TOPEKA — Tina Gibson's fifth-grade classroom features a "peace zone," cereal for snacking and a smattering of crickets nestled in 2-liter plastic bottles.

Gibson, who has taught for 25 years at Logan Elementary School in the Seaman district of Shawnee County, monitors a class of 20 students for signs of struggle and leverages resources made available through funding for at-risk students.

“It truly breaks my heart when I see a fifth grader come in who’s reading at a first-grade level," Gibson said. "When they turn 16 in a few years, what kind of success are they going to have?

"I know people will blame it on school. Why do they get to fifth grade without having this skill? Some of those are transient families. Some of them are in foster care. I’ve had kids who have been in 12 different homes within a few months' time.”

Public schools in Kansas receive more than $400 million annually in funds earmarked for providing educational opportunities, interventions and services to at-risk students. A new audit of how those funds are spent could dominate education policy in the upcoming session as lawmakers — largely freed from the shackles of a decadelong court battle over school funding — look for ways to install accountability.

Additionally, a $50 million component of at-risk funding is scheduled to sunset unless the Legislature takes action to preserve the funding this session. These dollars are funneled to individual schools that have a high density of at-risk students.

At Logan Elementary, 80% of the students receive free or reduced-cost lunch. Most have experienced some form of trauma — they might come from single-parent homes, live below the poverty line, have lost a loved one, or witness alcohol or drug abuse at home.

Gibson looks at her students' attendance, emotional challenges and academic performance. The teacher can call upon the services of a counselor or paraprofessional for assistance, and she benefits from the training she receives.

Her class is full of success stories. By mingling all kinds of students in the same classroom, Gibson said, the at-risk kids are enriched by language and benefit from project-based learning.

In December, her students were evaluating the livelihood of crickets in ecosystems — rock, dirt and grass inside a bottle — the students built and maintain. Some crickets will live longer because of the attention they receive.

On one side of the room, a pillowy resting area gives the children a place to find peace when emotions intensify. Guides tacked to the wall offer various strategies for working through color-coded emotions. Several students said they like to go there when they feel blue. High anxiety may require a visit to the "wellness room."

The goal, Gibson said, is to reach every child. The teacher said she couldn't do that without the support of at-risk specialists.

“We want all students to be successful," Gibson said. "They are our future. They are going to be running our local governments, our businesses, providing services, and we want them to be able to be successful, to be able to thrive. And in order to do that, we have to get them from where they are to that point.”

In early December, lawmakers learned an audit of 20 Kansas school districts showed most of the at-risk money was dedicated to teachers and programs beneficial to all students.

Mark Tallman, of the Kansas Association of School Boards, said schools have used at-risk funding for such purposes as recruiting and retaining teachers in high-poverty areas, even though they don't only teach at-risk students.

After the state introduced new assessment tests in 2015, Tallman said, the performance of at-risk students got worse for several years. Then, when the Legislature injected new funding into the school finance system, test scores stabilized.

The argument, Tallman said, is that it will take more time for scores to turn around. The school finance plan that finally won approval in 2019 from the Kansas Supreme Court will continue to add hundreds of millions of dollars in annual funding over the next three years.

“In general, legislators are wanting to know how are districts spending money, why, what are they getting for it?" Tallman said. “With funding comes scrutiny, and we need to be prepared for that.”

The audit showed at-risk funding was poorly supervised at the state level and inadequately implemented by school districts.

“We are nothing more than the ATM, and how that money is being spent is pretty fairly loosely overseen," said Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Republican from Louisburg who oversees the education committee. "I don’t think there’s anyone in the state who would say post prom is how that money was supposed to be spent, or postage, things like that.”

Baumgardner said other education topics this session will include consideration of a tuition debt waiver program for OB-GYN students who agree to work for a number of years in a rural area of the state. The senator also wants to revisit her proposal to tether foster children to an academic coach and iPad for online coursework.

Children in the state's foster care system have an estimated 35% graduation rate in Kansas, Baumgardner said. The number isn't known for sure because neither the Kansas Department of Education nor the Kansas Department for Children and Families tracks the data.

“We’ve got these silos," Baumgardner said, "and by golly, they are going to need to be working together, talking to each other, because they need to focus on how we best serve these kids, and that’s not happening.”

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, expressed interest in restoring teacher tenure. The Legislature stripped due process rights with the late-night passage of a bill in 2014 that was signed into law by former Gov. Sam Brownback.

“One of the travesties that occurred during the Brownback administration was the repeal of teacher due process," Hensley said. "I think we have to reinstate teacher due process. I think that’s a big issue. I don’t know if we can accomplish that. I think the votes are there.”

Gov. Laura Kelly said the Supreme Court, which retained jurisdiction over the school finance lawsuit to ensure the funding is delivered to schools, is "just right across the street."

"I think the court told us very clearly last year that we finally met equity and adequacy, but we also know what that means going forward," Kelly said. "We can’t just rest on that. We need to look at what those terms mean this year and the year after and the year after and address it.”

Kelly's council on education, a bipartisan group of stakeholders from across the state, has delivered a list of recommendations that deal with public-private partnerships, preparation for college and the workforce, and a focus on "market value assets."