Woodward, Okla. —
What do a university dean, a bank president, a former business manager, a school board member, a city official, an executive director of a youth services agency, and a state legislator have in common?
In Woodward, these men and women all believe in the importance of investing in early childhood development and the positive impact such investment can have on society as a whole.
These local leaders discussed the benefits of investing in young children and their families during a business summit held at the Woodward Conference Center on Thursday. The summit was sponsored by the Oklahoma Champions for Early Opportunities (OKCEOs).
According to a press release, OKCEOs is "a statewide initiative to educate business, community and legislative leaders about the strong link between early learning and economic growth."
Speaking about that link Thursday, were Dr. Deena Fisher, dean of NWOSU-Woodward; Bruce Benbrook, president of Stock Exchange Bank; Sandi Liles, marketing director of High Plains Technology Center; Roxy Merklin, member of the Woodward Public Schools Board of Education; Doug Haines, Woodward assistant city manager; Kevin Evans, executive director of Western Plains Youth and Family Center; and District 61 State Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Laverne.
INVESTING IN LEADERS OF TOMORROW
Fisher said that OKCEOs have a "simple" message: "Investing in kids is good business."
Putting it in investment terms, she compared it to compound interest, saying "the more you invest early, the bigger pay off you get later on."
That's because "building up children is like building up a house, you need to have a strong foundation," she said.
With the large majority of a child's brain development occurring in the first 3 years of life, Fisher said that it is easy to see how important it is to build a good foundation early.
Because having the right foundation up to age 3 will help ensure a child is ready to go to school when the time comes to enroll in pre-kindergarten at age 4, she said.
School readiness is important, because it impacts how well a child does throughout his or her school career, including whether or not that child goes on to higher education or even graduates from high school, Fisher said.
As a sign of how much early education can impact a child's continuing education, the dean said "the amount of absences that a child has up to 3rd grade is a good predictor of whether that child will drop out of school."
That in turn affects what kind of job that child is able to get as an adult and therefore what kind of economic contribution he or she is able to make later on in life.
And since "today's infants will be tomorrow's workers and leaders," Fisher said it is important for businesses and communities to invest in the future generations
LOTS OF LOCAL SUPPORT FOR EARLY DEVELOPMENT
All around Woodward there are examples of how local businesses and organizations are investing in young children.
Benbrook spoke about how his bank became involved with the "Adopt A School" program around 15 years ago and decided to partner with the Early Childhood Center (ECC) to help provide support and resources for the school.
"The reason we picked the Early Childhood Center to adopt is because that's where the focus needs to be, at the beginning," he said.
The Stock Exchange Bank's relationship with the ECC "continues to this day," with Benbrook and his employees making contributions, both financially and with their time, to help the school.
Most recently, he said that "on the last day of school this year we went around and gave goodie bags to all of the teachers and just said 'thank you for all you do.' It's not much but we feel it is a way to let them know that we know the important role they play in the development of our young people."
According to school board member Merklin, the teachers in turn also do their part to support and encourage early development, even beyond the "atmosphere of learning" they provide each school day.
"For 20 years," she said, "Woodward teachers have sponsored 'Books for Babies,' which is a program where every child that is born in the Woodward hospital is sent home with a bag of books. It's a way to tell new parents that we believe early learning is important and encourage them to support that by reading to their babies."
Merklin said it is easy to see Woodward Public School District's commitment to early education through its facilities and programs.
In addition to the Early Childhood Center itself, she said "we host a Head Start and Boomer day care programs because we recognize the value of offering opportunities to early learners."
And because those facilities, especially the new ECC building, would not be possible without support from the community, she said they are also a symbol of the community's investment in early development.
By passing the bond issue 6 years ago to pay for the ECC building, Merklin said "the community said, 'we too believe that early childhood development in the first 5 years is important.'"
As the assistant city manager, Haines said that the city also has its share of facilities that seek to offer development opportunities for some of the city's youngest residents. He said this includes everything from Kid's Inc. programs that help teach teamwork to the city's park system which provide "a safe haven for children and families to go enjoy themselves."
However, Haines said "perhaps one of the strongest areas" where the city shows its support for early development is the Woodward Public Library. He said this is evident through the children's programming that the library offers, such as "lapsit" reading programs.
"Lapsits are for infants," he said. "Their parents bring them in and stay with them and interact with them, reading to them and helping them work on motor skills. It also helps acclimate the child to new interactions, bringing them out of their home environment and developing their social skills."
The library also offers "story time" for 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds, Haines said, which allows them to "continue to develop those social skills and other skills," as the child learns to sit still, pay attention and listen as a library staff member reads them a story.
MANY WAYS TO TAKE ACTION
In addition to supporting programs specifically aimed at reaching and teaching young children, there are other ways that business and community members can help support early childhood development.
Liles offered some examples from her own previous experience as a business manager of what companies can do to create and support a "family-friendly environment," which in turn supports childhood development by allowing parents to have the time they need to be there for their children.
While she now works at HPTC, Liles was the branch manager of the old Mutual of Omaha office in Woodward for over 20 years until the office was closed in 2012.
She said when she first started working there it was "a very structured work environment." But then the company began implementing different policies and practices that gave employees more flexibility, she said, which was ultimately beneficial to the company as well as the employees.
So based on the change she saw in Mutual of Omaha upon implementing those policies, Liles said she would recommend other businesses do the same.
Her recommendations included "engage employees in conversation about scheduling;" consider use of flex time; establish cross training of duties; offer work from home capabilities; and give employees personal time.
All of these offer employees ways to spend time with their children, she said, whether it's using flex time to allow a parent to leave a little early to make it to a child's school recital or allowing an employee to work from home so they can take care of a sick child but still accomplish their tasks and still earn money to support their family.
The impact that these simple measures can have on a business can be "tremendous," Liles said.
"Your employees are the face and voice of your business and they can have a greater impact on your clients and your customers than anything else you can do," she said.
So by investing in those employees, she said it will encourage those employees to invest back into the company.
"Employees will have a lot of buy-in to the company," Liles said.
Beyond adopting family-friendly policies within a business, Fisher said some other recommendations for how to support early childhood development include "spread the word, make the economic case, take a stand."
This means hosting events like Thursday's summit to share ideas on how to support local families, educating others about how investing in children can have a big economic pay off once they become skilled and educated workers, and being willing to talk to legislators about the importance of supporting programs that invest in young children.
Rep. Blackwell discussed the importance of these last 2 actions.
"When you're dealing with legislators, we don't always know what's going on," Blackwell said. "A lot of times we see dollars and we see figures but we don't know what they represent."
For example, he said some legislators might consider cutting the funding to a program like Smart Start Oklahoma, if they didn't understand that program seeks to make sure families are connected with the resources they need to foster school readiness in their young children.
And since legislators often focus on dollars, Blackwell said making the economic argument can often mean the difference between whether a program is funded or not.
"If I'm looking at a budget of $500 million for the Department of Corrections, and you tell me I can cut that in half in a few years if I invest $25 million in Smart Start Oklahoma now, then I'm more likely to make that vote," he said.