Youngest Citizens Rightfully Lead Our Agenda

Thanks to the tireless work of The Urban Child Institute, the importance of early childhood development is getting the attention it deserves.

The past few weeks have reminded me yet again how special Memphis is -- the accessibility of our public leadership, the willingness by city government to reach out to the public for help, and the creation of a civic agenda that we can all embrace and support.

There has been one important thread running through the fabric of these recent events -- early childhood development -- and it's being woven by the smart thinkers at The Urban Child Institute.

It was evident on Feb. 28 in the conversation between Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and Leadership Academy millennials who shared their ideas for Wharton's first full term as mayor. It was a lively discussion that resulted in the mayor organizing the Mayor's Millennial Corps, a formalized way for next-generation leaders to become advisers and resources for him and his administration. On that day, Wharton talked to the participants about the importance of early childhood development to the future of our city.

Shortly thereafter, Wharton announced that he is creating a 21-member committee to advise him on the city's changing role in education. As the mayor said in his State of the City address: "In two years, city government's role in education will change, but our responsibility won't. Research indicates that what takes place outside of the classroom is just as important in determining academic success as what happens inside it.

"That's why city government should take its work to the neighborhoods and to the youngest children in Memphis ... (This) special task force will evaluate the best strategies for early childhood development and make recommendations for investing the money now allocated to school funding so our children are ready for school and life."

There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. There is no argument that the years before our children's third birthdays are pivotal in setting up their ability to learn, to succeed in school and to have more options in life. Now, for the first time in Memphis, early childhood development is where it should be -- at the top of our city's agenda.

For that, we can thank The Urban Child Institute, a unique hub of research, policy development and action in Memphis that for more than a decade has been intentional, tireless and determined in getting out the word about the importance of optimal brain development of our youngest children because it allows them to achieve their personal potential. More to the point, it is also crucial in determining whether Memphis achieves its full potential.

As Wharton's education committee begins its work, I am reminded of this research finding reported by The Urban Child Institute: A child's brain doubles in size in the first year of life, and by age 3 it has reached 80 percent of its adult volume; however, less than 2.5 percent of all public investments in education at all levels go to children under the age of 3. It's an eye-opening conclusion and the kind being released every day by the institute's researchers and staff -- and one that shows that the mayor is right in focusing on the early years when a child's brain is wired to learn.

As our city becomes known as a city that cares for its children, all of us need to know the facts about the nexus between brain development and kindergarten readiness. I encourage all Memphians to subscribe to the newsletter of The Urban Child Institute. It is a reliable source for the facts, compelling insights and interesting observations that arm us to be the strongest possible advocates for our children.

In addition, if you have children, or if you belong to an organization that serves children, or if your house of worship has a nursery, The Urban Child Institute's Touch Talk Read Play initiative serves prominently as a reminder about how simple it is to encourage healthy brain development and how it doesn't cost a thing.

In this age of talking points, here are mine: "Early experiences can translate into school readiness, academic success and lifetime well-being. Success builds upon success. When more children in a community are ready to learn, communitywide levels of human and social capital rise. From the ages of 0 to 3, a baby's brain grows to 80 percent of its adult size and is twice as active as an adult's brain. In combating the issues facing Memphis youth today, it's hard to imagine that there is any stage of life more important."

Nancy Coffee is president and CEO of the Leadership Academy in Memphis.

This article was originally published by the Commercial Appeal at: http://www.commercialappeal.com/news/2012/apr/07/guest-column-youngest-citizens-rightfully-lead/

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