We have to help kids very early in order to break cycles of poverty. Observer file photo
We have to help kids very early in order to break cycles of poverty. Observer file photo


To help level the playing field, start at birth

By Tiffany Capers

Contributing editor, Observer editorial board

October 06, 2017 05:11 PM

Many people born with tremendous social, political and economic advantage believe we are playing on a level playing field, that their opportunity was earned and not given. They believe that with hard work, everyone with potential has the same opportunity. I disagree.

Situational factors affect whether a child has a chance to realize her potential. Poverty is one of those “situations” that poses a significant risk factor to realizing human potential – particularly when it comes to educational outcomes. Despite studies that support this conclusion, I imagine even reasonable people could disagree.

A child who hit the familial lottery has an immediate and long-term advantage prior to starting kindergarten. Even before her hard work begins, she will have heard 30 million more words by age five. Her health, behavior and skills make her better prepared for kindergarten than her economically disadvantaged peers. She will be more successful in grade school, will be more likely to complete high school, will be more likely to attend and complete college and will probably reach middle class status as an adult.

Tiffany Capers

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For her less fortunate peers, often their economic disadvantage becomes an academic one that will most likely perpetuate an economic one. Not because of their lack of aptitude or ability to learn but because of a lack of access and readiness. We are failing to interrupt the cycle.

Enter high quality care and education programs. Pre-school programs increase school readiness. These programs add some traction on a slippery playing field on which thousands of Mecklenburg children find themselves each year. The Charlotte Observer recently reported almost 5,000 CMS third-graders failed the state reading test. After several interventions, 2,500 students could not advance to a regular fourth-grade class. The majority of these students attend high-poverty schools. These are the students for whom the cycle of poverty is more than statistical probability; in Charlotte, it is a likely reality if we don’t intervene.

And, we have, right? We have volunteers reading in schools during the school year and during the summer. We have programs that provide books to students. Teachers are working to improve reading and comprehension. Volunteers are tutoring in math. All of these are earnest efforts to close opportunity gaps. But these gaps persist because we have to narrow them before students arrive at school.

And before anyone asks “What about the parents?” Yes, parents have a role. They always will. But, let’s not get distracted by this typical refrain. Children don’t choose their parents or the circumstances of their childhood. We have an obligation to provide them with a strong public education regardless of those circumstances.

Over the next few months, Mecklenburg County commissioners will debate what investment we make in early education, deciding whether we want to move forward with universal pre-K. Do we want to move forward? Do we want to move all of us forward? If so, we have to do more; we have to do differently. And, we have to pay for it. We can pay for it now by investing in programs, in personnel and ultimately, in people. Or we can pay for it later.

We can’t keep saying we want to improve upward mobility and not invest in pre-K education.

Can we all agree on that?

Capers facilitates Black Lives Matter Charlotte, an initiative of the Charlotte Post Foundation. Email: capers08096@gmail.com.