Dr. Dana Suskind is the real thing.
She is an expert in the science of brain development in young children.
She is a surgeon who founded the cochlear implantation program at the University of Chicago. In that “day job” she gives deaf children the opportunity to hear.
She was among the subject matter experts at a summit on the importance of early education at the White House.
She is passionate on the topic, articulate and committed to the idea that all children deserve the chance to develop their full potential, regardless of the ZIP code they are born into or the balance in their parent’s checking account.
We at the Studer Community Institute were fortunate to be able to bring her to Pensacola, where at Booker T. Washington High School, she shared her expertise and enthusiasm in for how “babies are not born smart. They’re made smart.”.
“If you care about your community, if you care about this country, (early education) is the biggest return on investment I can give to you all,” Suskind told me when we spoke recently.
“While early childhood is really the story of parents,” Suskind writes in her book, “Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain,” “parents are often afterthoughts in program development and reforms for closing the achievement gap. They may be mentioned in the discussion but, in the end, they are treated as an add-on rather than the key to make the necessary changes.”
One of her colleagues at the University of Chicago is Dr. James Heckman. Heckman is a Nobel Laureate in Economics who has studied in the economic impact of early education — and the absence of it. He says that every $1 invested in quality early childhood education for poor children delivers gains of $7 to $10 in school achievement, health behavior and productivity.
As a compelling a speaker with an impressive resume, Suskind alone is not enough. The heavy lifting is on us.
ALL of us.
There are almost 3,000 kindergartners in Escambia County Schools. Based on analysis by the Florida Department of Education’s Office of Early Learning, about 34 percent of those children — nearly 1,000 — were not ready for school.
Many are unlikely to catch up.
The question we must ask ourselves is — how many 5-year-olds are we willing to lose?
That 66 percent kindergarten readiness rate puts Escambia County in 51st place among Florida’s 67 counties.
Santa Rosa County’s 81 percent readiness rate makes it the third best in the state.
We could refer to the metro area readiness rate — which combines Santa Rosa and Escambia counties as much economic data does — and say that 71 percent of our children are ready for kindergarten.
We could parse whose political district those pockets of children living in poverty belong to, or tell ourselves that a median wage of $26,000 isn’t that poor.
But who does that help?
Not the 1,000 children in this county who started school this year unable to recognize enough letters and numbers to be able to have a good chance of learning to read well.
Not the children in that 1,000 who won’t get help at home reading a library book or developing the fine motor skills they need to hold a pencil or crayon and write their name.
Not the 1,000 children who go to school everyday and see classmates who know more than they do — and who feel, by the age of 5, that they are on the outside looking in.
I hope those who come hear Suskind are moved her mission and message.
But the hard work — the work of making this a community one with a skilled workforce, where entrepreneurs thrive, and where the links between education level and wages are so tight that increasing one boosts the other — that’s not for the good doctor to do.
Which is why I ask you: How many 5-year-olds are we, as a community, willing to write off to make the grownups feel better?