Kenney’s pre-K plan deserves support

Original Article: Philadelphia Tribune

Universal Companies applaud the leadership of Mayor Kenney in identifying early childhood education and community schools as part of his budget priorities, and we encourage City Council to work in tandem with the mayor to fully fund both priorities.

Early childhood education and community schools are crucial in ensuring our children are productive in the 21st century and reducing the poverty plaguing too many Philadelphia neighborhoods, particularly in the African-American community. Universal believes that if these programmatic priorities are aggressively pursued and properly implemented, we can actually begin to address the unacceptable reality that Philadelphia’s African-American community is marked by systematic marginalization and intractable poverty to which an inadequate education system has largely contributed. Mayor Kenney, by objectively investing in proven strategies, can begin to change that status quo.

There is strong empirical evidence to support the Mayor’s early childhood education priority. As a manager of elementary schools, Universal knows firsthand the challenge of educating children who are woefully behind academically even before their first day of kindergarten. Because children’s academic potential and behavioral skills are shaped largely during their early years and there have been empirical data that shows as much as 80 percent of a child’s brain development occurs in the first five years of life, we can no longer allow our children to lag behind. It is imperative that we support our young children during this most critical period – they require strong family support and loving, knowledgeable and qualified teachers who build essential literacy, behavioral, coping and social skills.

The challenge is that far too many of our children grow up in households where TV acts as babysitters and parents and caregivers have no access to quality early childhood education. These children inevitably arrive in kindergarten woefully behind; and more often than not stay behind throughout their entire academic careers — their futures are doomed from the start. Implementing the Mayor’s program can help reverse those predictable outcomes for a significant number of our students.

Universal has been an innovative leader in implementing the “community school” model and has a Family Student Resource Center (“FSRC”) in all 8 of our charter schools in Philadelphia. Universal’s community schools focuses on servicing the “whole” child, as well as the communities where the children and their families reside. Universal schools are also meeting and organizational HUBs for the community and the FSRCs provide a bundle of external support services, including case management, family counseling, adult education and food banks that support students, parents and community residents. Another innovation at all Universal’s schools are our school based health centers, introduced last year and staffed with nurse practitioners and medical assistants to ensure students receive the highest level of health care. Universal’s leadership with respect to community schools and FSRCs are being duplicated by the School District and other local charter schools.

Like Universal, Mayor Kenney understands that too many Philadelphia students come to school not prepared to learn, due to the many issues outside the classroom and in their neighborhoods and homes, such as hunger, lack of adequate health care, trauma induced stress, homelessness, violence, and drugs. These conditions contribute to long term student absences, lateness and challenge their ability to concentrate and commit to the learning at hand. Mayor Kenney’s education strategy is to smartly invest in community schools to help students and families address issues, which if not addressed, will compromise the student’s ability to succeed academically and further contribute to the decline in the neighborhoods surrounding their schools.

Based on current realities and the potential for progress, Universal wholeheartedly supports Mayor Kenney’s plan to raise nearly $300 Million to invest in early childhood education and community schools. For a cash strapped city like Philadelphia, identifying and pursuing resources of this magnitude to invest in new initiatives is both difficult as a matter of public policy and politics – this rarely happens even if it is the right thing to do. Mayor Kenney, in his first budget proposal, has remained true to his campaign promises and demonstrated unwavering leadership on these two important issues.

Very few people disagree on the importance of these programs, but there is some disagreement as to how to cover the cost. However, instead of increasing real estate or business taxes, the Mayor has proposed funding through a combination of a tax on sugary drinks and soliciting support in the private sector. It is not surprising that big soda companies oppose this tax, given that it will have an economic impact on their bottom lines and customers. However, the Mayor’s plan, like the cigarette tax and other sin taxes, will over time have a dual impact. First, it will produce new revenue to support pre-k funding and community schools, while over time it will reduce the intake of drinks that contribute to the disproportionate health disparities that affect African Americans, like obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. Big soda’s opposition to the Mayor’s tax is purely economic and their priorities in this regard are not the welfare of our children or our struggling neighborhoods.

It is important to note that Mayor Kenney’s proposed programs will reduce poverty and strengthen public education; both are paramount issues impacting the African-American community and our children. These programs will breathe new life into many of our struggling schools and contribute to reversing the negative demographics that define our most challenged communities. Although we acknowledge the proposal will have an impact on Universal’s constituents, we honestly believe the benefits to our constituents, their children and our communities outweigh the costs.

We encourage your support for the Mayor’s program!

Rahim Islam is president/CEO of the Universal Companies.

Posted: March 30th, 2016