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Turn the Page

By Kansas City (MO) Mayor Sylvester "Sly" James, Jr.
June 4, 2012

We are deliberately challenging the way we think of economic development in Kansas City.

Only 19 percent of students in our central city school district can read at a proficient level by the time they finish 3rd grade. If we expand that to include our surrounding school districts and charters, our proficiency level only rises to 33.8 percent. It is simply unacceptable and nearly impossible to build an economy of the future based on those numbers.

We are losing too much human capital, too much talent and too much intelligence. Kansas City is committed to providing the energy and resources to get every one of our children reading at an appropriate level by the time they get to 3rd grade. This is our most important economic development goal.

We know that 85 percent of a personís brain development occurs in the first three years of life. Yet, only five percent of our public investments are devoted to those years. Mayors are at the center of changing that equation.

Yet, the ratio of investment versus return in early education is the clearest cost benefit analysis I have seen. For every dollar invested in early learning, we save $12 in eventual costs. Each high school dropout costs us about $260,000 over his.her lifetime in additional social services or decreased economic productivity.

We absolutely can change this dynamic.

Kansas City is in the process of forming Turn the Page KC, Inc., an organization that will provide the framework for collective community action to achieve reading proficiency for third graders in Kansas City. It will be responsible for consistent assessment to improve, measure and track performance and bridge current gaps in educational programming.

"Turning the Page" on this vitally important issue wonít happen in one year, or three, however. Kansas City is focused instead on a generational change and the sustained effort required to achieve reading proficiency for our cityís children. This includes a framework for coordinated communication among school districts and a wide array of community partners to target the prime audiences of parents, children, educators, political and civic leadership and volunteers. With a mixture of public, private and philanthropic dollars, Turn the Page KC will execute a plan to achieve its goals, piloting recommended programs in keystone areas of the urban core.

Reading Proficiency Goal: In 2017, 70 percent of third graders in Kansas City will read at or above grade level based on performance in the top 30 percent of the grade level. This goal will require an average annual increase of eight percent in the number of students who score proficient or above on third grade reading tests, which translates to an increase of approximately 466 third grade students each year.

School Attendance Goal: In 2017, 95 percent of students enrolled in grades K-3 in Kansas City will attend school 95 percent of the time.

School Readiness Goal: By 2013, existing and additional partners will develop and begin to implement an agreed-upon framework for determining, assessing and promoting school readiness. In 2015, participation in early learning programs among children in Kansas City will be increased by 20 percent over the baseline number established in 2013. In 2017, 20 percent gains will be realized from the baseline results of school readiness assessments collected in 2015. We are committed to seeing that 10 percent gains in participation will be realized for each year thereafter.

Summer Learning Goal: By 2013, school districts and non-district providers (libraries, after'school and summer learning centers) will be sharing assessment data to measure and track student performance improvements based on program participation In 2015, 50 percent of students in grades K-3 in Kansas City who are reading below grade level will attend a summer reading program. In 2017, that number will be 70 percent, with ten percent annual improvement in that number thereafter.

Volunteer Goal: The Kansas City community will donate at least 750,000 volunteer hours each year to elevate early literacy through mentoring and other adult-to-child activities.

The simple truth is Kansas City has an amazing opportunity in the next few years, to remake itself into a hub of ideas and innovation, excitement and entrepreneurship. We have already begun, and the world seems to be noticing.

This view of economic development recognizes that investments in people are far more important long term than investments in buildings and equipment. If we are to be a city that fully takes advantage of this moment, then we must be a city that recognizes that education is an economic development issue.

We are committed to ensuring that every child born in Kansas City is treated as an essential part of our prosperous future. Growing talent is essential. If we accept that premise, then we must make choices that reflect that priority. Not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it is the smart thing to do.