Early Childhood Services Dinner — Panama City

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The text of a speech given by David Lawrence Jr., the president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, “Panama City Early Childhood Services Dinner” in Panama City on Jan. 24, 2003

Ladies and gentlemen, it is a privilege to be with you this evening. I am deeply impressed with your leadership and your decision to strengthen the partnerships here. Upon your shoulders rests the future of the children of the Panhandle, most specifically Bay, Calhoun, Franklin and Gulf counties.

You could be involved in nothing more practical, nothing nobler. I salute you. I come here this evening knowing that the realities for your communities, your 200,000 residents, the 2,200 babies born here each here are far better known by you than I. But having done a little homework, I do know some things.

For instance, something about poverty. Nationally, we know that a fifth of all children in America live in the full federal definition of poverty. That’s about the picture in Bay County. But go to Calhoun, Franklin and Gulf, and the figures are much worse.

But maybe we should focus more specifically on education. Perhaps 30 percent of your children start first grade way behind, and many of those children never catch up. Your fourth-grade students are significantly below the national median in math and reading. About 40 percent of your ninth-graders do not complete high school.

Fewer than 18 percent of adults 25 years and older in Bay County have a four-year college degree or more; you are five percentage points below the state average and nine percentage points below the national average. And if you think those figures are unacceptably low, look to Calhoun at 8%, Franklin at 13%, Gulf at 10%.

I don’t just read the statistics; I also read the newspapers. So I know, then, about what’s run in recent times in the Panama City News Herald. The headline this month that told me that “Panhandle Day Care Worker Accused of Breaking Child’s Arm.” The Christmas Day story that told of the 14-year-old girl arrested in the beating, burning and raping of a man high on drugs. The December story about the 18-year-old charged with beating a severely disabled man. These stories reminded me how much pain and tragedy in this world could be avoided if only we had the wisdom to invest in the lives of our very youngest children.

And for those of you inclined who read the headlines and watch the TV news and think that Columbine High School is long ago and far away, I remind you that there were 63 instances of weapons possession last year in your public schools and 697 reported incidents of fighting. While I am at it, I might mention the 6,926 incidents of domestic violence here last year.

Now, you will not be surprised to hear that one of my “prejudices” is that no truly informed person reads just one newspaper or gets information from just one source. So let me give you a citation from another newspaper to the south of you.

I was struck by some figures in a column from Howard Troxler in The St. Petersburg Times. Here’s how that column began: “Makes you proud doesn’t it? We rank 49th among the states in high school graduation rates. We rank 38th in per-student spending. We rank 43rd in the percentage of high school students who attend college. We rank 36th in the percentage of residents with a college education.”

In every one of these categories, Florida has lost ground during the past decade. Lest you think this is a partisan political comment, I quote our Governor, Jeb Bush: “Nearly half the state’s elementary students, 47%, cannot read at grade level. In middle school, 57% cannot read at grade level, and in high school the numbers jump to 62%.”

But my mission this evening is not – repeat not – to preach to the people of the Panhandle. Believe me, we have plenty to say grace over in my county of Miami-Dade. The point, rather, is that we Floridians are in this together, and we can learn from one another.

The good news is that while our state ranks miserably in national rankings of how children do in our country, we increasingly are at the forefront of a national movement for readiness. A movement that can be seen in North Carolina’s public-private Smart Start program. In Georgia’s universal pre-K for 4 year olds, and from whom we have taken our own cue just last November because of the leadership of Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas. In California’s decision to tax tobacco to raise hundreds of millions of dollars a year for birth-to-5 programs. In Vermont’s series of compassionate “family development” initiatives. In Cincinnati’s major effort in behalf of “home visiting.” In the Defense Department’s commitment to quality child care, a commitment that ought to be emulated by the civilian community. Ours is a mission that is neither a matter of politics or party, but rather a matter for all Floridians, all Americans. In the words of First Lady Laura Bush: “There simply is no excuse for any of our youngest and most vulnerable children to be forced to climb uphill just as they enter school.” Or the words in a recent issue of Business Week: “Now, after years of research on the topic, it turns out that an education even at age 5 or 6 is just too late…. Until every child shows up on that first day of kindergarten properly prepared to learn, America will continue to fall short of one of its bedrock ideals.”

Ladies and gentlemen, if Florida is a place of ultimate wisdom as well as common sense and decency, we will be obliged to make high-quality basics affordable and accessible to every child. Surely all children –- rich and poor, and in-between — deserve the same start in life. Surely it is in our mutual advantage for all children to get off to a good start in school and life.

“School readiness” is not, of course, about children learning to read by age 3. Rather, school “readiness” is about children growing –- socially, emotionally, physically, intellectually and, yes, spiritually –- so that they are ready and eager to learn by the time they reach first grade.

This evening I argue that the most powerful educational “reform” that we could achieve in Florida would be getting children, prenatal to age 5, in far better shape than so many are. This evening I ask us to see “education” in a different way, not simply within the prism of our personal K-12 experiences and university studies.

