Kevin Woods wears two hats, but regardless of which one he’s wearing, the importance of early childhood development is never lost on him.
He’s executive director of the Workforce Investment Network (WIN) and Vice-Chairman of the Board of Education for Shelby County Schools.
As the person responsible for training people to qualify for local jobs, he sees firsthand how literacy and language development are pivotal in defining a person’s opportunities in life. In addition, as a board member of the largest school district in Tennessee, he knows firsthand the difference that literacy and language development can make in the trajectory of a child’s life.
Because of it, he is a passionate advocate for investments in early childhood development. “At the earliest age possible, we need to be investing in programs for our kids,” he said. “They need cognitive skills, literacy, numeracy, and the ability to read and write. Later, they need to be able to analyze information in high school to make them marketable in the workforce.”
Because of his work in workforce development and in education, he is directly involved in a continuum that runs from short-term – training people with the skills to get jobs – to the long-term – educating students who live in Memphis and the unincorporated areas of Shelby County.
Giving the Very Best: Yourself
Regardless of which he is dealing with, it’s inarguable that nothing is more important to the future of our community and its workforce than giving every child the positive experiences and nurturing parenting they need for optimal social and emotional development. Language development – learning to talk – is closely linked to learning to read, and the majority of reading and literacy problems faced by today’s adolescents and adults stem from problems that might have been avoided or resolved in the earliest years of their lives.
Children not reading proficiently by the third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school. Early literacy development is vital to later academic success. Children with poor reading skills are more likely to repeat a grade, which too often sets the stage for a pattern of failure in school.
“The data tell us that 50 percent of our kids are not reading at grade level,” Mr. Woods said. “It can lead to eighth grade (testing) problems and to dropouts. We have to invest in tomorrow’s jobs and we do that by investing in kids at an early age.”
The best investments of all are personal. “It’s about how we interact with kids, how we read to kids, how we give them attention, how we grow their confidence, how we let them know they are valued before they arrive at the doorstep of our schools, and how we get them participating in programs as early as possible,” he said. “There are no limits to what they can do, but it is important for us, incumbent on us, to do whatever we can as a community at the earliest age possible to get them ready to learn and to sit in an instructional environment.”
Priorities for the Present that Shape the Future
When the foundation of positive early development foundation is laid strongly, our community can track the benefits through a child’s education and into the workforce, he said. “For kids to be reading at grade level, we need them to have the opportunity to attend pre-K and other programs. At WIN, it is pretty startling to talk with people looking for work and to get an assessment of their backgrounds, the schools they attended, their lack of conflict resolutions skills, and the skills they need to enter or reenter the workforce. The cycle can repeat itself if we’re not intentional about giving the best education possible and investing in our kids as early as possible.”
From one foot in the world of workforce development and another in education, Mr. Woods has specific recommendations for the community. “We have to focus more on literacy, make investments in early education, work to get kids ready for school, keep them motivated, show the possibility of college, and it’s about teachers taking them from the classroom to the real world.
“Honestly, we have to look at the whole spectrum, but we can’t just put kids on an assembly line hoping that everything will turn out right for them. We have to look at every level, starting when they are in their early years, and schools have to be more agile to their needs and the needs of the workforce, pivoting quickly to address whatever’s necessary.”
It’s been said that educators touch the future, and that is the case with Mr. Woods’ work with Shelby County Schools, but in addition, his unique vantagepoint at WIN gives him a clear view of how the future is shaped in the first years of life at the time when language development is taking place. It’s a lesson the entire community should learn.
This was previously published as a Perceptions commentary by The Urban Child Institute.
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