Focus on Early Education

By Bronwyn Beightol

Guest Columnist

Taken from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Last week we observed the development of “connective tissue” that can help our communities improve the lives of children and families.

As Debra Jacobs of The Patterson Foundation emphasizes, the sharing of vital information and creation of thoughtful partnerships can lead to connections that change the trajectory of communities forthe better.

Consider the links among three recent events:

■ Last Wednesday in Tallahassee, the United Ways of Florida released the ALICE report. ALICE stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. According to theUnited Way of Manatee County’s ALICE report, more than 43 percent of our community members are working hard every day, yet they struggle to make ends meet. When ALICE families are forced to make decisions between paying for health care or rent, or food or car repair, their children — our community’s children — suffer.

■ Also on Wednesday, Mark Wilson, chief executive of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, visited Sarasota/Bradenton and shared his organization’s vision for ending the cycle of generational poverty. He emphasized the importance of businessestaking a long-term leadership approach to this community challenge.

■ On Friday, Dr. Dipesh Navsaria shared with our community the Reach Out and Read program — an initiative that works with pediatricians to give books and “prescriptions for reading” to children.

The common thread? Recognition that a consistent, dedicated, collaborative focus on our children’s education is imperative to community,and individual,success.

Achieving that focus will require change in public policies. As Wilson explained, “We have shackled an entire generation through our policies. A single parent working 40 hours needs to earn $21 an hour to break even … yet our policy now is that the more you earn, the more you lose” in government benefits.

Wilson underscored the idea that, to make a lasting change in children, we need to develop a long-term approach. We have to look at brain development from birth to 3 and invest in systems that support education.

That’s where Reach Out and Read comes in. Navsaria’s visit coincided with the launch of a regional initiative through the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading to ensure that our children, birth to 5, are reached by their pediatrician with a prescription for reading (given to their parents).

We all lose when we do not provide equitable opportunities for children to reach their potential. Reach Out and Read provides an opportunity for real, intentional, community-wide change. Because more than 90 percent of our families with children visit their pediatrician, the opportunity for promoting equitable access to educational opportunities for all of our parents exists.

Thanks to the leadership of the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, funded through The Patterson Foundation, the Reach Out and Read initiative will be widely implemented in Manatee and Sarasota counties. United Way of Manatee County and Manatee Community Foundation have partnered to fund the initiative in Manatee for the next three years. The Community Foundation of Sarasota County has committed to ensure the program for the next three years in Sarasota.

It is up to our businesses and community to take leadership roles and ensure that our pediatricians have access to this important initiative for generations. When businesses, nonprofits, government, media and citizens work together, our entire community wins.— Bronwyn Beightol is chief operating officer of United Way of Manatee County.