Mayor’s Children’s Summit — Miami Beach

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The text of remarks by David Lawrence Jr., the president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, to the 4,500 people attending the Mayor’s Children’s Summit on Sept. 30, 1999 in Miami Beach.

One day, I hope, we can look back on this day as a wondrous one in the life of our community. I hope that we will be able to remember this day as the moment of launch for great progress for all the children of our community. Achieving that progress is our mutual obligation, and it is the obligation of all of our neighbors.

We know what we must do. We already know that perhaps 30 percent of the children in our community start school significantly behind where they ought to be. We instinctively know that a great many of them never catch up. And we simply must know that it is tragic for these children, and tragic for us, that thousands of children in first grade already feel like “failures.” And we surely know that it does not have to be this way. Like you, I have come to believe that the wisest resources we could possibly spend in our community would be time and money on the front end of the lives of children from birth to age 5. Like you, I have come to believe that we cannot afford to do anything less than make available and affordable high-quality early childhood care and education to all children. Like you, I have come to believe that we must do no less than make available and affordable comprehensive health services to all children. Like you, I have come to believe that we must commit to every child and every parent that we are prepared to spend the resources, in public and private partnership, to ensure every child the chance to be truly ready for school and for life.

Here is how we came to this day and this moment in the life of our community:

Last January Mayor Penelas announced “The Year of the Child,” and asked the community to come together to draw a blueprint for all children in their earliest years, and then move to carry out that strategic plan. In the early months of the year we pulled together hundreds of people to talk about this mission statement: “To ensure that all children in Miami-Dade County have the community’s attention, commitment and resources – and, hence, the chance to develop intellectually, emotionally, socially and physically so that they are ready and eager to learn by the time they reach first grade.”

Then, for 2 ½ days in May, 177 people from all areas of our community put together a strategic plan. In July and August we held community forums in 21 neighborhoods of Miami-Dade County, and hundreds upon hundreds of parents told us their strong views on the subject. We also asked them to fill out surveys. Hundreds of these parents are here today to tell us more about what they think. And here is the category they checked more often than any other: “I want more information about how my children learns.” These parents also pushed hard for “convenient, affordable, high-quality pre-school care,” and “more information to help me be an even better parent.” And they emphasized the need for “high-quality child care” and “dedicated funding for children’s services.”

Now we come to today – the springboard toward carrying out that strategic plan. Every one of us will have the chance to vote electronically on what we think the priorities of this plan should be for our community. Today is all about motivation and momentum, celebration, awareness and energy. Tomorrow and the days after must be about doing because none of this means anything unless our children – all our children – are better off and more clearly on the path to being successful, contributing adults.

Like elsewhere in our country, we really do not have a “system” to fulfill the needs of children. Instead our approach is desperately fragmented. We have a hodge-podge of programs – federal, state and local, public and private — staffed and funded by good people, but most quite disconnected from other programs and services. And all this is accompanied by a pile of well-intended but not infrequently unproductive spending.

What we are trying to do – a holistic plan for all 158,000 children between birth and age 5 in Miami-Dade County – has never been done in America, though it is the norm throughout Europe. Surely it can be done here.

Today, after we have our priorities, we will announce four major task forces, and eight co-chairs, to carry out this plan. And we will ask each of you, and anyone else who would like to participate, to get involved. This is a cause that will take all of us, and thousands of other people. These task forces will be: (a) Early Development and Education, (b) Child Health and Well-Being, (c) Parent and Family Skills, Services and Information, and (d) Prevention and Intervention of Abuse, Neglect and Violence. This plan cannot be done in a matter of months or a year, but it could be done over time if (1) we involved enough people, especially and above all parents, and (2) stuck to the plan, and shared that plan widely and regularly reported to the community short-, medium- and long-term achievements.

We will be aided in all this by significant legislation passed this year and providing for School Readiness Coalitions throughout Florida. Our coalition, of 25 people, was completed just yesterday. You have these names in the material you received this morning. This is the oversight group for “readiness” in our community and the group that will eventually be responsible for all state dollars used in health and education that speak to these early childhood years.

Ladies and gentlemen, I remember so vividly a community forum on “readiness” a couple months back where Commissioner Dennis Moss told parents that this could happen, but it would have to be a “movement.” And I say, “Amen.” We will never do this unless there is fervor in our souls. We will never do this unless we do it in public and private partnership. We will never do this unless we involve every segment of the community – the people in public life and service, the business community, the faith community and, again and most of all, parents. If parents ever knew what they were entitled to in a civilized society, I am convinced that they would demand these basics of health and education and nurturing for their children and every child. This is about all of us, and this is about everyone’s child.

There is a quotation most pertinent to us that appears in George Bernard Shaw’s “Back to Methuselah” in 1921: “You see things, and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were, and I say, ‘Why not?'”

We know the why of “readiness” for all children. We know that the child who feels good about himself or herself, the child who does well in school is the child who will not commit crime, the child who will not be a costly challenge to society. Surely it is only moral and fair and right that every child have the chance to succeed.

The great educator John Dewey told us a half-century ago: “What the wisest and best parent wants for his own children, (so) must the community want for all its children.” And the great psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger reminded us: “What is done to children they will do to society.”

The real meaning of your life and my own is the difference we make in other lives. I know of no better opportunity – nothing more important – for you and me and many others than this mission of getting children off to a strong start toward a successful life. Could we not dream of a community where no one’s child is left behind? Could we not begin that journey? I believe we must. And we must do so this very day.

Thank you.