Why Elon is Invested in Public Education

Raghu Tadepalli teaches a class during the "It Takes a Village" summer program.

Raghu Tadepalli, dean of the Martha and Spencer Love School of Business, teaches a class during the “It Takes a Village” summer program.

I am often asked why Elon University is so heavily invested in issues related to improving the quality of public schools. There are many reasons.

We are in the business of education, and most of our 1,361 employees care deeply about not only the quality of education Elon students receive, but also, of course, about the quality of education their children and grandchildren receive in local schools to prepare them effectively for college and careers. It is essential to have quality public education nearby in order to attract and retain the top-quality faculty and staff for which Elon is renowned.

We are also keenly aware that Elon’s future is dependent on a thriving economy and that the essential ingredient for successful businesses is an educated workforce. In the Great Recession, those hurt the most were the least educated, especially people without high school diplomas or with no education or training beyond high school. North Carolina’s Piedmont region is a textbook case; low-wage manufacturing jobs relocated abroad and are very unlikely to ever return. Success in the 21st century will demand more education than was expected for 19th- and 20th-century jobs.

But I am also in the grandfather stage of life, and I cannot help being concerned about the state of the world my grandkids will inherit.

My grandson, Caleb, just turned 5 and began kindergarten in September. Caleb began school with a long list of advantages: two parents who tell him he is loved many times a day; four grandparents and a bevy of aunts and uncles who add to his sense of security; a safe home and healthy food; two years of preschool under his belt; an abundance of books and toys; and a start on a college fund. Caleb won the lottery in terms of getting a good start on life.

I contrast Caleb’s good luck with too many other children in North Carolina:

  • Twenty-five percent of our children live in poverty.
  • More than half of the children entering kindergarten are not reading-ready, and there are significant implications:
    • Extensive research shows that reading skills are highly correlated with retention in school and success in life.
    • Children with modest reading skills by the end of third grade are quite unlikely to graduate from high school.
    • More than 36 percent of the nation’s fourth graders are unable to read at a basic level and often do not catch up, even with remediation efforts, because after a certain point remediation comes too late for many.
  • High school dropouts cost taxpayers almost $300,000 during the course of their lifetimes due to the cost of incarceration and other factors, such as how much less they pay in taxes. Dropouts are more than twice as likely to live in poverty, according to the Department of Education.

One of the things that I am most proud of about Elon University is our multifaceted effort to impact the arc of children’s education here in Alamance County, from preschool to elementary school to high school and ultimately through college.

The Elon Academy is a nonprofit college access and success program for academically promising high school students in Alamance County with financial need and no family history of college. The Elon Academy celebrated its 10th anniversary this year and we are grateful for the support it has received from generous alumni and the local community. The program has achieved remarkable success with 145 scholars completing the high school portion of the program and 100 percent of those earning acceptance to college. Thirty-seven scholars have already received their college degrees, two are in graduate school and 85 scholars are currently in college. Nearly two-thirds of the first Elon Academy class members have graduated college. By comparison, the Pell Institute finds that only 15 percent of lower-income students attain a bachelor’s degree. Our two most recent classes to complete the program, the Eta and Theta scholars, received a combined total of nearly $5.5 million in merit-based aid from various colleges and universities. This is proof of the tremendous return we are receiving on our investments in making sure young people are ready for college. The Elon Academy is in the business of changing lives, providing opportunity and creating access for a generation of children who may not have thought that college was a possibility.

Why are college prep programs like the Elon Academy so important? National studies show that lower-income students tend to have lower educational expectations, and higher-income students are more than four times as likely to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher. This doesn’t mean that low-income students do not have the capacity or ability to graduate from college. It simply means these children have not been provided the right tools and opportunities to succeed at the collegiate level. The Elon Academy is providing those tools and skills that prepare students, regardless of their financial resources, to gain college admission and to graduate.

Another exciting and thriving program at Elon is our “It Takes a Village” Project, under the direction of Dr. Jean Rattigan-Rohr. The Village Project matches Elon students, faculty and staff and other volunteers with children who struggle to read. Each child receives individualized instruction, and the “secret sauce” of the program is family involvement, so that parents and grandparents can be part of the reading coaching process. I have been impressed by how hard many parents have worked to secure reading help for their kids. Professor Rohr just received a $1 million grant from the Oak Foundation to continue her work.

Our latest initiative is the creation of the Community Impact Fellows program, which we launched in June with support from the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust. Three fellows are working directly with families of preschool children in the Alamance-Burlington School System to empower parents to help prepare their 4-year-olds for kindergarten. It is becoming increasingly evident that children who have at least one year of preschool socialize better with their classmates later in life, have a more extensive vocabulary and ultimately read better.

Our fellows work closely with principals at Newlin, Eastlawn and Andrews elementary schools, lead teams of student volunteers to work in the program, conduct home visits, and partner with parents to help them get their kids ready for kindergarten. We believe this will be life-changing work.

What Elon is trying to support is an educational pipeline from cradle to college. We have too many leaks in our pipeline today and the human and social costs of losing children from our educational system are staggering. It is going to take many forms of leadership to stop these leaks, including elected officials, business leaders, educators, church leaders and anyone who understands the importance of an educated populace to a prosperous economic future and a free society. Most of all, it demands community leadership that insists a focus on children must be our most important priority.

Leo M. Lambert

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