CAYL Institute national conference — Orlando

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The text of a speech given by David Lawrence Jr., president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, on July 11, 2011, at a CAYL Institute national conference in Orlando.

You are going to hear from a lot of experts at this conference. I am not one of them. But I am delighted to be with you, and I am going to begin with the “personal.”

You have before you a man with many chapters of life. The second oldest of nine children, I grew up on a farm that eventually went broke (which is how we came to move to Florida). The first book I remember is “The Little Engine That Could,” which seems to me to this very day a book chock full of wisdom for how to travel the journey of life.

As I was growing up, every evening we all gathered at the dinner table where I remember my father quizzing us about politics and history. We all went to public schools, including college. Indeed, all nine of us were graduated from a state university; we were not the sort of family that could afford to have anything like the Ivy League in our sights.

My career was as journalist — as reporter, editor or publisher — at seven newspapers, retiring a dozen years ago as publisher of The Miami Herald. I loved what I did, and still love what I do. How much love? So much that I have never missed a day of work in now almost 48 years. How many people do you know who interview the President of these United States on Air Force One, the dictator of Cuba for 5 1/2 hours in Havana, meet Pope John Paul II in Rome and talk about Miami and Cuba, have dinner with the Queen of England? I have been blessed by the opportunity every single day to make a difference in lives of readers and citizens and community and country.

I’ve been married to someone I love even more than I did back in 1963 when we were wed. Roberta and I have five children, ages 26 to 46, and I sometimes say, “I am only as happy as my unhappiest child.” Those of you with grown-up children will know exactly what I mean. Your children grow up, and it turns out that they will have adult problems, just like you and me.

I don’t play golf or tennis, but do average at least a book a week –beginning with history and biographies because we can learn so much from people and the past. My idea of a good time is learning about and visiting another country (most recently Bangladesh), or a Sunday-afternoon movie with my wife, accompanied by a Diet Coke and a small popcorn, seeing a movie with preferably a reasonably happy, even uplifting ending.

Having lost both parents, a brother and a son-in-law, I know that life is brief, and none of us is in total control of anything, including ourselves. My favorite quotation about life comes from George Bernard Shaw, who more than three-quarters of a century ago spoke of “the true joy in life: Being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one, and being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining the world will not devote itself to making you happy. My life,” he wrote, “belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live, it is a privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die; for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have…for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it to future generations.”

Let me share one more personal note, using our oldest grandchild — Mary Katherine, just turned 8 — as a meaningful example. From the very beginning Mary’s parents held her and hugged her and sung to her and read to her. They fed her well, and nutritiously. She and her family had good doctors. Mary’s child care/pre-school was a loving and caring and knowledgeable place steeped in early literacy, using a first-rate curriculum, and with the wisdom to realize how much could be learned in play. A few weeks back, Mary finished the second grade, a highlight being 1,500 pages completed in a Lenten readathon. And, yes, she finished the first Harry Potter book. Now Mary is a quite amazing grandchild – and we have others just as amazing – but the point is that her love of reading, her success in reading, is directly linked to what I already told you, beginning with a loving Mommy and Daddy. Mary and her brother David, who not long ago turned 5, already have their own library cards. And Mary welcomes going to bed at 8 o’clock, provided she can read for the next hour. (It all reminds me of my childhood days reading a book by flashlight and under the covers.)

So…what have I just revealed to you? What you surely already know — that is, get it right in the early years, and a child, chances are, will have momentum all of life. And nothing, absolutely nothing, is more to be treasured than a caring, knowledgeable parent.

I became involved in this topic 15 years ago when, still a newspaper publisher, I was asked by the then chief executive of Florida, an especially thoughtful and wise man named Lawton Chiles, to be on the Governor’s Commission on Education. It was to be a two-year civic assignment to look at education in the next millennium — that is, this one. There were six task forces, one of those being something called “school readiness.” Now I had never heard of the subject heretofore, though my children had received a splendid blend of health and education and nurturing and love. But, as fate would have it, I was asked to chair the “school readiness” task force. What I learned led me to retire a dozen years ago to work in the vineyards of early development, care and education. I thought the topic spoke to the very future of children, community and country.

Where I live is maybe the most interesting place in America and at the very cutting edge of the country to come. Miami-Dade County is larger than 16 states, with more than half of our residents born in another country; ours is the highest foreign-born population of any urban area of these United States. People like me, and most of you — that is, non-Hispanic white — comprise only 15 percent of the population (and an even lesser percentage of the 34,000 babies born each year). Black and African-American people make up 20 percent of our residents. Yes, and as you know, we have a large population of Cuban heritage or birth, but a full half of the two-thirds of our neighbors who are Hispanic are from countries other than Cuba.

