Rightfully, community leaders and educators around the country have turned their focus and dollars to programs that support early childhood development. We have learned the architecture of the brain - the circuits and neural connections - is established in the first few years of a child’s life and reinforced as he grows older. It’s this architecture that “provides the foundation for all future learning, behavior and health.” The foundation can be strong, or, as is too often the case among children from impoverished families, it can be weak, only serving to reinforce the factors that maintain generational poverty.
With a new focus on the science of early childhood development, we seem to be getting closer to real data-proven education policies. High-quality early childhood education improves the cognitive development of children, which better enables them to cross the third-grade reading threshold, which gives them a stronger academic foundation, which sets them up for future career success.
In the education world, data is difficult to assess and even harder to create policies around. There are so many factors that affect a child’s outcomes - few of which can be boiled down to mathematical equations. In the mathematical equation above, there’s a gaping hole between future success and a stronger academic foundation: we’re overlooking the perilous, high-risk juncture called adolescence.
Our education agendas now push policies directed at kids between birth and eight years old. But what happens to kids once they turn 9? What, especially, happens to them when they leave the comforts and cuteness of elementary school? Will we send them to the same dropout factories (Tulsa Public Schools’ 2015 graduation rates were a measly 63 percent)? Will we continue to see an abysmal dearth in extracurricular activities dedicated to low-income middle- and high-school aged kids in our community?
Do we really expect that all the dollars we spent on providing kids a solid cognitive foundation in the first 8 years of their lives will ensure they build a great academic fortress for themselves in later years, in spite of the fact we don’t provide the support adolescents need?
Funneling money and resources to this hot-button (albeit worthy) issue of the moment without addressing the long-term nature of a person’s life, ensures what we invest pays only minimal dividends. If we don’t also invest in the programs, institutions and resources that support and provide high-quality educational opportunities that prepare them for college or a career to adolescents in our community, they will be ill-prepared to climb the ladder of social mobility out of poverty. They will be underprepared for the demands of “real world” and will be unable to meet the demands of our economy.
Lastly, what about the teenagers in high school right now - the ones that missed the golden era of early childhood development in the education world? Whether we like it or not, these are the young adults who will next inherit the communities that comprise our city, t
he cities that comprise our state, and the states that comprise our country. Will we justify our negligence by saying they’re “too far gone”? Will we shrug and assert we’ll do better with the generation behind them?
In failing to support the teenagers in our community who will be tomorrow’s parents, leaders, employees and employers, we are not only failing to tap into one of our city’s greatest assets, we are also spinning the wheels of the cycle of poverty.
If you’re reading this, you’ve been an adolescent. You probably shudder as you remember just how terrible a time it was in your life. Between the hormones, the constant sense of being the butt of every joke, the difficult choices you had to make about being responsible or fitting in, the inability to see anything beyond “right now” and “right here”, and the overall angst of teenage life - it is, without a doubt, inherently the hardest part of a person’s life. But you may also remember that it was this time in your life when you were most impressionable - that any push or pull in any direction would send you running that way, for better or for worse.
When we create positive environments in which teenagers in our community can find refuge, explore their identity, and develop their personal and professional skills, we can ensure that we’re creating future parents, leaders, employees, employers and community members that have learned to use their talents and strengths for the benefit of themselves, their families and their whole community. Tomorrow isn’t far off; if our mission is to leave the world better than we found it, fulfilling that mission will be for naught until we prepare the next generation to nurture and build upon what we’ve created.
Sure, they’re not as cute as pre-K and elementary-aged kids. They are filled with that infamous angst, and they’ve got a relentless attitude sometimes. They are challenging and sometimes difficult to work with. But as I used to tell my 8th-grade students every day: they are intelligent, they are good, they are capable and they are important.
Most of all, they need us and, frankly, we need them.