Fueling the Literacy Engine

There’s an ambitious plan guiding the work of Shelby County educators for the next decade, a plan that, if successful, may provide Memphis and the surrounding communities with a bright and skilled workforce by 2025.

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The school board and the district have agreed upon what they’ve dubbed the 80/90/100 Plan, which seeks to ensure that 90% of all high school students will graduate, that 80% of all students are career and college-ready when they graduate, and that 100% of these career and college-ready students will go on to enroll in a post-secondary education program.

This is the type of ambitious thinking that should grip the imagination of anyone with a stake in the future of our metro area—parents and non-parents alike. A region with a highly skilled, adaptable workforce looks good to investors. It looks good to huge corporations and mid-size companies that need capable employees to do their work. And it looks good to small business operators that need to make the most of their resources.

Literacy begins long before kindergarten.

However, much of the new science in the field of early childhood development says we can’t wait until the traditional school years to begin getting serious about education. While the 80/90/100 plan is valuable, recent studies are packed with eye-opening findings that consistently send the same message: students need early childhood education resources as early as possible.

Scientists have learned that children not reading proficiently at grade 3 are 4 times more likely to drop out of high school. They have identified early predictors of dropout in children before they are enrolled in kindergarten. They’ve also shown that fundamental cognitive and language skills are learned before school age. A deficit in the early years carries over into kindergarten and elementary school, where it becomes increasingly harder to catch up.

Research supports targeting children early, before kindergarten, and doing all we can to ensure they have positive experiences that promote a strong foundation of early skills—especially language and pre-literacy skills, since reading ability underlies effective learning.

Literacy-related programs need and deserve our support.

This puts Memphis in a lucky spot, as we have a web of resources in place that target early literacy. Putting our collective weight behind programs like Shelby County Books from Birth can get books in front of kids starting in the first weeks of their lives. Groups like the Memphis Literacy Council and Literacy Mid-South have a constant need for funding, volunteers, and profile boosting, and are constantly on the lookout for invested partners in the community. The Memphis Public Library system and the many schools in our region make it easy to get involved in their literacy programs, and are always in need of donations—of money, time, or other resources.

Many programs like these are constantly at risk. Often they fall victim to budget cuts. In other cases, they may be so resource-starved that they never reach their potential. Community stakeholders—from business leaders, civic activists, and nonprofit workers to childcare professionals and parents—can ensure a brighter future for Memphis and Shelby County by supporting policies and programs that strengthen early literacy.

Our community has the resources needed to become even more competitive as a city, but we need to cultivate those resources expertly. Our children are our greatest resource for building a brighter future. Science gives us the knowledge, and policies like the 80/90/100 Plan give us clear goals. Now, it’s up to us as individuals and as a community to make the right choice and make meaningful investments in early childhood.