There is no question that Maine’s future economic prosperity depends on the ability of our youngest residents to succeed in school.
Yet their ability to succeed and graduate depends on their ability to read at grade level by age 8. And their ability to reach that benchmark depends on how well we build the architecture of their brains from the time they are born.
Building a child’s brain architecture is like building a house. Get it right the first time and you don’t have to fix the wiring, the plumbing or the roof later.
The majority of children’s brain architecture is developed by the time they enter kindergarten. It’s built through consistent interactions with caring adults. It’s interrupted when children are exposed to “toxic stress,” which can include conditions like domestic violence, absentee parents, parents with mental illness, or parents who abuse drugs, alcohol and their children. All of these factors can be exacerbated by poverty.
While we have an amazing array of community assets in Waterville – an engaged population, two colleges, two hospitals, the largest art museum in Maine, a thriving downtown, an amazing Opera House, 30 miles of trails — we have staggering challenges. Our median income is significantly lower than the state average. Families with young children here experience high rates of poverty: Some 46 percent of families with children younger than 5 live below the poverty line compared to 16.7 percent for all Waterville families, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. And a significant percentage of households with young children are headed by single women.
We know we need to do a better job of making sure the children living in our city enter kindergarten ready to succeed. For that reason, we are undertaking a long-term, community-wide project to make that happen.
Project 2020, a reference to Maine’s bicentennial coming up in seven years, will engage the many sectors of our community currently working to prevent the disruption of building brain architecture and those who are working with the consequences of that disruption.
We are bringing together the usual and the not-so-usual suspects — from Thomas College to the Waterville Public Library to the Chamber of Commerce and the local Rotary club — to coordinate their work in the most effective way. The goal is to ensure that by 2020, children living in Waterville have the best chance of entering school ready to succeed.
The thinking behind Project 2020 is an outgrowth of research from the Maine Development Foundation on the potentially devastating economic impact of the fact that only 32 percent of Maine children are reading at grade level by grade 4.
Using the latest research on brain development and economic research on the impressive dividends an investment in early childhood returns, we put our heads together as the mayor of Waterville and the president of one of the city’s colleges and teamed up with Educare Central Maine and the John T. Gorman Foundation to harness the energy and resources in the city for achieving the goal of significantly increasing the percentage of children here reading at grade level by the state’s 200th birthday.
Waterville’s fourth grade scores on the New England Common Assessment Program for 2011-12 reveal that 48 percent of our students cannot read at proficient levels or above. The percent rises to 61 for our economically disadvantaged students. The reason raising these scores is so important is that they are highly predictive of future academic performance. Children at this age are transitioning from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” and need to apply reading skills across all content areas, such as science, history, math and literature.
We were fortunate to receive a planning grant from the John T. Gorman Foundation, which, for the next six months, will allow us to develop our strategic plan. We will be engaging the community – service providers of all types, community members and, most importantly, parents of young children – in developing a plan for transformational change, both in people’s lives and in the long-term economic viability of the city.
We have no doubt the challenges will be daunting. We have no doubt that this work is what needs to be done. And, we have no doubt that the people in this city and the organizations serving it are up to the task. More importantly, they’re excited to take it on.
Karen Heck is the mayor of Waterville and a senior program officer at the Bingham Program, an endowment that invests in Maine health initiatives. Laurie Lachance is president of Thomas College in Waterville, a former state economist and former president of the Maine Development Foundation.