Opinion by Robert J. Feikema, President and CEO, Family Services
As published in the Winston-Salem Journal, November 2, 2016

The Wake Forest Innovation Quarter is one of the finest examples of industrial site repurposing in the country. Twenty-five years in the making, it began as a response to an economy reeling from a devastating series of job losses in the 1980s. Back then, when civic, business and university leaders gazed across the acres of idle tobacco factories and warehouses east of downtown, they didn’t see a glass almost empty; they saw huge potential. Bringing their vision to fruition required major investments of public and private dollars — approximately $500 million to date — in order to create what is now one of the fastest-growing hubs for innovation in biomedical science and information technology in the United States.

Now, as the Innovation Quarter promises to revitalize our economy, our city must reach once again for the glass-half-full and address a different set of challenges. It must contend with a crisis in the ability of our children to participate in a revitalized economy. The new jobs of the knowledge-based economy are present, but will our workforce be prepared to fill them?

Our city’s earlier crisis required capital investments. The future vitality of our city will require investments in human capital. And just as the Innovation Quarter targeted strategic investments in the community’s potential for growth in the health and technology fields, the current challenge is to target strategic investments in our children during the years when their potential is greatest — from birth to five.

Tremendous progress has been made on increasing the high-school graduation rate, yet the needle has moved little on increasing student proficiency scores. Nearly half of third-grade students are not achieving proficiency in reading. That rate rises to approximately two-thirds for African-American and Hispanic students, which is of concern given the fact that a majority of children under age five in Forsyth County live in minority households. This reality will grow more daunting if we continue to allow 34 percent of our children under five to live in poverty in Forsyth County.

These circumstances produce what Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam refers to as the “opportunity gap” in his New York Times bestselling book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. He documents how rising inequality has left too many families without the resources and supports they need to build their children’s well-being. This opportunity gap is most critical during the earliest years of life when the brain architecture of children is developing most rapidly. Putnam spoke Tuesday, November 1, at a benefit luncheon Family Services hosted for our community.

The good news is that we have the power to close the opportunity gap. We already know that pre-kindergarten (Pre-K) programs have a track record of paying big dividends. Studies show that children enrolled in high-quality pre-K programs have improved test scores, better verbal skills, more developed social-emotional skills and longer attention spans, all factors leading to success in school — and in life. Children who participate in these programs are more likely to graduate from high school and attend and graduate from college. As adults they are more likely to be employed and own a home. Economists have documented a $7 return on every $1 spent on quality pre-K programs.

The time has come for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County to join the ranks of forward-thinking municipalities across the country and begin to plan for the implementation of a universal pre-K system that gives every child the opportunity to achieve his or her full potential. Initial investments in early childhood development are already being made through such initiatives as the Forsyth Promise, the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust’s Great Expectations, Family Services Head Start and Early Head Start Child Development programs and Project Impact. The latter is spearheaded by Reynolds American — whose gifting of former factories and warehouses spurred the growth of the Innovation Quarter — with a goal of raising $45 million over six years, a significant portion of which will help to increase the number of pre-K classrooms in the county.

This is only the beginning. Establishing a universal pre-K system is a complex undertaking. It requires long-range vision and a detailed master plan. That’s why Family Services convened the Universal Pre-K Initiative and published its position paper that identifies strategic elements required to achieve this opportunity for all children. (Go to: www.familyservicesforsyth.org/ItsWorking) Such a system will not fulfill its promise without setting uniform, high quality program standards; adequately compensating teachers; promoting family engagement; offering a choice of providers; fostering diverse enrollment; and gaining community-wide support.

We will all benefit most when every child has the opportunity to grow up to become truly remarkable and contribute his or her special gifts and talents to the future economic and social vitality of our community. The future starts with here, with all our children, who deserve nothing less.