Two Cities, Two Children, Two Very Different Paths

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LearnThe following article was sent out in my City View Newsletter, which you can sign up to receive here.

Ella is three months old, a firstborn child. She lives with her family in Seattle zip code 98118 in the Rainier Beach neighborhood in the city’s far southeast corner. Her mom and dad both work two jobs to make ends meet but still fight to rise above the poverty line. As new parents, they struggle with the challenges, wonder where they will find affordable, high-quality childcare to match their different shifts. Ella faces a mountain of obstacles as she begins her life.

Olivia is also three months old, also the firstborn in her little family. She lives in Seattle zip code 98117 in the Ballard neighborhood at the opposite northwest corner of the city. Olivia’s parents each have high paying jobs with flexible hours, leaving her at a private childcare center on her mom’s route to work. Olivia receives more support than she knows; she’s lucky to be living in Ballard.

Ella’s and Olivia’s zip codes are different by just one digit; their likely life trajectories are worlds apart.

Sadly, and to our long-term detriment, not every child born in Seattle receives the same opportunity for a strong and fair start in life, as the stories of these two composite children illustrate. The so-called American dream is just not available to all of our children, and it hasn’t been for a very, very long time.

And that’s why we urgently need a new, more intentional, more focused, and more strategic approach to how we address the inequality of opportunity that is holding so many of our children behind.

Seattle isn’t unique. New research about the opportunity gap that exists in our country is stunningly negative.

What’s most troubling about the new research, however, is that America’s opportunity gap is both larger and more persistent than the gap found in Australia, Canada, or the United Kingdom, three peer countries with a common language, economic system, and culture. Put another way, the poor start further behind in the U.S. and, due to inadequate supports, they have an even harder time catching up. (The research findings are documented in Too Many Children Left Behind: The U. S. Achievement Gap in Comparative Perspective.)

Ella and Olivia are five years old and will be entering kindergarten this fall. Olivia will attend Loyal Heights, her neighborhood elementary school. It has been rated a Level 5 school by the Seattle School District, the best rating a school can receive. Ella will attend Emerson Elementary in her neighborhood, a Level 1 school, the lowest rating, and a rating that hasn’t changed since 2009 when the School District first published these scores. Olivia is off to a strong start, while Ella encounters yet another systemic obstacle that will hold her back.

According to WaKIDS, our state’s observational assessment of kindergarten readiness, only 40% of children from low-income families entering kindergarten in Seattle Public Schools last fall demonstrated readiness in all six domains (social-emotional, physical, cognitive, language, literacy, and mathematics). By contrast, 67% of their non-low income peers demonstrated readiness in all six areas.

Exacerbating this inequity, extreme childhood poverty is highly concentrated in Seattle. As the map below shows, neighborhoods with childhood poverty rates of 40% or higher—meaning 40% or more of the children under age 18 in these areas are in families below the federal poverty level—are clustered in the south end, to the east of downtown, and in the north near Lake City. Concentrated poverty contributes to the opportunity gap; it’s debilitating, robbing children of their future potential.

Childhood poverty census tracks

These same extreme childhood poverty areas also have some of the Seattle School District’s worst performing schools, a fact reported by the District itself in their annual ratings of school performance. Look where the Level 1 and Level 2 schools are located—exactly where childhood poverty is concentrated. But these same areas have Level 3 and 4 schools, too. (Click here for a complete listing of all Seattle public schools and their ranking.)

The pressing question we need to address is: how are some schools in our high poverty areas doing a good job and others failing? How can we take the exceptional work being done by teachers and support staff in the higher performing schools and replicate it in our lowest performing schools?

This is the greatest problem with public education in our city today: The excellence of some schools is not replicated among all schools for the benefit of all children.

A strong public education system is supposed to be the great equalizer, the springboard to a successful life, the key strategic investment the public makes to give every child the strong and fair start they deserve. Tragically, it doesn’t work that way as this recent Seattle Times article documented.

If Ella does not read at grade level by the third grade, her chances of graduating from high school fall dramatically. Her chances of finding a good-paying job are slim; a recent study shows that by 2020, 7 out of 10 jobs in Washington State will require some level of post-secondary education.

Nearly one quarter of all students in Seattle Public Schools will not graduate in June from high school on time with their classmates. Among African American students, 34% will not graduate in four years. Among Hispanic students, the number is 42%.

By the time Ella and Olivia make it through our public education system, they will likely end up in very different places. And with different levels of education, earning power, and external supports, the research shows the story will likely repeat for their own children.   

So, it’s time to rethink our approach to our decades-long deficit of opportunity for many of our children. It’s time to redirect public dollars to those programs that will actually make a significant difference for our kids. It’s time to intentionally and purposefully focus on families that need a strong springboard of supports. It’s time to recognize the problem and — as our peer countries have shown us — to realize that it doesn’t have to be this way. Seattle could become the first major city in the United States to reverse the decades of systemic harm we have allowed.

Here is a continuum of care we can provide so Ella, and the many other children just like her, can have the same opportunity as Olivia. Get this right and Ella and Olivia can arrive at the kindergarten door prepared to thrive.

A Continuum of Care: Birth to Five

Supporting parents is a crucial first step and child outcome evidence proves it. Proven home-visitation programs like the Nurse Family Partnership (NFP) for first-time low-income parents beginning in pregnancy and continuing until their child is two years of age lead to better health, reduced emergency room visits, improved education outcomes, and reduced criminal justice system involvement. With communities of color disproportionately affected by our criminal justice system, this last finding is particularly important.

For two and three year olds there is the Parent-Child Home Program (PCHP), an evidence-based program that focuses on literacy through twice weekly, 30-minute home visits for two full years. The outcomes are amazingly strong: better kindergarten readiness and higher reading and math abilities in third grade compared to children not enrolled in the PCHP.

For three and four year olds we know from an abundance of solid evidence that the single most productive investment we can make as a city is to provide high quality preschool like the Seattle Preschool Program (SPP). Who wouldn’t want these life-changing results for our kids: higher likelihood of reading at grade level in the third grade, higher high school graduation rates, higher college entrance and graduation, better health, and higher earning power as working adults. (The SPP will soon wrap up its first year. Enrollment is open now for next September.)

All of these programs deliver culturally-relevant services, an important piece to ensure that their benefits are distributed equitably. And supporting families of color early allows for a stronger connection and relationship between those families and our public education system, which too often disciplines kids of color at disproportionate rates.

The best investment we could possibly make to eliminate the opportunity gap in Seattle is to intensify our efforts on the critically important birth-to-five years, supporting parents and equipping our children with the social-emotional, verbal and other skills necessary to enter kindergarten ready to learn and thrive.