wagner. That arrangement was in place for the 2019-20 school year.
For this school year, DCF solicited bids for the funds, creating the Youth and Stability Grant program and making it open for other groups to apply.
Tabitha Brotherton, director of programs at Reading Roadmap, said she elected to apply on behalf of 43 school districts who wanted the program to continue.
At one point, representatives from the program met with a DCF staffer to get feedback on how they might make their bid more competitive.
That included more closely involving DCF in family engagement initiatives and better supporting students in the foster care system.
"We took her recommendation and used it, you know, thinking hey, we definitely make this work and it doesn't change the fidelity of the program whatsoever," Brotherton said.
The awards were initially supposed to be announced in May, Brotherton said. Advocates waited for an up-or-down ruling.
In late June, Reading Roadmap was told they were not selected to receive any of the grant money, with Brotherton saying that programs in more urban districts were prioritized.
That meant 40 full-time employees and 250 part-time staffers were out of a job.
"I really don’t know what was in DCF’s head, why they just chose to cut us off," Brotherton said. "They have dislocated a lot of workers and believe me I get the phone calls about it. The upset program coordinators that were [wondering] ‘What are we going to do now?’ The families that were very upset."
Mike Deines, spokesman for DCF, said in an email that the decision not to award a grant was "based on the overall assessment of program impact of each submitted by the team."
Many proposals failed, he said, because they did not focus on the priorities in the RFP to "prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies" and "encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families."
"The decision not to award a grant to Reading Roadmap was not based on a single factor or reason," Deines said.
Districts endeavor to continue after school work
Despite conflict over the program’s administration, school districts were generally in agreement with McKinney at USD 310 that the program was valuable.
Some found it so valuable that they are keeping elements of the program in place by cobbling together funding from other sources.
Columbus Unified School District 493 in Cherokee County, for instance, is beginning to start a new after school program from scratch using federal CARES Act funds.
Superintendent Brian Smith said it will incorporate lessons learned from Reading Roadmap.
"Every school has literacy issues but down here we have a high percentage of students who are at-risk, who don’t have the elements that you’d have in Johnson County," Smith said.
In Fairfield, officials at USD 310 pieced together grant funding to continue the after school programming. But those funds will only see the district through until the end of 2020.
Still, McKinney insisted the district would stand by the program.
"As long as I’m superintendent we’re sticking with it," McKinney said, saying she found it to be the best thing Brownback did for education during his tenure.
But even though some elements of the program will remain at Fairfield, key components will be absent without state support.
That includes a parent-outreach program, as well as training to support teachers which means the school district will be on its own to support newly hired instructors who aren’t familiar with the program.
"It used to be you only had to make a phone call," McKinney said of arranging the training.
And in rural communities, Brotherton said the program was a needed form of child care, something she argued DCF was uncomfortable with.
"In those rural communities they don't have Boys and Girls Clubs available," she said. "They don't have things like that to help with their children and allow them to have childcare so it gave [families] a place to send our kids and I don't think that DCF wanted to look at that."
Advocates point to data in support of program
A Reading Roadmap-commissioned study from 2018 found that students who participated in Garden City’s program scored 12% to 16% higher on state assessments than those who did not.
Other districts reported similar results. Nathan Reed at Winfield Unified School District 465 said that students participating in the program improved at three times the rate compared with pupils who did not.
"That data was very telling to us," Reed said. "It is unfortunate that it was politicized and DCF pulled the funding because it was benefiting a lot of kids."
There is not extensive research on the effectiveness of after school literacy programs more broadly but there are limited examples that are in line with what Reading Roadmap reported.
A team of researchers in Denver found that an after-school programming targeted at low-income students in that school district bore fruit in improving student test scores.
Jeffrey Jenson, a professor at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work, said there was no reason a similar setup would not work in rural areas.
And targeting students in early elementary school, he said, was vital for tackling literacy.
"If kids are behind in reading by grades one or two they often don’t make that up," Jenson said.
Schools wonder if decision was political
Of the groups which did receive a grant, most operate in five of the state’s most populated counties: Johnson, Wyandotte, Shawnee, Douglas and Sedgwick.
Only one of the grant recipients — Communities in Schools Mid-America — operates statewide in more rural communities but that program is more holistic than Reading Roadmap and aims to connect students with needed health and social services.
None of the grantees are specifically literacy programs, although Deines said other after-school efforts are supported via other DCF funds.
Some have chalked up this discrepancy to a political decision by the Kelly Administration owing to Brownback’s championing of Reading Roadmap.
Brotherton stopped short, however, of saying definitively that the move was politically motivated, only noting "it’s what it looks like."
"Some of the schools brought to my attention that the urban areas which got the award were the highest voters for Governor Kelly, the area where her biggest numbers came from," Brotherton said.
McKinney echoed that sentiment.
"There are quite a few superintendents who believe the reasons may have been political," she said.
Legislators from the affected areas have taken note of DCF’s decision, Sen. Larry Alley, R-Winfield, said.
"Special legislative attention will be given to the outcomes of the schools districts that had this program canceled," Alley said in an email. "We will be interested in hearing from DCF on how they plan to make up for the loss of this program that helped so many children improve their reading skills."
Reed said he hoped that Kelly and her administration did not let Reading Roadmap’s past influence the decision to end its funding.
"I would hope lawmakers and the administration and DCF would take a close look at what it has meant to the districts that have participated ... Most people will tell you the same thing: it works," he said. "Whatever capacity to bring that back, we would be interested in participating."
But he acknowledged that the negative press likely dug the program into a hole which they could not climb out of.
"It has created such a black eye on the whole thing ... I think they were put in an uphill position," Reed said