We have, to be sure, all sorts of challenges of poverty and culture and language. But the good news to report today is that we have found ways to unite around children — all children.

Let me give you just three examples (among others, I promise you:

No. 1: In 1988, the year before our family moved to Miami, the then state attorney – a dedicated public servant named Janet Reno – and other leaders sought to pass a dedicated source of funding for early intervention and prevention. That campaign focused on certain children in certain neighborhoods full of those at risk. The campaign failed, 2-1. A dozen years later, we resurrected the idea, but approached it much differently. We committed (a) to spend the next two years on this, and (b) made clear it was about all our children and the entire community (while understanding that some children need and should receive more). We passed it, 2-1. To give us a better chance of passage, we put a “sunset” on this, meaning it could be gone by 2009. In the latter stages of 2008, even as the economy was crumbling, it was on the ballot again, and this time we passed it with 85.4 percent of the vote. This extraordinary victory came because we had a major league political strategist, a trustworthy and powerful story to tell, and raised $1.7 million in PAC money (which sounds like a lot until you look at return on investment and come to see quickly that this produces more than $100 million a year extra to invest in children). Let me give you three quick examples of how those dollars are invested: (1) We have put health teams in 130 public schools, (2) spend millions in incentives for higher-quality, brain-stimulating child care, and (3) provide higher-quality after-school care for literally tens of thousands of children.

No. 2: The same year we first passed The Children’s Trust – that property tax increase to benefit the children of Miami-Dade — we worked statewide on another initiative. That wasn’t easy either. I live in a state not celebrated for its commitment to public education. Of all 50 states, proportionate to the wealth and size of the population, Florida invests less than anyone. But arguing that our mission was focused on “everybody’s child,” we passed, 59-41 percent, a constitutional amendment to provide the family of every 4 year old free prekindergarten. It would never have passed, I promise you, if it had been about “some” children or “those” children. This year there are 166,000 4 year olds in that program.

No. 3: With the University of Florida and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation we developed a major partnership called Ready Schools Miami with 230 public elementary and K-8 schools. This includes a pioneering, large-scale effort to invest in quality child care as the “feeder pattern” to public school…the alignment of professional development and curriculum between pre-school and third grade…and a job-embedded master’s program offered to cohorts of teachers in elementary schools, provided those teachers commit to staying five years at that school. This is led by University of Florida professors-in-residence blended with online learning. (Just think how this might improve best-practice teaching and retain best teachers.) As you so well know, we lose half our teachers in America within five years of entering the profession. We need to do much better.

Speaking of schools, I work closely with my own system, the fourth biggest in the country with 342,000 students and 350 public schools. Indeed, we have no more important partner. A few years back our superintendent was a nationally known fellow named Rudy Crew; ultimately, as with so many urban school chiefs, he didn’t last. But what did last with me was something Dr. Crew said some years ago. He was talking about “feeder patterns” — about middle schools that “feed” into a high school and elementary schools that “feed” into a middle school. Then he spoke of another “feeder pattern” — that is, child care and pre-K programs. That clicked with me in a country where two-thirds of women with children between birth and age 5 work outside the home. “Child care” has been the real world for my own grandchildren. And I have come to learn that perhaps 80 percent of child care is mostly storage and warehousing. Brain-stimulating child care is a gift to a child’s bright future.

I came to decide – and feel it fervently — that if I were ever a principal of an elementary school, I would build relationships with the children before they came to my school. I would work hard to know every child care center and director whose children might ultimately enter formal school where I was in charge. I would work hard to make sure, to every degree possible, that what they were teaching children would align — in ways of curriculum and professional development — with what my school and my teachers were doing. I would make sure not only that those children were “ready” to succeed in school and in life, but also that my school and my teachers and I were really “ready” for them in a wise and welcoming way.

You know as well as I how much woe-is-us hand-wringing energy is spent in our country on the topic of public education reform. Why, pray tell, do we so often invest way too late. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Dr. James J. Heckman tells us quite succinctly: The wisest path to such reform “is to improve students sent to (schools).”

If that isn’t enough, I give you just two sentences from an important book called “Disrupting Class” by Harvard professor Clayton Christensen: “A rather stunning body of research is emerging that suggests that starting…reforms at kindergarten, let alone in elementary, middle or high school, is far too late. By some estimates, 98 percent of education spending occurs after the basic intellectual capacities of children have been mostly determined.”

