Workforce development begins with early learning and brain development

Note: This column appears in the October 2020 issue of Great Seal Living.

Workforce development is a crucial component of a more vibrant Ross County.

Most people look at the topic as the training and skills of our current workforce or even the preparation of our young people for future careers. Those items are essential, no doubt, but we’re quickly learning that our thought process isn’t broad enough.

We’re finding that workforce development extends back to early childhood learning and Kindergarten readiness – two elements essential to creating a culture of learning in our community. We need lifelong learners always hungry for more knowledge because those are the young people who will keep looking to grow their skills and institutional memory as adults.

The fact is we’re lagging in this area. Across Ohio, about 40 percent of our children possess the skills they need to be successful in Kindergarten. Believe me; the Ross County number is no better than that statewide average. Research shows that 80 to 85 percent of a child’s brain is developed by age 3 – two years before they can enter Kindergarten.

Quint Studer’s visit to Chillicothe helped clarify this issue for our Chamber. We’ve looked at the numbers and are ready to help, just as we did years ago when then-CEO Marvin Jones heard of the “Leader in Me” program and convinced the local Chamber’s board to help champion its emergence in the Chillicothe City Schools.

Rather than create a new initiative, we’re looking to partner with the existing groups already engaged in improving early childhood development to create a more vibrant place to learn. There is no absence of partners in this effort.

So far, that list of partners includes Chillicothe Mayor Luke Feeney, the United Way of Ross County, Mighty Children’s Museum, Adena Health System, Ohio University Chillicothe, and others.

Mayor Feeney made early childhood learning a key part of his State of the City speech last year, and while COVID-19 slowed some of the progress in that area, it’s gaining new momentum. The mayor and the Chillicothe City Schools are looking to create better solutions for pre-K children in the city – ones that might have an impact throughout Ross County, too.

The United Way of Ross County is already engaged in an up-and-coming program, Success by 6, which partners with each county school district to give grants for a summer Kindergarten readiness program. Each program is taught by a certified Kindergarten teacher and aide and features specific instruction on math, literacy, and social skills.

Participants identified by the school districts are given a test before the program, then one after they’ve completed the classes. It’s a program that has demonstrated results as the 2018 program saw an increase of 16 percent in the scores of participating students on the post-program test. It’s a $45,000 investment for the United Way, which is currently raising support through its 2020-21 campaign.

United Way also supports the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, which helps development by providing a free age-appropriate book to enrolled children from birth to age 5 to boost vocabulary and readiness skills as they approach school years.

Mighty Children’s Museum was founded on the principle of being a community resource in early childhood learning for children from birth to seven years. They’ve done a fabulous job connecting play with learning and created an environment to help body and mind.

Ohio University Chillicothe and its early childhood education program can provide support to these ideas as well. Adena Health System and its pediatric group have also shown great interest in helping.

We’re also exploring options with the Studer Group, such as Brain Bags – early literacy gift bags given to the parents of newborns at the local hospital. We also have inquired about a parent outreach program to reach parents with the message of the importance of talking, reading, and interacting with young children in the first three years of life.

If we want to develop our workforce, we need more involvement in early learning to build a culture of learning. As we develop the solutions, we’ll need more minds in the room to discuss the answers. Give us a call at 740-702-2722 if you want to help!

Mike Throne is the President and CEO of the Chillicothe Ross Chamber of Commerce.