When I was growing up, America had the best education system in the world. My parents believed strongly in the value of education and pushed my three siblings and me to excel in school. With their encouragement, we achieved successes that made them proud.
Like many other older adults across Kentucky, my retirement has opened up new opportunities for me to engage with younger people in my community.
Since 1992, I have tutored third-to fifth-graders at several Lexington elementary schools and am closely involved with Rotary International's Youth Exchange Program. It gives local high school students opportunities to trade places with students from countries around the world with a goal toward promoting peace and understanding.
Unfortunately, these experiences underscore for me personally what many studies now show. U.S. students lag their foreign peers, ranking 25th out of 34 countries in math and science.
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Are students in other countries naturally smarter? Probably not. Do they have a better work ethic? Possibly. Do they attend school longer hours? Definitely. But what strikes me is just how many other countries start education much earlier in life.
The Christmas season is a time to reflect, prepare and give. With the elections behind us and tough fiscal choices ahead, now is the time for Kentuckians of all ages to think about our future.
How do we regain our lost prestige in the world? And what can folks like me do to help future generations better compete?
In this season of giving, we must commit to focusing policy-maker attention on what our vulnerable young children really need: investments that prepare them for success in school and life.
Decades of research show that children (and taxpayers of all ages) benefit greatly from early childhood investments. At-risk children whose parents participate in voluntary home visiting programs have higher cognitive, vocabulary, reading and math scores by age 6.
In the short-term, qualit y early learning programs like the Kentucky Preschool Program help reduce grade repetition and special education services.
And the long-term intergenerational benefits include: higher high school graduation rates, lower rates of teen pregnancy, reduced crime, and higher employment rates and earnings contributing to Kentucky's fiscal balance.
How can we begin today to create the skilled future work force of tomorrow? Let's start by boosting enrollment eligibility in the Kentucky Preschool Program from 150 percent to 200 percent of the poverty level. This would give almost 4,000 more 4-year-olds and their families access to a quality early education.
We also need to replace declining tobacco settlement funds for early childhood services like the Health Access Nurturing Development Services, a voluntary program that matches parents with trained professionals who make regular home visits to provide information and support during pregnancy and up to the child's second birthday. Parents with high risk factors such as poverty, teen pregnancy and low education levels qualify.
Older adults have a particular role to play in this effort if we are to succeed.
According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation's 2012 "Kids Count" report, the number of Kentucky grandparents, aunts, uncles or family friends filling the role of parent has doubled in the past decade.
As volunteers, mentors, engaged voters and grandparents, older Kentuckians form the roots of our communities.