Ours is a nation where 90 percent of children go to public school. You and your teachers know that a great chunk of entering students are really not ready to learn; your teachers see so frequently the tragedy of the first-grade student who already feels like a failure. Just think of the difference it would make to children entering formal school, and to their teachers, to have children really ready to learn. The early years are the most crucial growing years of a child’s life.

We already have ample research to tell us that a dollar invested wisely in high-quality programs will have an enormous return – money we won’t need to spend on police and prosecution and prison and remediation of all sorts. New research tells us even more. Listen to this from a recent New Yorker magazine article quoting Dr. Jack Shonkoff, the nationally known professor of pediatrics at the Harvard Medical School. He says: “We now know that adversity early in life can not only disrupt brain circuits that lead to problems with literacy, it can also affect the development of the cardiovascular system and the immune system and metabolic regulatory systems, and lead to not only more problems learning in school but also greater risk for diabetes and hypertension and heart disease and cancer and depression and substance abuse.”

Why, then, would we possibly settle for anything less than affordable, high-quality basics for all children? (Or, said another way, exactly what you and I would want for our own children and grandchildren.)

Quite recently, Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, told us this: “Research increasingly has shown the benefits of early childhood education and efforts to promote the lifelong acquisition of skills for both individuals and the economy as a whole. The payoffs of early childhood programs can be especially high.”

But is all this so new? Haven’t we known for some while what the Fed chair just told us? Well, yes. Indeed, I love this story that going back eight centuries to the wisdom of one of England’s greatest kings, Henry II. His obsequious attendants told him frequently that the very realm depended on him. One day he could take this line no more, and reminded them that “in my kingdom there is a town, and in the town there is a street, and on the street there is a house. In the house is a cradle with a child in it.” On that child, Henry would say, all else depends. And so it is, and always will be.

The way we do things now cannot possibly be good for the future of our state and our country. I give you one stark consequence, via a national report from a group of senior retired admirals and generals who told us this: Three of every four young people, ages 17 to 24, cannot enter the American military – cannot enter because they have a physical problem, a substance abuse problem, a criminal justice problem, or an academic problem. This, my friends, is a matter of national security.

Even that we really knew a long ago. Aristotle, that towering Greek figure in philosophy and numerous other disciplines, told us 2,500 years ago: “All who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth.”

Now, let me share with you one final approach to the future: I have worked, with many others, these past two years to create The Children’s Movement of Florida. Last September we rallied support from one corner of this state to the other – Pensacola to Key West — and 15,000 Floridians showed up. We now communicate regularly with more than a quarter-million Floridians.

We preceded the launch with 19 months of work and statewide polling so we could know for sure what children’s issues the people of Florida would most support. Those polling results, blended with advice from experts and community leaders on the needs of children, led us to a first focus on five issues: Health insurance for all children, screening and treatment for children who may have special needs such as autism or cerebral palsy, fixing the quality of Florida’s pre-K program, and high-quality best-practice parenting and mentoring skills. Our aim is not a one-year legislative wonder, but rather building something enduring, long-term and sustainable – and the power to insist on a real change in priorities. Our bipartisan steering committee is comprised of 27 distinguished Floridians.

Please spend the next 4 minutes and 15 seconds to see a video that I’ve already shared with thousands of Floridians:

The needs and futures of children should be at the front of the line when decisions about public resources are made in your states and my own; that is not the way it is now in Florida or elsewhere. For one example, could it possibly make sense that we cannot even get $3,000 for a slot in the state’s pre-k program for 4 year olds, yet pay upwards of $51,000 to incarcerate a juvenile? In a state of wisdom, children would be our highest priority – higher than roads, higher than prisons, higher than sports stadiums, higher than anything.

For anyone who might think, “This is not about my children,” I would remind them that we now lived in a most connected world. If we want – and want for our children and grandchildren – a community and country full of optimistic, contributing people, we cannot hide from those who would grow up to do us, and themselves, great harm. Believing in all children, we help all of us. If we want the brightest future for communities and country, then we must be mindful of how everyone is doing. If we want safe and secure neighborhoods, and want less crime, and more people to grow up to own homes and cars, and more people to pay for the basics of societal well-being, then we should know of the quite extraordinary evidence of the power of investment, especially in the early years, and the power to grow children who dream and have a real chance to achieve those dreams.

If I have seemed a tad evangelical today, it is because I am. We do toil at the side of the angels, even if we are not ourselves angelic. We are people with the passion to do good. Sometimes we might feel pleased with progress, but none of us should ever be satisfied that we have done enough. We can rest when we enter the next world.

The wisdom of the sages and the ages is with us. I quote Proverbs, verse 22, chapter 6, where we learn: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

May God bless all of us and everyone’s child.

Thank you.