If it’s true that the past isn’t really even past, then it’s probably also the case that the future is already mostly here. That’s certainly how it feels, as the word increasingly comes to us that in the highly technological, fast-paced, wired-up world in which we live, education will be more important than ever.
Around the country, cities are starting to realize that to boost their economies and attract jobs, their workforces will need a higher proportion of people with higher-education experience than many locales already have. Civic and community leaders say this is very much the case in the Dayton area, where an effort was launched late last year to help get more young children up to speed on their early reading skills and also get more students working on, and completing, two- and four-year college degrees or equivalent post-high school credentials. Simply put, this is the vision statement: “Learn to Earn Dayton is working to ensure that every young person in the Dayton region is ready to learn by kindergarten and ready to earn by graduation.”
On today’s page, we speak with the man who is leading this effort — Thomas J Lasley II, Learn to Earn Dayton’s executive director and a longtime professor in the School of Education and Allied Professions at the University of Dayton. His comments are even more interesting in light of those made in this space last Sunday by Jim Petro, the outgoing chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents, who discussed how higher education has to keep changing.
Though we focus today on Dayton’s program, Lasley points out correctly that the educational and economic conditions and needs he’s talking about don’t stop at the Montgomery County line. It’s his hope that other communities in southwest Ohio will undertake their own similar efforts. Indeed, nearly everything being done with Learn to Earn Dayton could be applied just well in Middletown, Hamilton, Springfield, Xenia or Troy. In fact, we’d guess it’s a good bet he’s got advice for anyone in those communities who’d want to get started.
Q: What is Learn to Earn Dayton, and what is its mission?
A: Learn to Earn Dayton is focused on ensuring that all children are ready to learn when they enter kindergarten and ready to succeed in college, or to earn a license or a credential, after they graduate from high school.
We and our partners like to describe this work as “cradle to career.”
Ensuring that more young people have college degrees or post-high-school education is critical to improving the Dayton region’s competitiveness and its economy. Today’s students simply won’t be able to get good-paying jobs if they only have a high-school diploma.
Q: Spell out the specific problem Learn to Earn Dayton is trying to address.
A: Our workforce was created for the 1980s, not the the 21st century. Some experts say that by 2020, two out of every three jobs will require a two- or four-year college degree or a credential that assures employers that an applicant has a certifiable skill. Today only about one out of three of the Dayton region’s adults between the ages of 25 and 64 have one of those qualifications. Learn to Earn Dayton is working with school districts, employers, universities, nonprofits and others to make sure we have the qualified people — the “intellectual capital” — to keep employers here and to attract new businesses.
Q: Is this just a problem in Dayton, or are other communities around the state and nation trying to address it? Are other communities in southwest Ohio, for instance, feeling the same situation?
A: The shortage of well-educated and qualified workers is not just a Dayton problem. Cities throughout Ohio and all across the United States are trying to attract and to “grow” well-trained workers. That’s what attracts employers. Cincinnati is calling its effort STRIVE. Columbus has created Learn for Life. Louisville has an initiative called 55,000 degrees. Incidentally, that number — 55,000 — is the temperature of a lightning strike, and it’s also the number of people Louisville wants to add by 2020 to its ranks of individuals with college degrees.
Q: So, why does this situation exist? What contributes to it? And how do the changing workplace and economy affect it?
A: The bar is too low. We’re focused on getting young people through high school. We need to prepare students for college or a career. Ohio is forcing a shift in how we educate children, and, importantly, in how we judge school districts. New categories are being added to schools’ report cards that assess how many young people are on track to earning a degree or a credential. The jobs of the future will demand more specialization, and this is especially true for high-paying jobs. It’s imperative for communities to make sure that their young people have the education they need to compete for those jobs.
Q: Aren’t there schools and other programs that already exist and that are working on this? What does Learn to Earn Dayton bring to the table that isn’t already happening?
A: The schools in our region and elsewhere have been focused on turning out high school graduates. That’s important. But it’s not good enough. That’s why Ohio and many other states are adopting something called the Common Core, which is a national effort to teach students more difficult math and English language concepts. The new curriculum is benchmarked to international standards. Our school districts are working on making their courses more rigorous, but the way a region really moves forward is through collective impact. Learn to Earn Dayton is a systemic effort intended to leverage resources and assets, to be a force multiplier that results in all children getting the education they need to succeed.
Q: What programs are you partnering with?
A: Of particular importance are the 16 public school districts, as well as Catholic and public charter schools in Montgomery County. We’re also working closely with the United Way of the Greater Dayton Area as well as Montgomery County. At the end of the day, our partners are endless. There isn’t an organization, government, business or individual that can’t help.
Q: You said you wanted to mention a program newly created by one of your partners, the Dayton Foundation. What’s that about?
A: The Dayton Foundation is releasing a new website called ScholarshipConnects, which will occur this coming Monday, Jan. 14. It’s a big deal. Very few communities have a single portal for most of their scholarship offerings. Even fewer have the sites built so that students can do debt calculations and so forth. If we want more young people from high-poverty areas getting college educations, then they need to know what scholarships are out there and they need a trusted source for accessing all the relevant information. The Dayton Foundation has done an unbelievable job of migrating a lot of this information onto one site and it should get even better over time. Students can get to it by clicking on the “ScholarshipCONNECT” button on the Foundation’s home page, www.daytonfoundation.org.
