Letters to the Editor

Leveling the playing field for all young people

We reflect as education professionals on how we can do more to close the pervasive opportunity gaps locally and nationally. Barack Obama once said: “In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education.”

Study after study has shown that the foundation for a “world-class education” and a child’s success starts before a child begins kindergarten.

But in an era of tight budgets and where 70 percent of pre-kindergarten aged children don’t attend a licensed preschool, how do we ensure a level playing field for all young people?

That was a problem we set out to solve at the SIUE East St. Louis Center. Two years ago, we launched the Kindergarten Readiness Camp to help kids who weren’t able to attend early childhood programs get ready to start school on a par with their more advantaged peers.

The camp offers a five-week program designed to teach kids the basic skills they would need to be successful in school. While the lessons focus on writing, math, language, art, and science, the curriculum was built to ensure the children were learning the non-cognitive skills they need to succeed in a classroom setting. These skills include social capabilities such as taking turns, sharing and listening, basic classroom behaviors, and learning to ask questions when you need more help. We also focused on building a set of skills called “executive function skills” which emphasize cognitive flexibility, working memory, and inhibitory control. That way when the kids start kindergarten, they can hit the ground running, rather than having to learn “how to do school.”

While the program is still new, the data shows the program has been a success. The children learned the routines, made friends faster than anticipated, and showed measureable improvements on their ability to focus and learn. Every parent reported positive impacts on their kids’ behaviors. And many of those parents took a more active role in their children’s education.

Community partners have taken notice. The Boeing Company donated funds that allowed us to double the size of the program this year. And while many know Boeing for the airplanes they build, or as the company that employs more than 14,000 people in our region, what too often gets overlooked is the company’s commitment to our community.

This has been a company tenet from the early days and lives on today as the company and its employees are on track to donate $167 million this year alone — boosting programs like ours in cities around the country. All of our nation’s successful businesses have a role to play in ensuring that children have the strong educational foundation it takes to succeed.

For us, Boeing’s support has been critical as we work to close the opportunity gaps in our region. We believe that a “world-class education” for all students is possible and starting early is essential.

Jesse Dixon is executive director of the SIUE East St. Louis Center.