Research has told us, over and over, that the benefits of early childhood education are significant. Nobel Prize winning economist Dr. James Heckman asserts that early childhood education improves the productivity of both our children and society.
This issue hits home in St. Louis, with a number of unaccredited school districts. When Beyond Housing began working in the Normandy School District, we convened early childhood providers around one terrifying fact: 50% of all children entering kindergarten were not ready. As you can imagine, this compounds the problems of a challenged school district.
Intuitively most of us can agree that providing enriching pre-K activities and environments is a good thing. The challenge moving forward is twofold; 1) do we have the political will to provide resources that ensure quality pre-k is available to all children and 2) what do we do after they enter kindergarten? The second issue is rarely discussed and I would like to spend a moment on this.
One reason why enrichment after pre-K matters is because Normandy's mobility rate is over 50%. That may seem astonishing, but when you picture a family in poverty you can begin to see the challenges that may force a family to move. Unfortunately, gains from quality pre-K can be lost with a high mobility rate. We also know that a child’s ability to succeed is not measured by quality pre-K alone. In fact, research shows that reading on grade level in 3rd grade is a great predictor of long-term success. A study of 26,000 children in Chicago Public Schools found that third-grade reading level was not only a significant predictor of eighth-grade reading level and ninth-grade course success, but a predictor of graduation rates and college attendance.
Similarly, a study funded by The Annie E. Casey Foundation following 4,000 students, found that “A student who can't read on grade level by 3rd grade is four times less likely to graduate by age 19 than a child who does read proficiently by that time.” Have we heard anyone clamor that all children read on grade level at third grade? What are we doing to assist children and families living in poverty, to provide them the supports they need to succeed? Can we expect a child to learn if their living arrangements are in question everyday?
In St. Louis, one of the first questions people ask is “where did you go to high school?. This is because we know that where we choose to live impacts our children’s every opportunity to succeed. Our housing, our neighborhood and surrounding resources, provides a platform for our experiences, whether positive or negative. In essence, home matters. Home is much more than the house we live in, it is the life in and around that house that fuels the success of our children, our families and our neighborhoods.
It’s great to want quality pre-k for all children but then what? Is our societal job over? Do we wave to our five year olds and wish them good luck or do we stay committed to their success recognizing if they succeed, we succeed?
What can we do right here in St. Louis? How do we help build a strong “home” -- that is, the life in and around the house-- so that poverty does not have the final say? I believe some of the answers and challenges are before us. We need to build safe and decent affordable housing. We must create a pipeline of cradle to career services that support the educational success of our children.
This work isn’t easy, but it’s important. Are we ready? I hope so.