The challenge of getting children “Ready to Learn”

John Cullen

John Cullen (BF '12) chief executive officer, LockUpLead

Bingham Fellows 2012 March program day

Family Scholar House’s (FSH) new Stoddard Johnston Scholar House provided a great environment for the Bingham Fellows as everyone started the creative process of finding tangible ways the community can “move the needle” on student achievement.  Cathe Dykstra, CEO of FSH, kicked off the morning explaining how they work to remove the barriers for single-parent students.  The safe housing and family support allow these impressive individuals and their children to complete a degree and break the cycle of poverty.  I can’t imagine a better investment for a community!

Dr. Keith Look, Principal of Shawnee High School, cut to the chase quickly.  If the community can help outside the school walls with basic needs that are unmet for so many children, and provide children who are “Ready to Learn,” Look stated, the schools can make quantum leaps in student achievement.  No curriculum, teacher, principal, or quantity of computers in a school can compensate for a child suffering from environmental factors that shift their attention and focus, leaving them distracted and unable to absorb and learn.  These environmental factors are barriers not only for low-proficiency children in poverty.  Any child in an unhealthy environment (family instability, poor diet, little physical activity, unsafe and unhealthy housing, etc) is going to perform below their potential in any school, public or private.  And even just a few children in a classroom with attention or behavior challenges can rob the entire class of a quality learning environment.  So it really is not just someone else’s problem, or isolated in a few “failing schools.”  It is indeed a fundamental condition where we will rise or fall together as a community.

Speaking of rising or falling together, Kentucky’s motto “united we stand, divided we fall” describes well the task ahead to provide “Children Ready to Learn”, a term repeated by several speakers.  As we now know, failing neighborhoods are precursors to failing schools.  To quote DeVone Holt (Bingham Fellow 2011), “We at JCPS are in the business of ‘ABCs’ and ‘123s’.  But we find ourselves having to pick up the social services that are not being provided in the community in order to even get to the point where the child is able to focus and learn.”

We heard from our classmate, Dana Jackson (Network Center for Community Change), about the amazing impacts realized by building communities, supporting families, and providing safe and affordable housing to meet the basic needs of families with school-age children.  After drilling down to specifics in the past few months, it certainly provided an “Aha!” moment to pull back out to a broader view of the entire orchestra of parts that have to work together for a functional environment for our students.  We must ensure that all families have access to continuing education for parents, safe and healthy housing, mobility, healthy foods and physical exercise.  Enlisting the faith community, nonprofits, and even informal neighborhood networks to work together to meet these basic needs will certainly translate into broad improvements in student achievement for children at all levels of proficiency.

Finally, I am thankful that we have developed the courage, honesty and trust within the group that allows individual members to remind us not to sweep inconvenient truths under the rug, like the glaring racial divisions that are an anchor around our community’s neck.  If not us, who will expand the work to break down these psychological walls and build the community capital to make it clear that we are all in this boat together?  United we stand!


One thought on “The challenge of getting children “Ready to Learn”

  1. John: Thank you for your insights and for your open mind and open heart as your group tackles the challenges around the issues of improving student achievement and educational attainment. Your support is meaningful. I have confidence that this amazing class of community leaders will identify some new opportunities and additional strategies for engaging others in the community in supporting the goal. We all benefit when our neighbors have the education they desire and the opportunity to contribute.

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