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Opinion: Ready to learn is first step in workforce development

Truth Be Told

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"We’re handing out job applications at the maternity wards now.”

This quip from Springfield ReManufacturing Corp. General Manager Chad Myers stuck with me since I heard him say it at the February CEO Roundtable discussion on manufacturing.

Myers’ sentiment crosses industries: Businesses are trying to capture the attention of future employees earlier and earlier with field trips, career fairs and internship programs. It’s no wonder with an unemployment rate at 3.3% in the Springfield area.

So when the Mayor’s Commission on Children released its latest Readiness for Kindergarten study last month, the workforce implications immediately stood out to me. Sure, we’re talking about 5- and 6-year-olds. But these same kids will be entering the workforce in a decade.

The survey of roughly 100 Springfield Public Schools kindergarten teachers found that 1 in 4 students were not prepared for school, a slight uptick from the 2016 study. And 30% were considered well prepared. When you look at the statistics of students from lower-income households that are eligible for free and reduced lunches, the gap widens. Only 16% of those students are well prepared for school, and 41% were not prepared for school.

Perhaps the starkest comparison comes when the study considered students who attended preschool and their peers who did not. Of those students who did not go to preschool, 51% were unprepared for kindergarten and only 18% of those who did attend preschool were unprepared.

“Knowing how to behave appropriately in a classroom setting and having solid language and math concepts means an entire classroom full of students can all learn and achieve together from the first day of school,” says Brigitte Marrs, the executive director of the Mayor’s Commission. “Too often, preschool is a luxury many cannot afford and their children, and their classrooms, suffer for it.”

Marrs said quality preschool in our community costs at least $150 per week. For a parent making $30,000 a year, that’s a quarter of their income. It’s not surprising that many parents simply cannot afford to get their kids ready to learn.

Thankfully, the district is stepping in to help. Starting this school year, SPS expanded its free pre-K programs to 200 kids through repurposing Campbell Elementary School near the intersection of Grant Avenue and Walnut Street as an early childhood education hub. Now, 600 students districtwide have access to pre-K.

And with last month’s voter approval of $168 million in bonds through Proposition S, construction is planned for two additional early childhood centers. One location will be a small addition to Williams Elementary in northwest Springfield at a cost of $3.65 million. The second will be a $12.69 million early childhood center to reach an additional 250 preschool students, likely on property near Carver Middle School in southwest Springfield.

The Mayor’s Commission has conducted similar studies of school readiness since 2006. Marrs said a possible next step is looking at how these progressed beyond preschool.

“We have enough data now with studies over a period of time that we could begin to track students who were not prepared and how they fared later in their school career,” she said. “We are looking at a longitudinal study on their achievement.”

The next study will be completed in 2020 and, hopefully, it will paint a rosier picture of education in our community as more kids have access to free preschool.

Marrs also said the Mayor’s Commission is looking into a model out of Duke University called Family Connect. The program sends a nurse to visit parents and their newborn in the home to help them connect with community programs early on. It’s designed to ensure kids are matched with needed resources before school even crosses a parent’s mind.

These studies, and the district’s emphasis on ensuring kids are ready to learn, is crucial as we address our workforce challenges. While attracting talent outside of the region is valid, why not better prepare our homegrown workforce? And why not start as early as possible? With the passage of Prop S, residents are showing they agree with the district’s path.

Our community’s greatest resource always will be its people, including our youngest residents.

Springfield Business Journal Features Editor Christine Temple can be reached at ctemple@sbj.net.

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