This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Courier Journal on December 9, 2016.
When I became a superintendent, my favorite day of the year was the first day of school. I would visit every elementary, middle and high school in the district, observing sparkly-eyed first-year students, who were full of excitement and anticipation about what the coming year would be like.
It drove me to wonder, what can we do to maintain that sparkle? How can we ensure all children get what they need to thrive in school and beyond? The answer I have come to is simple yet profound. Every child needs to be connected to at least one caring, supportive adult to encourage them on their path in life. Many of us can think of at least one individual who supported and encouraged us on our journey.
This year’s KIDS COUNT 2016 County Data Book shows that children across the Commonwealth need more support. The rankings on overall child well-being show that even in the top ranking county, almost 1 in 8 children lives in poverty, 1 in 5 are in single parent families, and 1 in 3 kindergartners are not prepared for school. It’s so important to collect and pay attention to this data, because it’s a bellwether for the very future of our state.
We have to ask the question: how many children across Kentucky will leave school today without one encouraging word made to them? I would argue that each of us has a role to play and responsibility to make sure they have the support needed to reach their full potential.
I know it because I have seen this play out in my own life. First with my grandfather who insisted that I read from Alice and Jerry paperbacks with him every night after dinner. He had only a sixth-grade education, but he was years ahead of his time because we now know that reading to and with young children is so important to help develop their language skills, build intimate relationships, and succeed in school.
Later in middle school, my eighth-grade teacher, Mrs. Mildred Wilson was incredibly important to me. Mrs. Wilson was stern but it was because she had high expectations for us, and as a child that told me she cared about me. Research supports high expectations and how unconscious bias toward low-income children and children of color means that we too often unintentionally lower our expectations. We see this play out in fewer low-income children and children of color being identified as gifted and talented or encouraged to take advanced placement courses. Every single child in Kentucky needs an adult like Mrs. Wilson – someone who pushes them to be their best and let students know they care.
I went on to graduate high school but ended up dropping out of college because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I took a job at a car dealership, but when my boss denied my request for a 25 cent raise, I decided it was time to go back to school. I will never forget the day I went to enroll at Western Kentucky University. I was circling the inside of Diddle Arena trying to figure out which classes to take. A professor named Dr. Frank Kersting saw my aimless wandering as an opportunity, leaping across the table and declaring “I’ve got a program for you, young man.” Dr. Kersting was instrumental in getting me started back to school and stayed with me through my master’s program. I often wonder, what if he hadn’t have jumped the table? How different would my path look?
I would wager that not one of us have succeeded in life without positive relationships and encouragement. I challenge every Kentuckian to think about your role in assisting our state’s future and ask yourself, am I finished? No, you’re not. Everyone can play a role. Whether that’s volunteering to read with children at a local elementary school or mentoring at-risk kids in your community. You can be the difference because every child needs an adult in his or her eye.
Dale Brown was a public school educator for 30 years and is currently the Director of College and School Relations at Western Kentucky University. He is a board member of Kentucky Youth Advocates. Read the Kentucky KIDS COUNT 2016 County Data Book here.