Q: It sounds as though the situation has to do with poverty, parenting and lifestyle issues, rather than education — true? And if so, how can those things be addressed or improved? Is Learn to Earn Dayton focusing primarily on the classroom?
A: The greatest need exists in our highest-poverty school districts. But poverty is not restricted to a zip code. Nationally and locally, about one out of 10 of our highest-poverty students gets a post-secondary credential. Contrast that with our most affluent community, where almost seven out of 10 obtain two- or four-year degrees. To really increase the number of people who can compete for good jobs, to raise the educational level of the wider workforce, we have get more poor children going to college or earning a credential.
Q: You’ve spoken a lot about buy-in from the community as important to this effort. What does that look like, exactly, and how will it help?
A: Buy-in means making a commitment. There are myriad ways to help. Businesses can educate their employees about “star-rated” preschool programs. Houses of worship can emphasize reading in religious education classes. Parents can make sure there are books in their home. At learntoearndayton.org, we list 40 ways that people can help. That’s just a start.
Q: What are some of the other challenges or obstacles to overcome?
A: We have to think about creating good systems rather than just good programs. We have a lot of good programs, but too often they’re ad hoc initiatives, or they aren’t integrated. A child’s education is a continuum, and we have to be delivering for children at every point on the continuum. We can’t think in terms of “my” program or “my” children. We’ll succeed when we’re all working together.
Q: What are some of the area’s advantages moving forward?
A: Dayton has a history of attacking problems in collaborative ways. We’re also innovators, and we don’t give up in the face of problems. Most important, we have people who care about children, especially those who have strikes against them. The region’s future depends on getting it right with our kids. They have only one childhood, and if we don’t give them what they need, there are no do-overs.
Q: Are you optimistic? Why or why not?
A: Yes and no. I believe that by 2020, we can dramatically increase the number of our young people who are getting a post-high school credential, and, by 2025, we can and will be much closer to the Lumina Foundation’s goal of 60 percent of our adult workforce having a college degree. But we can’t lose our will. Our efforts have to touch all the communities that make up our region or we will fail.
Q: How did you get involved in this effort? What’s your background, for those who don’t know you, and what sparked your interest in this?
A: I was at the University of Dayton when it worked with Dayton Public Schools to start the Dayton Early College Academy. That took both institutional will and commitment from the community. Today, DECA focuses on getting all of its students to college. That has to be a part of what every school in every community is trying to achieve. I saw what was possible when people with pure intentions decided to find ways to help struggling young people. We have to reach more of those children.
Q: What can people do to help?
A: Go to learntoearndayton.org and make a commitment.
Q: What’s next?
A: First, we want to make preschool a reality for every child in Montgomery County. We want every 4-year-old and 5-year-old, especially preschoolers from low-income families, to have the chance to be in a structured preschool program. Second, we’re working with all of Montgomery County’s 16 school districts to ensure that every third-grader reads well and can pass Ohio’s reading test. Louisville organized 10,000 volunteers to work with elementary students in reading. It has come incredibly close to helping all children read at or above grade level. I want Dayton not just to come close to meeting this goal, but to do it.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Learn to Earn suggests these ways that people can help promote education at all levels:
Donate books to a preschool or child-care program.
Sponsor an event that educates moms-to-be about prenatal care.
Adopt a child-care program and helping it earn a “star” rating.
Find out what your school district is doing to make sure children are ready for kindergarten.
Sponsor a scholarship to preschool.
Read to your child or someone else’s child.
Take your child or someone else’s child to the library.
Mentor a student who wants to earn a scholarship through the Dayton Foundation’s College Promise.
Hire summer apprentices or interns to help in your business.
Encourage your child to take courses for college credit in high school.
Find out how your child’s high school is helping students apply to college.
Ask your child’s high school to sponsor a meeting where parents learn how to fill out financial aid forms.
Pledge to United Way to support agencies that help young people succeed.
Encourage your place of worship to emphasize reading in children’s religion classes.
Organize a book swap of children’s and adult books at your workplace.
Give employees time off to volunteer at school.
Feature your employees’ volunteer activities in the company newsletter and website.
Insist that your child’s coaches celebrate players who are doing well academically.
Ask the children you meet what they want to be when they grow up and where they want to go to college.
Organize a career day at your child’s school or for your employees’ children.
Encourage your employees to meet with their children’s teachers, even if they have to miss work.
Reward your child with a college T-shirt.
Sponsor a rewards program for the best readers in a classroom or school.
Recruit a retiree to volunteer with a student.
Ask your employees how your company can help parents.
Tutor a student who is struggling.
Ask your civic group to support initiatives that help young people succeed.
Start a mother-daughter or father-son book club.
Organize an outing for children who have never been to a museum.
Take students to a retirement home to read to residents.
Give books as gifts to children.
Organize a book drive at your company to collect summer reading books for at-risk students.