Preparing Our Children for the 22nd Century: It’s All About the Starting Line

There are certain moments in time when a window opens, affording the potential for solutions to problems that had previously seemed intractable. As I have taken the helm of Petersburg City Public Schools, I choose to hope and believe that this is such a moment. My unwavering optimism for the students of Petersburg is grounded in my belief that one of the soundest steps we can take to ensure college and career readiness for our students is to begin at the starting gate – in the earliest years of a child’s life well before they enter our schools. The DNA of the children is the same, regardless of their zip code or community in which they live. The difference is the commitment and support structure provided by the adults.

Given the thorny connection between poverty and educational challenges, it is not surprising but still stark to see Petersburg’s school readiness data from the Virginia School Readiness Report Card. Petersburg has roughly three times the number of children born to teen mothers than the state average, and 14.8% of our incoming kindergartners need literacy intervention versus 12.9% statewide.

On the first day of this new school year I visited several pre-kindergarten classes. The curiosity, wonderment, innocence, and beauty of these children was awe-inspiring. My mind began to consider what the future might hold for them. With a healthy foundation, many of them have the real possibility of actually seeing the 22nd Century. The foundations of academic learning, the ability to develop trust and form relationships, to communicate, to focus, and to exercise self-control are built from birth. Not just from preschool or kindergarten, but from birth.

Statistics including rate of babies born at low birthweight, births to teen mothers, and the number of children with access to high-quality child care are vital signs like a pulse or blood pressure. Outside of a healthy range, they spike the risk for all sorts of troubles. Importantly, these rates and numbers look different for children who live in low-income families and who are of color. In fact, at kindergarten entry, probabilities for success for some groups of children already look grim. The link between early educational experiences (from birth to age 5) and success in the K-12 years is undeniable. But we must maintain that risk factors present early in life need not be a prescription for failure but instead an early warning system to grab our attention and spark a proactive approach to creating bright futures.

We can draw a direct line from the first five years of life to the 14.3% of Petersburg students who need to repeat a grade between kindergarten and third grade (nearly triple the state average of 6.4%), putting them at higher threat of not completing high school, and costing the school system millions of dollars. While the tireless work of teachers and school division personnel can have a tremendous impact, how we choose to design our school readiness systems either sets students and educators up for success or sets them up for struggle.

We know that in order to be ready for academic success, families and children, particularly those facing multiple risk factors need more than just a year of preschool. An effective school readiness system is a tall order – requiring a cohesive network of community partners, ranging from home visiting programs, high-quality child care providers, schools, the faith community, business, higher education, social services, and even libraries and museums. And this very difficult work of creating an organized, aligned system that fosters conditions for a strong, healthy start for young children is the obligation of each community.

I hope we seize this window, and that my fellow school division colleagues also engage with the early learning stakeholders in their communities. For too long, we’ve considered K-12 and birth-through-5 to be separate matters. We will never reach our goals if we take that view. The kindergarteners walking into Petersburg City Public Schools for the first time this year were the babies born (thriving or not thriving) five years ago, the toddlers in (high- or low-quality) child care three years ago, the children in (or not in) a strong preschool program last year.

The School Readiness Report Card tells us where we are. It’s up to us to determine where we go from here.

Author: Marcus J.Newsome, Superintendent of Petersburg City Public Schools

September 20, 2016