As Shawnee County moves closer to the implementation of Momentum 2022 — a strategic plan to improve quality of life, spur economic development and attract new people to our community over the next five years — we must remember the vital role that education will play in this process. And we’re not just talking about secondary and postsecondary attainment — primary education and even early childhood development are also indispensable for the creation of a more dynamic and stable workforce.
The Market Street Community Assessment for Shawnee County was released a year ago, and its authors emphasized what’s sometimes described as the cradle-to-careers pipeline: “There are numerous studies that document the benefits associated with early childhood education and the lifelong impact that it has on an individual’s well-being.” One of these studies is the Abecedarian Project, which was conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina over the course of several decades (starting in the early 1970s).
After dividing infants into a control group and a group that received a “high-quality educational intervention” until age 5, Abecedarian researchers tracked outcomes across various metrics at ages 12, 15, 21, 30 and 35. At age 15, children who received the early childhood intervention had higher IQ scores and performed better on standardized tests than those in the control group. By age 21, they were more likely to pursue a bachelor’s degree or hold a skilled job. By age 30, they were more likely to “hold a bachelor’s degree, hold a job and delay parenthood.” Participants built on these advantages through age 35, and this “led to increased earnings and decreased reliance on social assistance.”
These are just a few of the reasons why Market Street is right to stress the economic value of such early childhood development centers as Pine Ridge Prep, which is located in Topeka’s largest public housing district. It’s particularly important to focus on children in low-income neighborhoods because they don’t have access to the same educational resources as children in more affluent parts of town. As the North Carolina researchers explain, “Enriched early education environments can help children surmount some of the disadvantages of poverty.” Not only will this lead to a more independent, better-trained workforce, but it also gives these children a chance to pursue their ambitions and live more fulfilling lives.
The executive director of the Topeka Housing Authority, Trey George, highlights the connection between early childhood education and economic development: “Anything we can do to better prepare these kids is important. We’re all focused on creating a stronger workforce for Topeka.”
One of the largest obstacles to preparing young Topekans for successful careers is the gaping socioeconomic divide in our education system. From huge racial disparities on ACT performance to the disproportionate economic hardships faced by students at USD 501 (more than 77 percent of whom were eligible for free and reduced-price lunches in the 2013-2014 school year), Shawnee County should be doing everything possible to put young people in a stronger position to succeed.
As the research indicates, early childhood education initiatives like Pine Ridge Prep — which has grown dramatically over the past five years — are among the best ways to do this.
Members of The Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board are Zach Ahrens, Matt Johnson, Ray Beers Jr., Laura Burton, Garry Cushinberry, Mike Hall, Jessica Lucas, Veronica Padilla and John Stauffer.