Early childhood initiative: The future is in the beginning

One of the best parts of my job is talking with business leaders about how we can work together to drive the Triad’s economy forward. Many of us have collaborated on initiatives to attract new businesses, leverage the assets of our diverse community, retain the best talent, and make investments that will drive innovation.

With those goals in mind, a group of business, nonprofit and foundation leaders are working together on an initiative to boost our community’s long-term economic outlook. It will help build the critical thinking and “soft skills” needed in our future workforce. It increases the tax base and helps drive down crime. And, it will help prepare students for success should Guilford County be selected the next Say Yes to Education Community. Best of all, it leverages dollars that are already at work in our community.

How’s that for strong ROI?

Ready for School, Ready for Life is a community-led effort that will transform the early childhood system in Guilford County. Parents, caregivers, early childhood professionals, service providers, business leaders, nonprofits and government agencies will join together to forge a new vision for early childhood. Together, they’ll identify what is working well, what’s not working, and what needs to change to create better outcomes for young children and their families.

Think of it as strategic planning for how our community will deliver a high-quality early childhood experience to each of our estimated 50,000+ “customers” — children under age eight — who live in our county at any one time.

Why should business leaders care about this? The short answer is that we can’t afford to leave any stone unturned when it comes to developing our future workforce. In a recent survey, half of North Carolina employers reported deficiencies in critical thinking and problem-solving abilities among employees, and 60% reported gaps in communication skills. If we are to thrive in the future, we need to make the right investments now.

Like most things, it makes sense to start at the beginning. Research shows that the brain develops most quickly between birth and age eight, and that what a child experiences during this critical time builds the foundation for the rest of his or her life. Investments made early on can reduce the need for remediation later, when “fixes” are more difficult and expensive.

Employers and employees care deeply about this issue. In many cases, a year of childcare costs more than annual tuition at an in-state college or university. Every day, qualified people drop out of our local workforce due to a lack of affordable, high-quality childcare.

Ready for School, Ready for Life will help us focus on what works and align our community’s resources. This means making sure every woman has access to pre-natal care to increase the chances of a healthy pregnancy and delivery. It means providing post-natal care so babies and families have the best possible start. It’s about helping families develop strong relationships with medical caregivers who can serve as partners and trusted advisors. It’s about attracting the best people to work with our youngest children. It’s about investing in parents so that they have the knowledge, skills and confidence to help children grow and thrive.

During the next few months, we will seek out perspectives of people from every part of Guilford County through Family Meetings. Parent Advisory Committees will be established to hold us accountable, and the feedback gathered will be used during a community-wide visioning session next fall. We expect to unveil the new vision by the end of 2015, with visible wins at every step.

We all know that large-scale transformation is never easy. However, we have much to gain from this endeavor and much to lose if we let this opportunity pass us by.

By Terry Akin, Chief Executive Officer, Cone Health System and Co-Chair of Ready for School, Ready for Life (published in Triad Business Journal, April 10, 2015)