For PNC, early childhood education is a priority

PEORIA — Early childhood education is more than a passing fancy for employees of PNC Financial Services Group.

The Pittsburgh-based bank, with offices at 301 SW Adams St., has created a $350 million, bilingual initiative that has served more than 3 million children since it was started in 2004.

PNC focuses on the knowledge that a critical time in an individual’s development comes between birth and age 5 when the brain develops rapidly.

After polling its employees on what kind of philanthropic outreach the bank should take, PNC opted to develop its “Grow Up Great” initiative across 22 states and Washington, D.C., focusing on funding efforts like Peoria County’s Bright Futures program.

“Early childhood education is so important. It’s become a rallying cry for employees. They’re more engaged,” said Louis Costello, a PNC executive VP who serves as head of regional markets.

“Last year, 99 central Illinois employees volunteered for Grow Up Great, totaling 854 hours. Since the inception of the program, nearly 900 employees have volunteered for a total of 6,500 hours,” he said.

Employees who volunteer at least 40 hours in a 12-month period can earn a $1,000 or a $3,000 grant, dependent on team sizethat is donated to a preschool in the employee’s name, said Costello, adding that central Illinois PNC employees have earned 46 grants totaling $126,500 since 2011.

“We learned that the average pre-K teacher was spending $500 a year in school supplies — on their own. By offering a program that allows teachers to be reimbursed for specific projects, we feel we’re making a difference,” he said.

Brian Ray, PNC’s regional president for central Illinois, cited the bank’s commitment to early education. “PNC shows up with more than just a check. Teachers are most appreciative when employees visit the school,” he said.

“Getting everybody to be aware of the importance of early childhood education is so important. The gap is getting bigger and bigger between those who receive early childhood development and those who don’t,” Ray said.

One of the groups that appreciates PNC’s participation is Bright Futures, the preschool umbrella for Peoria County that serves 13 school districts, said director Erin Stout, adding that the Peoria Public School District has its own early education program.

“The Early Childhood Block Grant provides parenting support and free preschool in the communities we serve. PNC helps fund the extra pieces needed. When we were without a budget for several years, it was nice to have PNC place a focus on early childhood education,” she said.

Bright Futures screens the children that enter the preschools they serve, Stout said. “We have 630 children enrolled in the fall, so we travel about the county — all 600 square miles — for screening that starts in the summer. That includes home visits for every family. It’s a lot less threatening for a child to meet a teacher on home territory,” she said.

“The importance of getting an early childhood education has always been there, but it’s become even more accepted in the last five to seven years,” Stout said.

“The most important thing is the social and emotional development of a child. Kindergarten teachers are not as concerned with a child’s knowledge of numbers and letters. They can teach that,” she said.

Early learning provides four major benefits, noted James Heckman, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and a Nobel laureate.

— Early childhood development can prevent the achievement gap between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers.

— Studies have shown that early education can improve health outcomes for disadvantaged youth.

— A recent study of disadvantaged youth in Jamaica found that early intervention resulted in a boost in earnings for those children when they reached adulthood.

— The rate of return for investments in quality early childhood development for disadvantaged youth is 7 percent to 10 percent per year through better outcomes in education, health, sociability, economic productivity and reduced crime.

Steve Tarter covers city and county government for the Journal Star. He can be reached at 686-3260 or Follow him at Twitter@SteveTarter and 

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