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Experts: Early education, better wages will reduce minority achievement gap
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Experts: Early education, better wages will reduce minority achievement gap

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BOYS TOWN -- Nebraska’s achievement gap for minority students is not just a racial issue, it’s an economic one, say education leaders.

Two weeks after Kids Count released its newest policy report, “Race for Results: Building a Path to Opportunity for All Children,” five of Nebraska’s education and social policy experts met with teachers, social workers and community members to talk strategies for closing the gap and helping all children excel.

Race for Results compared children’s well-being based on 12 developmental and educational milestones. Across the nation, minority children fare worse than their white classmates. But in Nebraska, minority kids -- particularly African-American, Latino and Native American -- are worse off than their minority peers in many states, according to the Kids Count report.

There is nothing new about the findings. However, after decades of disparities, the fact that little has been accomplished to reverse the trend is not acceptable, said State Education Commissioner Matthew Blomstedt.

“When we look across the state, we see disparities in hope, and disparities in engagement of students,” Blomstedt said. "When you lack support systems, you see disparities in achievement scores."

By 2018, children of color will represent the majority of children in the U.S. By 2030, people of color will represent the majority of the U.S. workforce, and by 2050 no single racial group will make up a majority of the population, according to Race for Results.

While minority children pay a huge price in cultural intolerance, racism, prejudice and discrimination, the root of the problem is poverty, said Tonia Durden, assistant professor of Child, Youth and Family Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“Poverty is the primary culprit for the dismal outcomes we see,” Durden said.

Sam Meisels, director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, agreed.

“Because of disparities, too many children face impossible odds," Meisels said. "Economical inequality is pervasive and destructive ... The achievement gap is largely attributed to family income. ... That’s why they say children born in poverty are behind before they even reach the starting gate.”

Poverty is growing at a much quicker rate, and the gaps between financial classes are widening, said Ted Stilwill, CEO of the Learning Community in Douglas and Sarpy counties.

“We need to change education policy and turn it on its head, so when we talk early childhood education, we have more intervention services for children in the highest poverty,” Stilwill said.

“For folks in deep poverty, the needs of those children are different and require much more intensive intervention in terms of home, and the education system. We need to do more if we are going to overcome it."

But do what?

Panelists said Nebraska must invest in comprehensive early childhood programs, focusing on families and their children from birth through age 8.

“Eighty-five percent of our neurons are formed in the first few years of life,” Meisels said.

Yet, on average, the U.S. spends about $300 per child on early education -- 33 times less than what it spends on average for a high school student.

“Something about that does not add up,” Meisels said.

Stilwill concurred, saying Nebraska will continue to struggle until it focuses on children through age 8.

The state needs to identify and determine what actually will make a difference, Blomstedt said.

“We need to build a system of supports. ... Not something bright and shiny (like a good test score), but one of stability,” Blomstedt said. “We have to build a system of where these ‘have-to-do's’ are enforced to the benefit of these students.”

But the system also must take into account people’s cultural needs and wants, Durden said.

“We talk about what families are not doing -- not what we can do as a support system to help them,” Durden said. “We need to transition from a deficits outlook to the strengths they bring with them. We need to ask communities what they need, instead of telling them what we should do.

“We need to look at the village as a whole, and what the village needs."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7217 or eandersen@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSerinandersen.

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