North Carolina is failing far too many children, especially those “at-risk.” Few dispute that conclusion but fewer still agree on solutions to the problem. The Emerging Issues Forum has never shied away from significant and sometimes complicated issues and this year’s event was no disappointment, focusing on early childhood development.
We are paying the price for the failures. NAEP scores show only 38 percent of our state’s fourth grade students are considered reading-proficient, dropping to 30 percent by the eighth grade. Low-income, African-American and English language learners score appreciably lower. 26 percent of children nationwide who live in poverty at least a year and aren’t reading proficient in third grade fail to graduate high school by age 19. Over half the dropouts and more than two-thirds of African-American dropouts between the ages of 16-24 are unemployed, nearly one in ten male dropouts and one in four African American males are incarcerated. Female dropouts are six times more likely to have given birth as teens; 25 percent are single mothers. Unrealized potential, lost incomes and tax revenues and escalating public sector investments are the costs we pay when children don’t succeed.
Here are some observations from Emerging Issues. There is no “magic bullet” to reverse the outcomes and no quick fix. This will be a lengthy process. North Carolina, once considered a leader in early child development, with Smart Start, Star Ratings for childcare facilities, More at Four and pre-k programs is obviously not doing enough early enough.
Professor Nathan Fox, chair of the Development Science Program at the University of Maryland, says the brain begins laying the groundwork for development at birth. Stable and caring relationships and environments stimulate and enrich that development, however toxic stress can easily derail it. Shortened attention spans, vocabulary gaps and inappropriate behaviors are result of development problems.
Interventions must begin early; waiting until pre-kindergarten at age 4, may be too little, too late. Money is necessary, but money alone isn’t the solution. Help and responsibility cannot and will not come just from the public sector. We must involve business, faith-based and nonprofit groups, healthcare providers, community support and civic organizations, all working alongside public efforts in committed and coordinated programs with clearly defined goals, roles and responsibilities.
We see instances of progress. A business provides quality daycare, not just for their employees, but also for neighbor children. Faith groups provide backpack buddy programs to ensure food during weekends. Some healthcare providers offer free screenings and treatment for children. Community support groups teach adults parenting skills, nutrition and money management techniques. Some teach English at night. Afterschool tutoring and sometimes the all-important listening ear build trust and strong relationships, as do “big brother” and “big sister” mentoring and friendship efforts. Partnered with public sector resources that include effective social services and quality schools, we can make big improvements.
The bottom line is that we must be totally dedicated and change our thinking to preventing problems rather than paying for treatments of outcomes. It truly takes a village, a commitment and significant investments, but if we are really serious about making children’s lives better we can see both quantitative and qualitative returns on those investments.
Tom Campbell is the executive producer and moderator of NC Spin.