The Sisters of Charity Foundation started operating the SPARK kindergarten readiness program in 2003: that means the program is 18 years old. Those first SPARK children are no longer children at all: they’re turning 21 and 22 this year.
We had no idea, when planning began in 2001, that we would one day be looking back on an 18-year history of helping thousands of Ohio families.
SPARK began as a partnership between the Sisters of Charity Foundation and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation to plan (and then pilot) a school readiness program serving 140 children living in one urban and one rural community in Stark County (those first communities were Canton and Alliance).
SPARK has been highly effective. Every year, an independent evaluation team analyzes program outcomes. And every year, the evaluators find that SPARK children start school significantly more ready to succeed than their non-participating peers in the same classrooms.
SPARK has grown far beyond anything originally envisioned. With this continued success, more and more organizations have become interested in bringing a SPARK program to their community.
Program operations and management were transferred to the Early Childhood Resource Center in 2013, which has helped to take the program to a new level of growth and success.
We’re proud to say it all began here, in Stark County, with much support from many individuals and organizations. We cannot wait to see the unexpected successes SPARK will produce over its next 18 years.
As SPARK continues carrying out its readiness mission, it now does so with an additional layer of support: a brand new appropriation in Ohio’s state budget provides $2.2 million over the next two years to support program operations at all SPARK sites. Incorporating SPARK into the state budget contributes greatly to long-term sustainability and increases the chance that new communities will want to establish sites.
How SPARK Cultivates Readiness
SPARK lessons, books, and supplies help parents become their children’s first—and best—teachers, and they help low-income families narrow the achievement gap that so often prevents school readiness.
But individual learning challenges must also be addressed before a child will be ready to succeed. SPARK’s responsive services process addresses specialized learning needs and social-emotional concerns that might prevent readiness.
The responsive services process emerged from Stark County’s uniquely collaborative culture of using “wraparound” to ensure a wide array of social services needs are met.
As a defining feature of SPARK, the process continues to be a highly effective strategy for cultivating readiness.