by Tarrin McGhee
Special to the Tri-State Defender
Around the world, a quality education is viewed as the golden ticket to a bright future.
Local achievement rates reveal an urgent need to ensure that more students are being adequately prepared to cash in.
Last week, the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) reported that the city of Memphis is leading the state with the highest number of low performing schools.
Figures released by the TDOE last year show that a mere 4 percent of Memphis City Schools students, 20 percent of Shelby County School students, and only 10 percent of students state-wide are meeting college readiness benchmarks.
And on the 2011 National Assessment of Education Progress (a nationwide assessment of what America's students know and can do in various subject areas), Tennessee falls in the bottom 10 of all 50 states with a ranking of 46th.
Over the past few years, the need to improve academic achievement has remained at the forefront of the legislative agenda for government leaders across the state, particularly in Memphis and Shelby County.
However, the current condition of America's public school system and its detrimental effects on the state of the economy paints a dismal picture and raises the question: what – if anything – can be done to truly improve student success?
New, innovative approaches to increase academic performance, test scores, graduation, and college attainment are taking shape across our community, sparking local and national interest and debate on issues surrounding best practices to improve education quality for students.
The Urban Child Institute believes that the first step is to adopt a proactive approach that begins with supporting policy changes focusing on early childhood development.
Currently, less than 50 percent of all students in Shelby County are meeting kindergarten readiness benchmarks.
School readiness is a key indicator of future success.
Research shows that long before they enter Kindergarten, children build critical cognitive, emotional and social skills that influence their in-school development and overall academic performance.
Enrolling in Pre-k or Head Start is proven to be an effective way to aid in the development of those skills.
According to The Urban Child Institute, 67 percent of children who enroll in Pre-Kindergarten are school ready by the age of 5, compared to only 28 percent of children who are not enrolled.
Yet, despite local and nationwide studies that highlight the positive impact of Pre-K and Head Start, not all children are granted access.
Family income level and socioeconomic status often dictate whether or not the option to enroll is readily available.
However, if everything goes according to plan, that will soon change for children in Shelby County.
On Aug. 3, the Transition Planning Commission (TPC) released its final version of the plan to guide the merger of Memphis and Shelby County schools, set to take effect in the 2013-14 school-year.
Ensuring universal access to Pre-K for all 4 year olds is at the top of the list of recommendations to meet educational priorities for the unified district.
The TPC recommends expanding the program to include 2,500 additional slots that will be added over the course of the next 5 years.
The new investment would add $3 million yearly to the total operating budget for Shelby County Unified Schools.
The Urban Child Institute firmly believes that expanding Pre-K is necessary to strengthen public education, and more importantly, is a wise investment in our children and in the future our community.
For example, studies by The Urban Child Institute and early childhood development experts nationwide conclude that children enrolled in Pre-K are likely to outperform their peers in college and career, and are less likely to require social support or to engage in criminal activity.
As a result, beyond the individual benefits it provides, Pre-K can also significantly impact the poverty, unemployment and crime rates that affect a community's bottom line.
The economic vitality of a city depends greatly on the educational achievement and attainment levels of its citizenry.
In order to reverse the negative trends that persist in Memphis and Shelby County, parents, residents and government leaders must do more to ensure that students are starting out on the right track.
Over the next 12 months, using the transition plan as a guide, the Shelby County Unified School Board will continue working to determine the next steps to move forward with the schools merger.
On Monday (Aug. 20), board members hosted their final community meeting (in a series held over the past 2 weeks) to gather public input and feedback on the plan to create a unified school system that will meet the academic needs of all students.
The Urban Child Institute's research and data on how to promote and protect the health and well-being of young children in Shelby County fully support the TPC's recommendation for universal Pre-K.
By breaking down the first barrier to educational achievement, the investment will yield impressive returns for students and for the (Greater Memphis) community.
(The New Tri-State Defender has partnered with The Urban Child Institute to make sure every child has the best chance for optimal brain development during the critical first three years of each child's life. This is one in a series of stories and columns in our campaign.)