Let us erase from our minds those images of tiny children — 3 year olds — in tiny desks with a teacher at the blackboard. Rather, imagine our youngest children learning in a fuller, different context. Let us focus on the crucial nature of “teachable moments” in a child’s earliest years.

The first-grade teachers of Bay, Calhoun, Franklin and Gulf counties know so well the frequent tragedy of the student who already feels like a failure. Many are well aware of the national study that told us that if a hundred children leave first grade unable really to read, then 88 of them will still be lousy readers after the fourth grade. Wonderful teachers try, as they should and must, to save these children; inevitably, many are not saved.

These are unacceptable failures in a country of greatness and goodness. We must ensure the investment that will bring these children in far better shape to first grade. The smartest teachers will tell you, yes, class size is important, but they will quickly add that the truly crucial variable is the composition of the children in the classroom: How good a shape are these children in — socially, intellectually, emotionally?

I promise you that we would burn out far fewer teachers if we delivered to first grade far more children eager and ready to learn. (At present rates, Florida will need to hire 160,000 new teachers in the next decade, but we would need to hire far fewer if we could keep many of the good teachers we already have.)

Let us not blame the children for how ready they are, or are not. That is, first, the responsibility of parents…and, yes, it is our responsibility. Florida’s best hope for a strong future these children, and our state, is an integrated, comprehensive approach covering health and education and nurturing for all children between birth and age 5. We must do much better than what we have now — good programs led by good people, yet invariably disconnected from other good people, other good programs.

Our mission must embrace what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of — that is, “all of God’s children.” That is not the way it works now. Instead, where you live and where I live, well-intended, good-hearted people target one deeply disadvantaged neighborhood or another, and then devote extra resources (which, because those resources are disbursed in such a non-holistic way, so often add up to precious little progress for children). Meantime, the rest of the community sees how we target our resources, and reasons: “Oh, I see, it is about those children.”

But “readiness” is not and should not be, just about those children; rather, “readiness” should be about, and for, everyone’s child. All children need all the quality early care and education that your children and my own need: Love and nurturing. All their shots. Excellent nutrition. The fullest opportunity to be safe. Stimulating pre-K. Child care that engages the mind, not the “warehousing” that most children receive.

To achieve high-quality early childhood care and education to all children who need it, do we appeal to people on the grounds of human decency? In God’s world, surely every child is entitled to a decent beginning in life. Or do we argue this in practical terms? In the words of the author James Baldwin: “For these are all our children…. We will all profit by, or pay for, whatever they become.”

Readiness is, of course, also a matter of business investment and the self-interest of all of us. An educated community is a safer, more prosperous, more optimistic community for everyone. The research most clearly tells us that if we were ever to spend a dollar wisely up front — that is, from pre-natal to age 5 — we would not have to spend seven dollars at the other end on police and prosecution and prison, and remedial education of all sorts. What I can guarantee you is that we either will pay a few dollars more up front in children’s lives, or we will pay many more dollars when they get older.

A more educated, contributing citizenry literally depends on children coming to first grade eager and able to learn. So how much more research do we need to tell us what we must know? It turns out that we have plenty of research already. I cite, for example, the longitudinal research in the important book called “Meaningful Differences,” by Drs. Betty Hart and Todd Risley. “We saw,” they wrote, “that what parents said and did with their children in the first three years of language learning had an enormous impact on how many language their children learned and used… We were awestruck at how well our measures of accomplishments at age 3 predicted measures of language skill at ages 9-10…. We learned from the longitudinal data that the problem of skill differences among children at the time of school entry is bigger, more intractable and more important than we had thought.”

Or how about the research into child care, which is a reality for the two-thirds of this country’s working-outside-the-home parents of children ages 4 and younger? We have great evidence that quality child care makes a positive difference in children’s futures, real evidence that mediocre child care can stunt their futures.

I might cite the study done by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, UCLA and Yale. There we heard that “high-quality child care is an important element in achieving the national goal of having all children ready for school” and that “high-quality child care continues to positively predict children’s performance well into their school careers.”

Assuming that the people of your communities were genuinely serious about “readiness” for all children, I offer five pieces of advice:

One: We must involve both public and private resources. We must think of government’s role in the spirit of Hubert Humphrey’s wisdom: “The moral test of a government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life — the children; the twilight of life — the elderly; and the shadows of life — the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” We must involve, deeply so, the private sector. Some of the most visible leaders must come from the general community, including the business community. You have many wonderful examples of that here — people like Scott Clemons, Joe and Jeannette Chapman and Lisa Walters, and so many more. The top leaders of “readiness” in any community need to be seen as in no one’s “camp,” people open and responsive to all, people with a vision that encompasses all children, people who truly understand what “holistic” means, people both open and tough-minded, people with a long-term commitment and passion for this issue. Most of all, we will need to involve parents. If they ever knew what their children are entitled to in a civilized society, you would have a mighty army insisting on real change and a holistic approach.

