Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the Herald-Tribune. Kathy Silverberg is a former publisher of the Herald-Tribune’s southern editions. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @kdsilver.
Photograph by Kelli Karen Smith.
It should not be difficult for anyone to understand that education is the best antidote to poverty.
Some people can overcome their circumstances through diligence and hard work, even if they have been deprived of a quality education, but those cases are rare. Without a proper educational background, a person is handicapped, especially if he or she has grown up in a low-income household.
Research has indicated that children living in poverty start kindergarten 12 to 14 months behind their middleclass counterparts and are 13 times more likely to drop out before high school graduation. Without intervention, children from poor families leave school lacking the skills needed for 90 percent of the jobs now in the workplace.
A national initiative including a coalition of nonprofit organizations, businesses and government agencies is seeking to change this narrative. Sarasota and Manatee counties and soon-to-be Charlotte are part of the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and are involved in a number of programs aimed at bringing up achievement levels in this region. It has been shown that when students are reading at grade level in the third grade, their chances of academic success are greatly increased.
The program includes a number of efforts aimed at reducing absenteeism, avoiding summer learning loss and making sure children are academically and socially prepared to start school. The results have been positive in just the three years since the Suncoast Campaign was formed with significant financial support from the Patterson Foundation.
But much work lies ahead. It was somewhat discouraging to learn that the most recent testing in Sarasota and Manatee counties showed a drop in the percentage of third-graders reading at grade level. In Sarasota, the drop was 3 percentage points from the previous year and Manatee showed a 1 percentage point drop.
It is important to remember that results of any initiative such as this, especially one as comprehensive as the Suncoast Campaign’s effort, should be evaluated over the long term. Students in third grade now will not be entering the workforce for another decade at least. Besides, the students involved in many of the initiatives begun by the campaign have not yet reached third grade.
And finally, one year’s test scores cannot be the sole determinate of any program’s success.
What is much more important is to look at education for all this nation’s children in the context of reducing generational poverty, an issue that is tied to so many other challenges, including crime, low productivity and costly social programs.
As exciting as it is to see efforts like that of the Suncoast Campaign, it should be realized that the private sector cannot do it alone. There must be a commitment on the part of elected officials at all levels of government to assure all children receive an equal opportunity to a quality education. Early childhood education must be available to all children and, as with all levels of schooling, highly skilled teachers must be in every classroom. Longer school days to accommodate the arts, recreation and other enrichment activities should be considered, as should year-round school that would eliminate the long summer vacation that for poor families is just another challenge.
It is also important to realize that other factors come into play as well. Children need adequate nutrition and health care if they are to grow up strong, parents may need help meeting the demands of nurturing their offspring and all families should have a safe place to live.
None of this comes without a cost. Teachers must be paid for the important work they do, health care needs must be met and social services must be made available. But the alternative is even more expensive in long-term costs to society of an intractable underclass straining the safety net.
And that’s not to mention the human tragedy of a segment of the population living with little chance for a reasonable life.
Political rhetoric lately has seemed to attack the importance of education. Some have downplayed the value of college, while others have suggested the emphasis should be on technical education to the exclusion of other studies. Then there has been the hysteria over school security that is diverting resources sorely needed to maintain and improve the quality of instruction. School equipment and support personnel, including social workers, are also vital to a quality educational environment, and they cost money.
Adequately funding schools takes political will and ultimately the support of the electorate. High-quality education from the very early ages and continuing through college and vocational training is what will make America great and keep it that way for generations to come.