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 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 re-invent 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 ten 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 kids in the 8th grade, then 5th 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.
Wade, a local banker, said children who are prepared for school don’t exhibit behavior problems. Those kids will be better students, he said. Employees will be more productive since they can focus on work and not problems with children.
School Superintendent Siano said Norman has been a leader in early childhood education. About 1,000 children are involved in full-day kindergarten and another 800 in pre-kindergarten. Finding resources is always a struggle, he said.
He said building a good educational foundation is like building a house. Remediation is always more expensive, he said.
Christopher, a marketing and advertising executive, suggested business leaders use their own social networks to champion the cause. “Use the platform that you have,” she said.