Closing the Gap 

The first task of the unified school board should be to equalize achievement.

Only 4 percent of Memphis City Schools seniors are ready for college, based on scoring at least 19 on the ACT, the college entrance exam taken by district seniors. In other words, of 6,774 seniors, only 271 are college ready.

It's a disturbing statistic that speaks to why closing the achievement gap should be a priority for Memphis and Shelby County. It's also why brain development of children from birth to age 3 should be a top priority, since targeted early-childhood interventions pay the most returns on investment for children.

Too often, the answer to the achievement gap is seen as better pre-K educational programs. In the Memphis City Schools' system, pre-K is the year prior to kindergarten. Pre-K programs are extremely important, but it's worth remembering that the achievement gap appears as early as nine months of age and puts children caught in it seriously at-risk. Those children are:

• 25 percent more likely to drop out of school;

• 40 percent more likely to become a teen parent;

• 50 percent more likely to be placed in special education;

• 60 percent more likely to never attend college;

• 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime.

The National Governors Association has called the achievement gap between low-income children and their higher-income counterparts "one of the most pressing education policy challenges that states currently face." The same is true for Memphis and Shelby County.

As the new unified school board gets under way, we expect them to concentrate on more than just the organizational structure for the new countywide school district. More to the point, we expect them first to develop their aspirations, goals, and plans of action and then develop the structure that can accomplish them.

We urge the new school board to think about the education of our children as more than K-12. In truth, it should be about a coordinated plan that begins at birth, because accepting anything less is the same as accepting that a large percentage of our children won't live up to their full potential.

Put simply, the course of a child's life can be altered beginning at conception by interventions that shift his or her odds to more positive outcomes. All children are born wired for feelings and ready to learn, and as a result, their early environments and nurturing relationships are crucial.

Brain development from birth to three years is highly active but also highly vulnerable, and because of it, what happens in the first 36 months of every child's life sets the framework for what follows — it can be strong or it can be fragile.

So much of children's development depends on the ability of parents to provide close, dependable, responsive relationships that encourage exploration, vocabulary development, and creative connections between ideas.

That's why we advocate for the simple initiative of Touch, Talk, Read, Play — simple things that are life-changing for children. These are everyday things that busy parents, teachers, and grandparents can do, and it's why we partner with Neighborhood Christian Center and others to spread the word about Touch, Talk, Read, Play.

Many low-income children are away from their parents in low-quality child-care programs and parked in front of television sets. Many do not have the early learning opportunities — such as Early Head Start, Head Start, and high-quality child care — that can make a big difference in whether a child is ready for school.

The good news is that we do have these programs under way in Memphis, but there are nowhere near enough slots for those eligible. We still all need to advocate for more high-quality home visitation, positive parenting initiatives, and child-care centers as well as preschool and prekindergarten programs.

This kind of seamless system connecting early-childhood care and development, early-childhood education, and K-12 would be our best achievement in closing today's gap.

Ultimately, the question is this: Who's responsible for closing the achievement gap? The answer is: We are.

Katy Spurlock is director of the Urban Child Institute of Memphis.

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