Four weeks ago, I wrote:
“What if 10 of our best nonprofits teamed together with parents, teachers and pastors of one kindergarten class and began 12 years of teaching them the value of marriage and hard work and the old American dream? Would it work? Who knows? But if this is our root cause, isn’t it worth a try?”
I didn’t know that George McCanless, our United Way president, had already begun this effort. George explained to me that United Way had pulled together a Promise Commission of highly energized and knowledgeable citizens, key local nonprofits and education leaders who are focused on our poverty-stricken neighborhoods and are dedicated to two goals:
Have the child ready to enter school.
Have the child reading at grade level by the end of the third grade.
I had forgotten the importance of “reading by the end of the third grade.” George reminded me that in our school system “up through third grade, children learn to read; after third grade, children must read to learn.” More than 80 percent of our children in low-income families just don’t make it.
It stands to reason then that our graduation rate for Bibb County high schools is one of the lowest in the nation. Nationwide, the graduation rate is 80 percent and predicted to be 90 percent by 2020. Ours is 53 percent and getting worse. The other statistic that links to this is, of course, that 82 percent of our prison inmates are high school dropouts.
But how can we “teach them to read” if 12 of our Bibb County elementary schools can’t do it right now? Obviously, something else is needed to support our school system. This newly formed commission has made a promise to fill this need and already has conducted a pilot program (coordinated by Communities in Schools) for 65 children at Ingram-Pye Elementary. After only three months, with Mercer students tutoring them, 64 scored high enough to move on to the next grade level.
However, it all starts with “getting the child ready to enter school.” How can we do this? More than 2,000 Bibb County children (birth to 5) are not in any form of early education program, and the parents need a lot of help. The Promise Commission has plans for this too: Our community is full of volunteers and college students who are just waiting to be asked, and United Way will provide the funding.
I am now convinced -- finally -- that we will stop our slippery slide to the worst state in the union for high school graduations. (We’re fourth from the bottom now.) Oh sure, it will take “time and talent and treasure.” And, yes, eventually we’ll have to stop teen pregnancies and gangs and high-school dropouts. But we have to start with the little children. We can’t expect to stem this tide in high school or even in middle school.
Frederick Douglass wrote: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” We have to start here -- one child at a time. The day will come when we, too, will have a 90 percent graduation rate, and at the end of that celebrated year, Bibb County alone will have an additional 1,200 graduates and more than 100 new jobs, which will generate a $25 million increase in home sales and a $1.3 million increase in auto sales. Now that’s a real economic stimulus.
A dream? It’s more than that. It’s a promise.
Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corp. and Cummings Management Consultants. His website is digitallydrc.com.