This week, approximately 50,000 aspiring scholars started their school year at one of 95 Seattle public schools spread across our city. Many of these students will receive an exceptional education and graduate from high school prepared for college or career.
Others won’t be so fortunate. Some of the youngest will start needlessly behind — before they even walk through the door of their kindergarten classroom — and it will be extremely difficult for them to catch up.
In fact, when we consider what will likely happen with this year’s class of new kindergartners — based on many years of actual student performance — it is very discouraging.
Imagine 100 new kindergarteners with their little backpacks entering their school for the first time. By the time they reach third grade, about one-fourth of these youngsters will not be reading at grade level, a key indicator of a hard academic road ahead. And, indeed, 23 of them won’t graduate from high school.
It is far worse for our children of color and those kids living in poverty. Out of a sample of 100 children living in poverty who started kindergarten this week, 39 won’t be able to read at grade level in third grade and 27 won’t graduate from high school. Of 100 African American children, 47 won’t read at grade level and 33 won’t graduate. These statistics are stunning, yet this has been the reality for years.
And, it’s not just the kids that suffer. All of us lose when the children of Seattle aren’t educated for the future. The costs we will bear are staggering — higher crime and unemployment, more expensive social services and remedial catch-up courses and the strong likelihood this cycle will keep repeating.
We can spend a great deal of time debating why these statistics are reality for so many kids — poverty, broken families, complacency among civic leaders, failed education systems and on and on. But we can’t avoid or discount the stark reality many of our children face as they start their new year in the schoolhouse. Kids who don’t graduate from high school — or graduate but aren’t prepared for college or technical certification of some kind — face a very bleak future in today’s demanding and dynamic job market.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can change this reality by smartly investing very early in the lives of our children.
Nobel laureate and University of Chicago economist James Heckman documents in his many years of research and in his new book "Giving Kids a Fair Chance" that early investments reap huge benefits for kids and society as a whole. “Early interventions can improve cognitive as well as socio-emotional skills. They promote schooling, reduce crime, foster workforce productivity and reduce teenage pregnancy,” Heckman writes.
Seattle is an emerging leader in making smart investments early in a child’s life. We do it through the Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP), an evidence-based public health initiative that sends specially trained nurses into the homes of low-income, first-time moms. The NFP begins in pregnancy and lasts until the child turns two. The nurses provide medical assistance and parenting tips. The results are strong: better pregnancy outcomes, huge reductions in emergency room visits and incidents of abuse and neglect, stronger education achievements for both mom and child, better economic conditions for the family and greatly reduced criminal justice involvement for both mom and child.
We also invest early through the Parent-Child Home Program, another evidence-based effort that begins when a child reaches age two. Funded through the City’s Families and Education Levy, volunteers who have completed a special training course visit low-income households twice a week and read a children’s book with the child and her mom or dad. This early literacy, parenting and school readiness program establishes habits of reading and helps to prepare youngsters for kindergarten.
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