One wants to be an engineer. Another, a lawyer. Others aspire to be a gymnastics instructor or a nurse. Their college picks are equally ambitious — the University of Oregon, Trinity University, and the University of Illinois.
These dreamers are thirdgraders. They attend a local school where nearly every child lives in poverty. They don’t know that poverty’s many barriers will make achieving their dreams difficult at best. They believe they have the same opportunities for success as any child.
Sadly, research tells us they don’t. According to a 2015 study from Harvard University, children in Northwest Louisiana not only are unlikely to escape poverty, but most are predicted to have an even lower household income as adults than their parents, making them at risk for many health and social problems. With 32 percent of our very youngest children currently living in poverty, and with more than 51 percent of pre-kindergarteners showing achievement gaps that often persist through school, such trends predict a dire future for a vast number of children of all socioeconomic levels. When so many children cannot reach their potential, neither then can their community. Step Forward is doing something to change this. Utilizing “collective impact,” Step Forward applies this team approach through a growing partnership of more than 1,000 cross-sector individuals and organizations working toward an ambitious goal: the opportunity for a sustainable, living wage job for every single young adult in Northwest Louisiana. Work toward this end goal requires a cradle-to-career vision, anticipating and working to eliminate the developmental hurdles that may arise on a child’s path to success from the very earliest point. Preparation for lifelong success must begin at birth and continue until adulthood. Not leaving this challenge to parents or school districts alone, Step Forward’s business, government, nonprofit, faith-based and civic partners are working diligently alongside them in this effort.
Step Forward teams work to create opportunities and eliminate barriers for all children in our community. This happens through a combination of awareness and action. Using local data indicators such as “kindergarten readiness” or “third grade reading proficiency” as a roadmap to show where improvement is needed, action plans are created to move those numbers in a positive direction. Step Forward teams include Early Childhood (ages 0- 5), Early Literacy (grades 1-3), Middle Grade Math/STEM (grades 6-8), youth Civic Development (grades 6-12), and Workforce Development (ages 18-24).
This grass-roots action planning and collaboration is nothing less than magical. When citizens with similar concerns and a passion for change get in a room, their synergy and creativity result in the development of powerful projects — projects such as the creation of a corps of literacy volunteers, a schoolbased family expo, webcasts of local CEOs educating their future workforce, parent education classes, and many more. Amazingly, all of these things happen with the existing resources right here in this community.
Simply put, Step Forward intends to find what works and do more of it. This requires a scientific approach. Data shows where work is needed. Research highlights what has worked in other places. Continuous project evaluation gives feedback about what should continue or be changed.
Although off to a great start, the work is far from complete. In order to achieve population-level change for the more than 109,000 children in the Northwest Louisiana metro area, a veritable army of concerned and involved citizens is required. No one can argue that the situation is urgent and the need is massive. One need not look far to find a child who is struggling.
Here are just a few things that anyone can do to make a difference. Encourage a child or a group of children in a family, a neighborhood, a church, or through a volunteer organization. Sing to a baby. Read to a child. Tell about overcoming a challenge. Model persistence. Show how to apply math in real life by following a recipe or building a birdhouse. Practice interview skills, or help create a resume’.
When everyone does something or takes some action, no matter how small, a great impact can result. As journalist David Brooks said, “Success begins with two beliefs: the future can be better than the present; and we have the power to make it so.” The future for those third-grade dreamers is far from certain, but should they not have the same opportunities as every child? Barriers like poverty don’t have to hold them back. Having concerned, supportive adults in their lives can create the tipping point toward success. Their dreams can come true – they simply need us all to Step Forward.
To find out more about where volunteer efforts are needed and what strategies have been effective, go to www.stepforwardnla.org and read The Step Forward Report to the Community or contact the Step Forward office at 318.221.0582.