Guest Columns

HAMILL, RITCHIE, SALEM: EARLY LITERACY NECESSARY STEP

An education bill with economic appeal

GUEST COLUMNISTS

In Colorado today, 26 percent of our students aren’t reading at grade level, as evidenced by the CSAP. We know from research and experience that children who don’t read well by the end of third grade are far less likely to finish high school, far less likely to attend college and far less likely to land a decent job. Not only does that have educational implications, but societal and economic impacts as well.

The more rigorous national assessment, the NEAP test, indicates that 62 percent of incoming Colorado fourth graders read below grade level. We also know that nearly 90 percent of high school dropouts nationwide could not read at grade level by the end of third grade. Taken by themselves, or in aggregate, these statistics are more than troubling.

For Colorado employers, today’s students are tomorrow’s workforce. As business leaders, we believe in the value of our state’s education system and want it — and our students — to be strong and successful.

Unfortunately, at the present time, that isn’t always the case. You see, our education pipeline has a leak: lagging literacy skills for students in Kindergarten through third grade.

Given the stakes surrounding the importance of literacy to our future, we are fortunate that bipartisan legislation, the Early Literacy Act (HB12-1238), is currently being considered by the Colorado General Assembly. This legislation establishes the goal and process of ensuring all students can and will read proficiently by the end of third grade. It also provides accountability, parental involvement and the proper support for teachers and students to succeed.

Because of the far-reaching implications for our state’s economy, Colorado Succeeds, Colorado Concern and the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce are working to educate the business community on the urgency and importance of improving early literacy. Together, these organizations are leveraging the voices of business leaders across the state — those that recognize that the best long term economic development tool is a more productive K-12 education system. By 2018, six years from now, 67 percent of Colorado’s jobs will require some level of college. Today in Colorado, 45 percent of our citizens meet that standard.

Colorado’s major industries are creating jobs requiring higher education. To meet that workforce demand, the state must dramatically reduce high school dropout rates and increase college completion. This process requires that we ensure our youngest students can read.

Did you know that each class of high school dropouts costs Colorado $4.5 billion in lost wages over the course of their lifetimes? This number com-pounds each year, and the lost opportunities are devastating to both the individual and the state’s fiscal condition.

Imagine a manufacturer losing one-quarter of its product between the beginning and the end of its own manufacturing line. In business, that would qualify as a crisis, and that is the condition of Colorado’s education system.

We know that the Early Literacy Act is no silver bullet, and it won’t remedy all the challenges of Colorado’s K-12 education system, but it is a sizeable and necessary step toward that goal. Unless we do something today to address this reading gap, we will not improve high school graduation rates. We will not have enough skilled workers to fill our jobs and effectively compete in the global workforce. We will not have enough qualified candidates for our military. Most importantly, we will not deliver on the inherent commitment to give every child a real chance to achieve.

Pat Hamill is Chairman and CEO of Oakwood Homes. Dan Ritchie is Chairman and CEO of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Hassan Salem is President of U.S. Bank – Colorado. Dan and Pat are members of Colorado Concern and the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. Hassan is a Trustee of Colorado Succeeds, a member of Colorado Concern and Chair of the Board of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.