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Local teachers Jennifer Connolly and Brittany DeFazio were recognized for their efforts to increase literacy among youth.

At the 15th annual United Way Business Breakfast, the nonprofit organization provided a presentation to Tucson’s business community about a topic they all care about: a strong local economy. 

And the way to achieve and maintain that strong local economy is through investment in early childhood literacy.

United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona brought in speakers who highlighted the benefits that are possible if every child has access to quality preschool, a goal the State of Arizona has been falling behind on for years.

“United Way and its many business and community partners launched the Cradle to Career Partnership in 2016, to ensure every child from birth to 24 (years) reaches their greatest potential,” said Daisy Jenkins, president of Daisy Jenkins & Associates and a Women United member.

Cradle to Career brings together community leaders from across disciplines to provide resources and technical support to schools in Pima County, funded through a network of private organizations.

Their leadership comprises of multiple school district superintendents, literacy and child advocacy nonprofits, local higher education institutions, representatives from Pima County government and more.

Cradle to Career’s Kindergarten Readiness Change Network helps increase access to quality early childhood education, increase the number of early childhood educators with degrees and increase family support and engagement.

Success in this area of need is measured through kindergarten readiness and third grade reading proficiency. According to the recent AZMerit standardized testing, only 43 percent of third graders in Pima County are reading at grade level.

“If our children are not educated, then ultimately it’s the road to incarceration,” she said.

Edmund Marquez, board chair of United Way, said a lack of education early on in life becomes a compounding issue with lasting effects.

“If they can’t read in third grade they can’t read in fourth grade, this compounds to seventh grade, it compounds to high school and it compounds to later unemployment, and it compounds into prison,” Marquez said. “It’s that blunt.”

Tucson Metro Chamber President and CEO Amber Smith, who is part of the Cradle to Career leadership council, said communities can’t grow without investment in education. She said the conversation has to expand to include community colleges and universities to create “multi-generational changes.”

Increased access to quality childcare would allow more parents to go back to school and to work, instead of staying home with their children out of necessity, Smith said. This would have a positive ripple effect on the local economy. She cited the Economic Policy Institute’s research, which found that parents spend $42 billion annually on early child care, nationwide.

Smith pointed out that Arizona taxpayers contribute $25,000 per individual to house a large prison population. She sees a better use for that money.

“What if we could shift that funding from the inmate towards quality preschool education,” Smith said. “We know that investing in early quality education is a significant deterrent from that child relying on government assistance in the future, and a way to avoid future incarceration. If we invest in that child today, in 15 years we’ll see that change. We’ll be able to track a reduction in poverty.”

The event’s keynote speaker, Art Rolnick, is a senior fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. He spent his career working as an economist, even serving as a senior vice president and director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis. But during his career he discovered the clear monetary value of supporting early childhood education, and now advocates for all communities to start making this crucial investment.

He said early childhood education is the best public investment that exists, because it has the highest return on investment.

His research found that children who were exposed to free high-quality preschool programs coupled with home visits to engage their parents in education provided an 18 percent annual return on a $20,000 investment.

Meanwhile, investments in the stock market provide an average return of 5.8 percent.

The high return comes from assigning monetary value to those children being much less likely to require special education, to be held back a grade, to commit crimes later in life, and being more likely to secure employment and live without government assistance, compared to a control group.

“We’re probably underestimating the return,” Rolnick said. “We didn’t have data on siblings in the family, we didn’t have data on the children of the children, we didn’t have data on teacher productivity, we didn’t have any data on health metrics. Any business that’s on an 18 percent inflation-adjusted return—they would fully fund it overnight.”

This research led to $20 million, completely funded through private companies and nonprofits in Minnesota, put toward 650 high quality preschool scholarships for at-risk children in St. Paul over four years, starting in 2006. It was called the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation.

Critics of the project argued funding low-income families’ childcare costs would not work because there were not enough quality preschool providers in the area.

“When the word got out that 650 families had scholarships paying up to $10,000 a year, all of a sudden the market responded,” Rolnick said. “Montesorri expanded their programs, faith-based expanded theirs, New Horizon built a brand-new facility right in the heart of this very low-income neighborhood. This is real economic development.”

Rolnick expressed support for recent local efforts to get early quality childhood education funding for low-income families through the county budget.

“Politically, over the years this issue has been marginalized, it’s viewed as a women’s issue, it’s viewed as ‘it’s not my kids, it’s somebody else’s children,’” Rolnick said. “I say ‘wrong.’ When these kids succeed, our community succeeds.”

Recognized at the United Way Business Breakfast for their efforts to expand literacy were local educators Jennifer Connolly and Brittany DeFazio.

Connolly is a preschool teacher at Gale Elementary. DeFazio is a first-grade teacher at Anza Trail School in Sahuarita.

Connolly was nominated by Reem Kievet, TUSD Director of Community Schools and Preschool Programs, while DeFazio was nominated by the Ortiz Family, parents of a current student.

“The Women United team has, once again, found exceedingly high talent in our community when you consider the influence that Jennifer Connolly and Brittany DeFazio have on children in our classrooms,” stated Tony Penn, president and CEO of United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona. “Increasing literacy rates in Southern Arizona and among our young learners is vital to their success and ours as a community. Today’s honorees show us that with enthusiasm and hard work, positive results that make a real difference in the lives of our children can be reached.”

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