Robyn Lightcap

COMMENTARY: There are things we can do to help struggling students

By Robyn Lightcap and Shannon Jones

Too often, children who start behind, stay behind.

Of course, there are individual exceptions, but this reality is especially true for Ohio children who are African-American, growing up poor, or who live in Appalachia.

Look at any measure of children’s well-being in the early years — low birth weight, exposure to trauma, access to health care, attendance at a quality Preschool, third-grade reading proficiency — and you’ll see that many of our kids never get past the fact that they didn’t get a good — or a fair — start in life.

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When kids don’t realize their potential, we all pay in higher taxes for everything from special-ed teachers to prison guards.

A new report, “From the Ground Up: Unearthing Fairness for Ohio Kids,” documents just how hard it is for kids to overcome disadvantages early in life. Looking at 25 measures of children’s health and achievement, their trajectory is predictable.

Children who start kindergarten behind often are poor readers in third-grade. Poor readers tend to struggle with eighth-grade math, and success in middle-school math is a good predictor of whether a student will go on to graduate from high school. If a young person doesn’t graduate, he or she is not going to college, and probably will have a hard time doing the reading or math that’s required to earn a credential.

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Early disadvantages invariably compound. Think about compounding interest. If you don’t save when you’re young, you won’t have a nest egg in retirement; you can’t fix your failure to plan by opening a savings account or 401(k) at age 55.

The same is true when it comes to investing in children. If we don’t invest in children when they’re young, they almost certainly will have difficulty throughout their lives.

Did you know that just 40 percent of Ohio’s kindergarteners test fully ready to learn at the start of the school year and that only 43 percent of our workforce has a two-year or four-year degree, or credential? It’s not surprising that those two numbers are nearly identical. Aren’t those statistics a call to action considering that by 2020, 65 percent of all jobs will require a degree or credential?

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Data about large numbers of children is not destiny for individual kids. But the tragic story the statistics show should compel us to make better public policy.

It makes financial sense to:

— Support home-visiting programs for new moms, so babies will be healthier.

— Prevent incidences of lead poisoning that can impair children’s brain development.

— Invest in high quality child care and Preschool so children aren’t held back in school or require expensive social and academic interventions.

— Treat children’s asthma so kids don’t miss school or need costly hospital stays.

— Ensure all children are reading on grade-level in 3rd grade so they can master the challenging work that’s ahead.

Ohio’s financial commitments don’t recognize just how much we can pave the way for children to succeed by supporting them in the early years. We spend almost $10.5 billion on K-12 education, but not even $1 billion on children’s health and growth from birth to age 5. The first five years of life are when the brain is developing the fastest and being hard-wired for all future learning. We can’t miss that chance to give children a chance!

Finally, if we believe that all children deserve a fair shot at the American Dream and the opportunity to be successful, we also have to look at who is being left behind. When a child’s health and educational achievement are predictable by race, geography or class, it’s on us to fix that tragic injustice.

JOIN THE CONVERSATION: The Path Forward: Dayton Schools Facebook group

Robyn Lightcap is executive director of the Dayton-Montgomery County Preschool Promise, which is helping to ensure that all 4-year-olds have the opportunity to attend a quality preschool. She is board chair of Groundwork Ohio, where Shannon Jones is executive director.