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Louis A. Finney Jr. and Robert J. Feikema: Now more than ever, Pre-K must be a priority
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Louis A. Finney Jr. and Robert J. Feikema: Now more than ever, Pre-K must be a priority

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The three interrelated crises that have seized the country since spring — threatening our health, disrupting the economy and demanding racial justice — have raised concerns about how we educate and care for our children. When and how will our schools reopen? How can we make affordable, quality child care available so that parents can return to work? Beneath these urgent questions lie deeper concerns that existed long before the pandemic hit and that must be addressed if we hope to create a viable future for our children and our community.

For the past decade, we’ve known that nearly half our young children arrive in kindergarten not ready to learn to read. We’ve seen a series of annual reports showing that half our third-graders are not proficient in reading or math, a rate that rises to nearly two-thirds for children of color. It shouldn’t be surprising that a 2015 Harvard University study found Forsyth County to be among the worst counties in the country for enabling children from poor families to rise out of poverty.

What we can do to address these disparities has also been known for a long time. Fifty years of studies and decades of research findings from brain science confirm that high-quality Pre-K programs can close academic achievement gaps. Longitudinal studies have found that these gains continue into adulthood in the form of higher rates of enrollment in post-secondary education, higher earnings, and higher rates of homeownership. Economic analyses show that for every $1 spent on high-quality Pre-K, communities can save $7 in long-term costs for things like educational remediation, social supports, and criminal justice.

With this knowledge in hand, more than 60 early learning professionals from more than 20 organizations came together, beginning in 2014, to establish The Pre-K Priority with one goal in mind — to enable all 4-year-old children in Forsyth County to attend a high-quality Pre-K program. Since then, The Pre-K Priority has produced a series of reports (see www.PreKpriority.org/learn-more/read) with specific recommendations for how to expand high-quality Pre-K in Forsyth County. In 2019, Forsyth Futures conducted a “Pre-K Feasibility Study” that details how more high-quality Pre-K programs could be offered in our community.

The Pre-K Priority has just issued a new report on “Attaining Educational Equity in Forsyth County through High-Quality Pre-K” that documents the effectiveness of high-quality Pre-K in addressing the inequities that penalize children of color.

The report also discloses how far we have to go. While other urban counties in North Carolina have been investing local tax dollars to expand high-quality Pre-K programs, Forsyth County government has yet to do so. At the same time, Forsyth County ranks near the bottom when it comes to garnering state funding for Pre-K through the North Carolina Pre-K (NC Pre-K) program. This nationally acclaimed program serves families with low to moderate incomes and seeks to reduce racial disparities. Of the close to 4,500 4-year-olds in Forsyth County, 2,700 are eligible for NC Pre-K; however, only 739 (27%) are enrolled. Across the state, 47% of eligible children are enrolled. The rate in Guilford County is 67%. Forsyth County currently has 800 children on the waiting list for an NC Pre-K slot. If our rate were the same as Guilford County’s, all the children on the waiting list plus 300 more could be enrolled.

If we are serious about putting our children first, Forsyth County cannot be content to continue to come in last. We must recognize the early learning is a serious business. It prepares our children to succeed, supports parents, produces tomorrow’s skilled workforce, and makes our county a place where people want to live and work.

It’s time for our elected officials to do what their counterparts in other counties did years ago — establish an official Early Childhood Education Task Force to fashion all of the groundwork done by The Pre-K Priority into an action plan to increase the availability of high-quality Pre-K in Forsyth County.

As we emerge from the current set of crises, what kind of community to we want to live in? Hopefully, it will be a community committed to ensuring that all of our children have the opportunity to achieve their full potential. Their and our future depend on it.

Louis A. Finney Jr. is the CEO of Smart Start of Forsyth County. Robert J. Feikema is the president and CEO of Family Services. Both are members of the The Pre-K Priority Steering Committee.

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