Almost 10 years ago, Leadership Memphis pioneered the issue of talent in Memphis, and its research and work led to the creation of the Memphis Talent Dividend, Graduate Memphis, and Success High Schools. All three of these programs have the same target: to increase the number of college graduates in Memphis.
Research conducted for Leadership Memphis showed that a 1% increase in college graduates translates into a $1 billion economic impact on the region’s bottom line. For Leadership Memphis President/CEO David Williams, increasing educational attainment is not just about today’s workers. It’s also about tomorrow’s parents, and the social and emotional development of their children.
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Avoiding the Cliff and Breaking the Cycle
What’s the connection between these issues? Better-educated parents have higher incomes and higher family incomes are linked to better outcomes for children. More education is also associated with greater parental responsiveness, and parents’ responsiveness is a key predictor of a child’s social and emotional skills.
It doesn’t mean that parents without high school diplomas or college degrees are uncaring, but it means that their lives have, on average, more stress, pressures, and more instability. As Robert Putnam points out in his recent book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, children of educated parents, especially married parents, are thriving because they have better odds for optimal social and emotional development. As a result, Putnam writes that family background today is a better predictor of whether a child will graduate from college than eighth grade test scores.
Education influences parenting knowledge and beliefs, which, in turn, affect parenting practices and the quality of home environments. For example, more highly educated parents have more time to nurture and are more responsive, they have more reading and learning materials in the home, and their children tend to have better social and emotional outcomes throughout their lives.
Leadership Memphis’ Success High Schools program has the singular focus of helping students continue their education after high school, whether it is in a two-year community college or technical school, a four-year college, or the military. “It’s about anything beyond a high school diploma,” said Williams. “If you take the high school students we’re working with and get them to continue their education, for every year they continue, the more likely they are to delay the starting of a family and to become better educated.
“In other words, we are working to increase the educational attainment level of the next generation of parents and to create a ‘lift factor’. We are not trying to reinvent education – there are other people doing that really well - we are trying to create opportunity for kids who could fall off the cliff, and if they fall off the cliff, they will start their own families and the cycle continues.”
Finding the Right Answer to the Right Question
In other words, Williams said, Success High Schools is working to improve the trajectory of the community through direct interventions that prepare tomorrow’s children for success in their classrooms by improving outcomes for students in classrooms today.
So, exactly, how can Memphis and Shelby County improve early childhood development?
Williams takes a lesson from the Memphis Talent Dividend project, which brought more than 100 community partners – faith-based, education, nonprofits, philanthropy, colleges and universities, and Shelby County Schools – together behind the shared goal of increasing educational attainment. “Like any collaboration, all of the partners are already working hard and doing important things, and we want that to continue,” he said. “But the question that we set out to answer was: ‘What can we do together that we can’t do alone?’”
In answering that question, our community builds on the momentum and partnerships already in place, and even more to the point, it creates bolder dreams for the future and then sets out to make them a reality for the children of Memphis and Shelby County.