By Kathy Silverberg
Few Americans would disagree with the belief that all children deserve a chance at a reasonable life, to grow up able to take care of themselves and their families and to enjoy the fruits of their labors.
But the reality is that too many children in this nation begin life with a handicap — and I don’t mean a physical anomaly. They are born into a family that is either incapable or unwilling to adequately provide the resources that will allow them to prosper.
Some parents are ill-equipped to give their children the attention or the care that will give them a good start in life. Some simply do not know what steps to take to make that happen, and so their children do not have the opportunity for the kind of development that will equip them for future learning.
Recent research indicates that crucial brain development occurs between birth and age 3, and yet too few children receive the kind of attention that will maximize this opportunity.
Children from low-income families frequently do not get quality early-childhood education and they will start school behind their peers from more prosperous families. Too often, they will miss school on a regular basis. When summer comes, they will lack the kind of enrichment programs available to the children from better-resourced families and will continue to fall behind in school, a pattern that will continue throughout their childhood.
Children who are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade are 14 times more likely than middle-class children to drop out before high school graduation. And that means they will be unqualified for 90 percent of the available jobs. These statistics, compiled by the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, do not bode well for the future of our nation, especially as the world becomes more and more dependent on technology.
But there is good news for the children in Sarasota and Manatee counties, where philanthropists, school officials and community leaders have come together to embrace the efforts of the national campaign. After only two years of the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, test scores are already showing results. In both counties, the number of third-graders reading at grade level improved by 3 percentage points year over year.
But the challenge is still significant. In Sarasota County, three children in 10 are not meeting this standard, and in Manatee nearly half of the students are already falling behind the reading proficiency marks.
At a recent community breakfast that touted the many initiatives aimed at improving outcomes for children, it was clear there is wide support.
Big hitters are included in this effort, including The Patterson Foundation, the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, the Manatee Community Foundation, the United Way of the Suncoast, the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, and the schools systems in both counties. Even local businesses like the Anna Maria Oyster Bar, which that sponsored an innovative program for young children, were present.
This is encouraging but, as Yolie Flores, chief program officer with the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, said at the breakfast, “What we have done is not enough.” Low-income children are not catching up and to change this reality, she said, adults will have to behave differently; they have to speak out and break down the barriers that separate people.
The effort in Sarasota and Manatee counties is exemplary, and it is hoped that Charlotte County may soon be a part of this mix as well. Getting more organizations on board can only further the awareness and increase the chances for more children to succeed.
But there is a need for radical thinking as well. Committed community volunteers are important, but it will take major public policy changes to effect the kind of progress that is required. Early childhood education is crucial and demands new legions of highly qualified, well-compensated teachers. School hours need to be extended, and the outdated model of a months-long summer vacation must be changed.
And how about providing a nutritious breakfast and lunch for all schoolchildren, thus addressing the hunger and obesity issues that plague too many?
These are expensive suggestions, and others could be more cost-effective, but it is clear that the money spent on education in a child’s most formative years will pay huge dividends down the road. There will be more productive citizens paying their taxes and living reasonable lives, fewer incarcerations, lower poverty rates and a society equipped to meet the challenges the future will present.
It is not only the right thing to do; it is the only thing that makes sense.
Kathy Silverberg is a former publisher of the Herald-Tribune’s southern editions. Email: email@example.com