Will the community continue to step up to the challenge?

I like the synergy going on in the Elk River Area School District, and I think I know the root of it. There’s a realization in our down economy that we need each other. The Elk River Area School District needs the people, businesses, municipal units of government and community organizations. The organization reached out during its strategic planning process, and those leading it know they need to continue to engage if they are going to climb the barriers they face in they months and years to come.

More and more people in businesses, community organizations, municipal units of government and at large also realize they need the schools, too.

That we have 400 vacant homes in Elk River alone is a problem we share. The fact that the school district is losing kids to other districts and charter schools is a problem we all share. The fact that local manufacturers have well-paying positions they can’t fill is a problem we share. The fact that many students show up at kindergarten not ready to learn is a problem we share.

The partnership between the city of Elk River, area manufacturers and the schools is one glistening example of how partnerships can help us overcome challenges. They gathered earlier this year and have begun a dialogue about how to improve workforce readiness. Manufacturers across the nation and locally are struggling to fill well-paying jobs that would support a nice life and families.  They began to partner immediately by setting up field trips to lay out for future graduates some of the opportunities out there. The groups plan to continue meeting to talk about further collaborative efforts to reach both parents and students and perhaps establish some apprenticeships.

The Elk River Area Childhood Coalition, meanwhile, has been focused on the other end of a child’s education. They have been reaching out to the community to offer both the means and new systems to help families prepare their children for school.

It’s important to remember that reading scores at the end of third grade can be used to determine the number of prison beds that will be needed. If that’s true, those same test results probably tell us what percentage of students will be ready the next phase after high school.

Even community groups are getting into the act to prepare students for the real world. The Elk River Rotary and the Rogers Rotary work with high school seniors, who are so close to graduation but could use a burst of guidance and goal-setting skills to help them successfully launch from the educational system.

The students in these programs want to become police officers, teachers, machinists, nurses and business owners, and it’s clear their goals and dreams become much more doable if they started their educational career strong and finish high school strong.

If they don’t, we will all suffer and so will our quality of life.

And we all have read about the value of music and band and the community has awoken to help rebuild these programs, but the effort could easily stall. At the same time people also realize the difficult challenge of bring about auditoriums in Zimmerman and Rogers. New funding sources are being sought, knowing that a bond referendum will be difficult to pass across the school district.

It feels good to know these moving parts of the school district are working together. This brave new world we find ourselves demands it. It’s not enough to let other people, groups and organizations be responsible for the important work ahead. Every child’s success will become critical to our own success as a community. There’s no knight in shining armor on his way.

I know for me it was Tom Gilaspy, the now-retired state demographer, who planted the seed about the importance of every child. It simply comes down to numbers. There are going to be a lot fewer workers in the future to get the same amount — or more — work accomplished. That means parents, schools, businesses and the community can ill afford to fail on a single student. All of them need to be trained up to their full potential if we’re to be successful. That’s why former Gov. Al Quie’s message to businesses and the community resonated so much at the an April Elk River Area Early Childhood Summit.

He acknowledges the lion’s share of the work lays at the feet of mothers and fathers. Parents must rise to the occasion. They cannot, however,  do it alone. The role of their employers and community needs to be elevated, too.

Quie has seen it from his perch in prison ministry and his work with the Ready 4 K Governing Board. He has promoted efforts on the early education front that ask communities to come alongside parents, and make it easier for them to develop strong bonds with their children and learn better skills to help prepare their children for school and in school.

Having a business plan that recognizes the importance of a Daddy and Me class that makes it possible for their workers to attend such classes is worth its weight in gold. A mother who spends her lunch break learning about the importance of childhood nutrition might prevent a child from becoming obese and/or diabetic.  How about the mother or father who spends lunch with their child instead of on break at work. Little things like that make a huge difference.

Quie was impressed that the local chambers of commerce co-sponsored the early childhood summit. Now it’s time for the chambers and the community to step up. It will take time, talent and treasure.

“Businesses ought to get together and discuss how many people work at their places of employment who have children 8 years of age or younger. Where there are eight or more kids, have a program for them.

For preschoolers that might mean they are enrolled in a preschool program and that the business supports a parent’s involvement in it. Allowing time away from work in the middle of the day could be crucial, and it could dovetail nicely with Early Childhood Family Education, Early Childhood Special Education and centers.

ECM Publishers took the lead with a parental leave program that gives employees a chance to help their children get off to a good start in their first three years of life.

Here in the Elk River Area School District there are 6,100 children who are 5 years old or younger. What happens in the first five years of their lives will determine a lot about what happens in the next 15 to 20 years.

What happens as a child prepares to launch out into the real world also matters.

It’s good to know that great care is being taken at all levels of childhood development to determine what is needed for children to have success and in turn for the community to have success. Years from now, we will know if we stepped up to the challenge. — Jim Boyle, editor