Two: The public is starved for information. Most people, even well-educated and sophisticated people, know precious little about this whole area of readiness. But I have yet to meet the parent who at least at birth does not want the best for his or her child (though that parent might find himself or herself quickly and quite incapable of providing those necessities). Parents are starved for first-rate information. We need to find wise ways to provide that information. In Miami-Dade, for instance, we have a major, multi-year campaign for public awareness on this topic, a broadcast-print-and-website approach. That campaign’s first target is parents and caregivers who can call –- in English, Spanish or Creole –- any hour of the day or night for information that ranges from: “My child has been crying for hours; what should I do?” to “What is really good child care and how can I afford it?”

Three: We cannot let money dominate the discussion. I can’t tell you the number of people, good people, who have said to me: “I’m really with you on this one. Now if you could give my program a bit more money, I promise you that things will be better.” Yes, more money may be needed, but the discussion first needs to focus on what children need. Holistically. The point is not to start another program. Rather it is to focus on outcomes for children with genuinely measurable outcomes.

Four: Our real focus must be local. The state as a partner will be crucial. So will its dollars. But if real progress is to be made, it will be made, the first focus must be by and on the people of Bay, Calhoun, Franklin and Gulf counties insisting on real progress for all your children. In our community we have built partnerships with 14 birthing hospitals, 5 birthing centers, 38 neighborhood clinics, and 39 community libraries. Today every new parent receives the preview issue of an 11-times-year parent skill-building newsletter… information about how to connect the child to health insurance… a high-quality baby book accompanied by a message about the importance of reading to the children from the earliest months… a temporary library card that can be turned in for a permanent card and a round-trip bus pass to the nearest library. Everything for free; everything in three languages. Meanwhile, we have launched a major effort to build a strong “family literacy coalition” because we believe that parents must be their child’s first and best teacher. Then, less than five months ago, after two years of work, we passed, 2-1, The Children’s Trust, a dedicated funding source for children to provide $60 million a year for early intervention and prevention programs. A key component in my community and your own is the School Readiness Coalition, which gives your community and my own significant say-so locally over tax dollars that speak to children from birth to age 5. Our future depends on our bringing together all sorts of private as well as public resources.

Five: We will have no real “movement” unless this is about everyone’s child. I remind you that the kindergarten movement began in this country almost a century and a half ago, was for much of its evolution a program for the very poor and the very well off, and took more than a century for it to be genuinely widespread. It was frequently fought. Today, high quality kindergarten for all children has become an expectation from every parent. Our children do not have a century or more to wait for the early childhood movement to flower. Lest you think the challenge too daunting, I give you the words of the great anthropologist, Margaret Mead: “Never doubt,” she once wrote, “that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Or listen to Robert Greenleaf in “The Servant and Leader”: “Not much happens,” he wrote, “without a dream. And for something great to happen, there must be a great dream. Behind every great achievement is a dreamer of great dreams.”

A great dream and a real movement call on us to achieve these four goals, and more:

  1. 1: High quality, nationally accredited child care available for all.
  2. 2: A quality “medical home” for every child pre-natal to age 5 — not the emergency-room-as-basic-medical-care that tens of thousands of children receive in Florida. How could it be in a country this “rich” that there are 5,689 children in these four counties who have no health insurance?
  3. 3: Availability of a quality pre-K experience (though not mandatory) for every 4 year old. This would incorporate public and private approaches, including Head Start and high quality child-care options for parents. We —you and I and many others – passed this in November with Mayor Penelas at the forefront. Just think of it: Beginning in the school year 2005 this will be available for everyone’s child. Watch closely what happens in the Legislature this term; make sure we achieve a high-quality program because we know that only high quality makes a real difference in children’s lives.
  4. 4: Parent skill-building that recognizes the necessity of parents and families being fully involved in “readiness.” Parents will make the decisions for their children, but they deserve our respectful help in partnership.

My friends, could we not be wise enough to come together to “own” a portrait of what we would want for every child? Can we not see this as a matter of wise investment in their future and our own? Is it not basic American fairness that every child has a real chance to succeed? Is it not within our power to have the strength and compassion to embrace and include every child? Could we not insist on that?

“Perhaps in the past,” writes the educator Diane Ravitch, “it was possible to undereducate a significant portion of the population without causing serious harm to the nation. No longer. Education, today more than at any time in the past, is the key to successful participation in society. A boy or girl who cannot read, write, or use mathematics is locked out of every sort of educational opportunity. A man or woman without a good elementary and secondary education is virtually precluded from higher education, from many desirable careers, from full participation in our political system, and from enjoyment of civilization’s great aesthetic treasures. The society that allows large numbers of its citizens to remain uneducated, ignorant, or semiliterate squanders its greatest asset, the intelligence of its people.”

Should we fail, ladies and gentlemen, I remind you of the words of the great psychiatrist, Karl Menninger: “What we do to children,” said Dr. Menninger, “they will do to society.”

It is up to us, ladies and gentlemen. A movement in behalf of every children in our communities is moral, is right, and it can be done.

Thank you, and God bless you.