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July 18, 2013

Business leaders say early childhood initiatives will pay big dividends for kids, families

NORMAN — Investing in early childhood education initiatives will pay back large returns in the form of better, tax-paying workers, lower crime rates and reduced need for social services, speakers told Norman business and civic leaders Wednesday.

Businessman and newspaper publisher Bill Burgess Jr. said programs in his hometown of Lawton are making a difference in the community.

“It has been an amazing turnaround for those folks who have pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students,” Burgess told a breakfast audience of about 100 people at the J.D. McCarty Center.

Sponsors include Success by Six, United Way, Smart Start Norman and the Norman Chamber of Commerce. Panelists included Norman residents Jim Adair, Jim Wade, Joe Siano and Leslie Christopher.

Burgess said 75 percent of children with an incarcerated parent will themselves be in trouble with the law.

“That’s a circle that we have to break,” he said. “The blueprint is there. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

State Chamber Chair Chuck Mills, a Shawnee businessman, said he has had to turn work away for lack of employees. The state’s low unemployment rate makes it hard to find qualified workers.

“We saw 10 years ago the train wreck we are in now,” Mills said. “We’re going to have to pick up the slack when the parents don’t. That’s just how society is.”

Mills encouraged communities to invest in initiatives that focus on early learning. He said the emphasis used to be on children in the eighth grade, then fifth grade, then kindergarten. Now, it is the critical first years of a child’s life.

“We’ve got to get in on the ground floor. Learning begins at birth. Those first three years are the most important years,” he said.

Adair, a Norman Realtor and business leader, said early childhood education programs will pay off in terms of more high school and college graduates. Those individuals will be productive workers and taxpayers who can better participate in a community’s economy.

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