Kentucky voices: Everyone has a responsibility to help educate our children

Whether it's a PTA meeting, political dialogue, the latest afternoon talk show or the American Teacher documentary, it seems everyone's talking about how to improve public education in America.

United Way of the Bluegrass welcomes this conversation. We believe education is a building block for a good quality of life. It's essential to getting a job with a good wage and health benefits. An educated work force is fundamental to a community's economic prosperity and to a person's quality of life

It's a tragedy that 1 million youth across America will drop out of school next year. Here in Central Kentucky, two students drop out of school every single day. Without a high school diploma, these youth are more likely to spend their lives periodically unemployed, on government assistance or cycling in and out of prison.

We all pay the price. Each dropout costs the nation approximately $260,000 over their lifetime, according to research conducted at Princeton University. If we prevent just 1,000 of those students from dropping out, it would mean $15 million in additional earnings each year, and some $1.8 million more in revenue each year for state and local governments. And just as important, a student who stays in school creates the opportunity for a brighter future — for themselves and their community.

This makes education everyone's business. Here in the Bluegrass, United Way is focused on recruiting people with passion, expertise and resources to make things happen in education. People in this community are giving, advocating and volunteering to support our children's education. Through investments in United Way, programs like Countdown to Kindergarten are making certain that children about to enter school for the first time are excited about the idea of learning.

Students are being prepared for the jobs of tomorrow by focusing heavily on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) through Fayette County's STEM Academy and Madison County's STEM Infusion. And United Way's Trailblazers program is pairing experienced adults with children and youth in a reading, tutoring or mentoring role to help ensure that all children are able and ready to succeed. And we need to do more.

Scientific studies show that 85 percent of the brain's development happens before the age of five (before kindergarten). Like a framework for a house, that foundation makes all the difference in the years ahead.

Disadvantaged children come to school at least two years behind their peers in pre-reading and other critical skills, and most never catch up. By the third grade, a child's grades, behavior and absenteeism rates can predict with 80 percent accuracy whether he or she will complete high school.

Good teachers are a key thread to every child's academic success. Effective teaching has been identified as a key driver of educational success. Research shows twice as much variation in student achievement across classrooms as there is between schools, underscoring the impact of teachers on student learning. Supporting teachers and teacher quality is a critical piece of the puzzle.

We also need to focus on what goes on outside school. Only 20 percent of a child's waking hours are spent in school. That means that out-of-school time — after school, weekends, summers — are just as important learning opportunities as the time in classrooms.

Finally, families are essential to education success. When schools, after-school programs and families communicate and support each other, we all win.

From community organizations hiring multilingual staff, to events where families can meet, discuss concerns and share ideas — it is critical to get families involved in their children's education inside and outside the classroom.

It does take a village to ensure a child's success. Our community's resources — human and financial — serve as support from birth through adulthood. United Way's call to action — "Give. Advocate. Volunteer." — is a call to strengthen community resources that support success for children and youth.

Do one thing — today — to make a difference in your community's schools:

Buy a book (or more than one) for your local school

Give financially to support out-of-school time educational programs at www.uwbg.org

Sign up to be a reading tutor in your local elementary school or after-school program by calling 2-1-1

All children deserve a quality education. Together, we can work toward solutions to make that happen.