KU childhood research center receives $7.5 million in grants to support early education

A University of Kansas research center recently received $7.5 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Education to fund early-childhood research projects, KU announced earlier this week.

The Juniper Gardens Children’s Project, based in Kansas City, Kan., is one of 13 affiliated research centers of KU’s Life Span Institute. Recent grants from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences will fund four projects, each totaling more than $1 million in grant money, at Juniper Gardens over the next several years.

Alana Schnitz, a postdoctoral fellow at the center, will help oversee several of the grant projects.

“At Juniper Gardens, we’re really engaged in community-engaged research. So, we pick projects that will directly affect the lives of teachers and children in the Kansas City community as well as the greater United States,” said Schnitz, who also serves as project coordinator of the KU-affiliated Bridging the Word Gap Research Network.

“All of this serves to support teachers and families to increase skills of young children,” Schnitz said of the funds. “They’re great grants to advance our knowledge of what are effective strategies and interventions to move the needle in increasing kids’ skills.”

Schnitz, along with KU scientists Charles Greenwood and Judith Carta, will work in collaboration with preschool programs in the Kansas City area to evaluate a preschool literacy intervention. The Literacy 3D project is funded through a $3.3 million award.

The $1.4 million CIRCLE project will see Greenwood and Carta working with Dwight Irvin, an assistant research professor at Juniper Gardens, to assist preschool teachers in adapting language and early literacy instruction for children who may be struggling with traditional instruction.

Associate research professors Jay Buzhardt and Dale Walker, along with Irvin, are also developing a data-based decision-making system designed to help preschool educators strengthen problem-solving skills in toddlers and infants. The project is funded by a $1.4 million grant.

The fourth project, which also received $1.4 million, will focus on healthy social-emotional development in toddlers and infants.

Project directors include Carta, Irvin, Schnitz and assistant research professor Kathryn Bigelow at KU, in addition to Mary Louise Hemmeter, a professor of special education at Vanderbilt University’s Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. This project will develop, test and refine a professional development program for early-education teachers and will be implemented in Kansas City and Nashville childhood educational centers.

Schnitz said work has already begun in recruiting Kansas City-area preschools for the $3.3 million 3D Literacy project, with plans to “move toward Lawrence as we go on.” The U.S. Department of Education grants will fund all four projects until at least June 2020, Schnitz said.

“We’re just really excited about all of these, and they all provide a huge support to fill the gaps in the intervention world,” she said.