Erin Gavin: A Chance at a Head Start

BklnCtrDuring his most recent State of the Union address, President Obama called for a renewed investment in high-quality early education experiences for all children saying: “In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children… students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own. We know this works. So let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.”

As a Twin Cities middle and high school literacy teacher, I saw how students who started the race behind struggled mightily to catch up to their peers. Research shows that students who read proficiently by third grade are six times more likely to graduate from high school than students who do not. However, I encountered 8th, 9th, and 10th graders who had not yet achieved third-grade reading proficiency. I saw committed parents, teachers, and school community members help these students rapidly make progress, but it is impossible not to feel that they deserved much more, much earlier.

A few years ago, I left the classroom to pursue work in education policy. I feel called to help ensure that all children receive a high-quality education by working to improve the systems that serve them. Excellent classrooms undoubtedly strengthen each child’s educational trajectory. When those classrooms exist in excellent systems we can virtually guarantee a child’s success.

It’s no surprise, then, that McKnight’s commitment to fostering aligned, high-quality PreK-3rd grade educational pipelines resonates with me. Through its Education & Learning program, the Foundation aims to increase the percentage of third graders reading proficiently in three ways. First, McKnight is working to establish first-rate systems for literacy development beginning in Pre-Kindergarten. Second, McKnight is gathering, analyzing and sharing useful field data with policy makers and practitioners. Third, McKnight is activating community members and stakeholders to advocate for high-quality early learning systems.

As a brand new McKnighter, I look forward to participating in all these endeavors. My first few weeks on the job have offered me opportunities to get to know grantees and community members. I have traveled the Twin Cities meeting with teachers, principals, local leaders, and education advocates. These energizing conversations have highlighted the power of developing parents and students as advocates for great schools while forging strong partnerships between community-based PreK programs and school districts. I walk away from every encounter enthused about the prospect of creating lasting change for Minnesota students.

On a very personal level, my most important meetings so far have been serendipitous encounters with some of my own former students — like Mohamed working the front desk at Minneapolis Parks and Recreation, or Terrance marching proudly into his first driver’s education class. Despite past challenges, and a school system that wasn’t always able to serve them well, these young men are seizing success today. But I can see how hard they’re working and how fast they’re running to catch up with peers who started school more academically and emotionally prepared. They inspire me to dig in and work harder – setting my sights on giving the next generation that chance at a head start.

GavinHeadshotErin Gavin
Education & Learning Program & Policy Officer, McKnight Foundation