Help our children earn Success By 6

Published: Monday, January 2, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 11:05 p.m.
They were all there, a veritable conglomeration of Florida's top business CEOs gathered for a summit meeting in Orlando to engage the business community to push for stronger early childhood intervention programs, specifically for a higher-quality state universal prekindergarten program (VPK) than is now being implemented.
Florida Taxwatch is a 25-year-old nonprofit research institute that has become widely known and respected for its watchdog role over state governmental spending. For this bastion of conservatism, composed of many of the largest companies in the state, to call a special meeting about our state's children was impressive enough. And what came out of the meeting was doubly impressive.
After a lead-off presentation by David Lawrence, the former publisher of The Miami Herald who has dedicated his retirement years to early childhood development advocacy, a series of state and national experts presented
some eye-opening data: Florida counties that have active children's services councils are reaping the benefits, both by taking advantage of millions of available grant dollars and by providing needed coordination and strategic planning for the many children's advocacy agencies and programs in the area. (Our county does not have a children's council active at this time although the legislation for one has been adopted).
The businessmen heard that the quality and supply of teachers in Florida is reaching a critical point, that low salaries and classroom job frustration are decimating teacher ranks. Fifty percent of our good teachers will be gone in five years, yet Florida will require and must hire 160,000 teachers in the next decade.
Regarding early childhood development, of the 205,000 children born in the state every year, 30 percent will start kindergarten significantly behind their peers. From this group four-fifths will still have major reading problems by the fourth grade. In our high schools, 68 percent are below grade level in reading proficiency.
We spend about $2 billion each year in so-called "back-end costs" from our poor educational results. That includes $654,000 for academic assistance programs, $1.2 billion on instruction for students who must repeat a grade and $7.7 million on care of imprisoned juveniles.
Florida is the lowest of all the states in worker productivity, and, ironically, we also rank last among the states in percentage of the population that is of work force age.
The highlight of the meeting was a presentation by a national official from United Way on the Success By 6 initiative that is now sweeping the country. Most of the some 300 United Way organizations in the U.S. have adopted the program including, of course, our own local United Way.
She reported on the landmark long-term study of the effects of high-quality early care and education of 3- and 4-year-olds, showing that adults at age 40 who had participated in a preschool program in their early years have higher earnings, are more likely to hold a job, have committed fewer crimes and are 30 percent more likely to have graduated from high school. The study documented a return to society of more than $17 for every dollar invested in early care and education programs.
Here in our community there are many ways that businesses can and hopefully will get involved, including informing their employees about the state's Pre-K program, joining the local Early Learning Coalition, sponsoring scholarships for teacher training, funding transportation and healthy snacks programs that aren't covered by the state, actively urging our local legislators to require the quality components endorsed by these experts and becoming funding partners in the Success By 6 initiative.
It's not only our future work force we're talking about here, it's our children's futures.
And it just makes common sense. Jim Stringfellow is a member of the Success By 6 steering committee.

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