Want to Improve Graduation Rates? Focus on the Little Ones.

We’ve been talking this month about Oregon’s lowly high school graduation rate — and mostly focusing on what happens after kids start ninth grade. But Mark Holloway, CEO of Social Venture Partners Portland, says what happens before kindergarten might be just as important.

Here’s what Mark told us about SVP’s goal to help all children in the Portland metro area become “ready for kindergarten” by 2021 — and what’ll it take to make that happen.

Why did SVP choose early childhood education as a goal?

Our first decision was to focus at all. We are a nonprofit that brings a unique combination of money, volunteer talent, and influence to the nonprofits and social issues we serve. But we’re not big enough to tackle all issues with children and families, and getting to the root causes of issues has always been in our DNA. If you want to work at the roots of success for children, you have to support their development and their caregivers in the first five years. The data is clear about that.

What does it mean for kids to “be ready to thrive and learn by kindergarten?”

Being ready for kindergarten is not really about knowing your ABCs and 123s. It means a child has structured playtime, exposure to books and stories, and the safety, affection and call-and-response banter of a caring adult.

This is written into the code for middle-class and affluent families — they do it naturally because their families have been doing it for generations. But there’s a lack of support for parents who didn’t grow up knowing the code, so we need to support these families to learn the code for their children to be successful in our schools. That takes a system of support, from home visits when the children are first born to universal access to quality pre-kindergarten experiences.

Our Real Talk series this month has focused on high school graduation rates. How is early education related?

Research has shown clear links of drop-out rates to a student’s ninth-grade credit attainment, which links back to third-grade reading achievement level and further back to their kindergarten attendance rate. Believe it or not, preschool and kindergarten students have absenteeism rates nearly as high as teenagers. National estimates suggest that one in 10 kindergarten and first-grade students misses nearly a month of school each year. And when they are missing school, they’re not present to learn. When they’re not present to learn, they fall behind.

What have you learned during the first seven years of this campaign?

I’ve learned that any support for children needs to be matched by support for their parents/caregivers. Kids will only be successful with a consistent, positive adult influence, and this can be tough to do because working families have all sorts of stress factors like unstable housing, low wages, and poor access to healthy foods.

But we don’t have to end poverty to make progress. We can support these families by doubling down on relief nurseries, home visiting programs, Community Education Workers, and access to quality childcare and preschool experiences. The return on investment for these quality early learning programs is undeniable, yielding rates of $4 to $9 for every dollar invested. We see these benefits in school systems, higher graduation and earnings, and ultimately as adults contributing more to our tax base rather than depending on it for vital supports.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve experienced?

The biggest challenges are inertia, lack of clout, and racism, which comes out in things like preschool suspensions and expulsions, for example. A report by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights showed that African American children represented 18 percent of public preschool enrollment, but 48 percent of preschoolers receiving multiple out-of-school suspensions. That’s just one example.

The inertia and clout issues are bound up together. There is so much attention paid to the K-12 system — getting more money, higher teacher pay, reducing dropout rates, and on and on — that it sucks up all the air in the figurative room for early education strategies. The special interests for K-12 education (parents, teachers, etc.) have lots of clout with policymakers, while early childhood educators and their advocates have little.

Groups like the Children’s Institute have been working to change that in Oregon, and we are building on a national trend for communities and states to provide access to preschool for all their children. In our own community, only 2 in 10 “priority kids” (children living in poverty, children of color, and children whose first language is not English) currently access high-quality preschool in Multnomah County. The parents, nonprofits, and community leaders we have been working with want to change that.

So what’s next?

We want preschool for every 3- and 4-year-old, so we’re gathering together starting next week in a Preschool for All Task Force under the leadership of Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson. We will work through June 2019 on a recommendation to the county and community on developing the financing, workforce, infrastructure, and program policy needed to provide universal preschool. I think this is a community that will support that sort of investment if we can create a smart plan for it.

SVP talks about “making investments” instead of “giving grants.” What differentiates your approach from a traditional foundation?

We use a business investment approach for helping people and organizations make a bigger difference in serving the underserved. That means we pool money, talent, and influence from our Investor Partners (donor/volunteers), find the best and brightest nonprofits and programs in our focus area (currently “Ready for Kindergarten”), and weave partnerships between them to solve things like the kindergarten readiness issue. This mimics venture capital investing, but we are looking to solve community problems, not make money.

Mark Holloway is CEO of Social Venture Partners Portland.