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Sunday, November 28, 2021

Investing in our future generation now

Five young friends standing outdoors smiling
For the last several years, “HoCo STRIVES,” which stands for Strategies To Reach an Inclusive Vision and Equitable Solution, has brought together government, nonprofits, community partners, and families to steer investments in the very resources and services that the most vulnerable in our community need to be successful in school.” Photo Credit: ClipArt.com

As COVID-19 quickly upended our lives in March 2020, some of those most drastically impacted by the world shutting down was our children and families. Over the past 18 months, we’ve redoubled our efforts to ensure that our families have the support systems in place for childcare, and our students have the resources needed to thrive. Put simply, we’re investing in our future generation now.

One of the earliest ways to set kids up for success is giving them access to quality education prior to kindergarten. Yet, many of our families with lower incomes are struggling when it comes to access to early education for their children. While Howard County is known for having one of the highest median incomes in our nation at approximately $120,000 per household, it also has one of the highest costs of living. In Howard County, 26 percent of families with children under the age of five find quality early childhood programs out of their reach.

Additionally, about 5.3 percent or nearly 17,000 of our residents live below the national poverty line, and one of our largest demographics struggling with poverty are women with children under the age of five.

That is why our Head Start program, which can now serve 362 children in Howard County, is critical for our young residents. Our Head Start program is spread across four early education centers, including this recently expanded space at the Long Reach Village Center. This new center will serve nearly 80 children and was fully renovated to meet the needs of our young learners.

From early math and reading skills to confidence and resilience, Head Start helps children build the skills they need to be successful in school and life. Head Start participants are 12 percent less likely to live in poverty as adults and 29 percent less likely to receive public assistance. Evidence also suggests Head Start not only helps kids develop and allows parents to go to work, but it may also help at-risk kids from ending up in the foster care system.

While Head Start, helps set up some of our young residents for success, we also have put support systems in place for our students already in elementary and middle school. For the last several years, HoCo STRIVES which stands for Strategies To Reach an Inclusive Vision and Equitable Solution, has brought together government, nonprofits, community partners, and families to steer investments in the very resources and services that the most vulnerable in our community need to be successful in school. This includes food access programs, mental health access, and social and emotional learning programs.

These needs were especially evident during the pandemic, where we called on STRIVES to step up its efforts for vulnerable children and families disproportionately affected by shutdowns and virtual learning. We met the emergency food needs of families suddenly facing insecurity, and we created HoCo Scholars to provide a safe space for 140 students to complete their virtual learning and boost their social interactions. The gaps that already existed were exacerbated during the pandemic, which will increase the strain that our children and youth are expected to face as they’ve returned to school buildings.

This summer we provided an additional $350,000 to our STRIVES programs to further our investment in these support systems, bringing the cumulative investment to more than $1.5 million in funding over our past three budgets.

This funding allowed us to double enrollment in the HoCo Scholars’ program, which works with rising middle school students to get them math and English ready, or support those that have fallen behind. Additionally, we are providing after school academic support for our vulnerable K-3 students at some schools. In addition to providing support to students, the after-school program will also provide quality programming for their parents and families. This will involve helping them navigate school system and human services agencies, as well as facilitating connections to mental health resources.

Howard County consistently invests in education, and this past year was no exception. For FY 2022, we contributed $628.3 million to the school system, $8 million above state-mandated Maintenance of Effort funding level and marking the largest increase over Maintenance of Effort in 7 years. Our average increase over Maintenance of Effort has been $5.8 million per year, compared to the four years prior of $4.7 million.

We’re providing vital funding, working with community stakeholders, and creating vital programs to support our vulnerable children and families. When we support our next generation, we’re also nurturing and caring for the future of our entire community and region.

For many parents, students, and teachers these past eighteen months have been especially grueling, and now it is more important than ever to keep investing in our educational systems. We work tirelessly to find solutions to support our students, parents and educators, and we’ll continue to work towards a community where all our children have the resources and support needed to thrive.

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