Education is supposed to be the great equalizer, the thing that can end generational poverty and change the trajectory of a person’s life.

“We often think of equality,” said Laila Bell, director of research and data for NC Child, a state-level advocacy organization in Raleigh. For example: “‘If we give every kid the same thing, every child should be able to thrive.’”

But there’s nothing equal about how children in North Carolina arrive at kindergarten.

Some students are more than ready to learn. They attended great preschools, and their parents read to them every night. They have plenty to eat for dinner or for breakfast every morning before they climb onto the bus.

But for others? They might have gone to a preschool that was more likely to suspend unruly kids than change their behaviors, depriving them of key early-childhood learning. Or their neighborhood doesn’t have a grocery store, and they ate junk food for dinner. Or their parents’ work schedule means that siblings watch each other, and no one gets a bedtime story.

Those barriers — invisible in the reporting of test scores and the grading of schools — keep kids from learning and attaining the long-term benefits of education, Bell explained.

So, NC Child has changed its focus to equity: “Equity is thinking about, ‘What are those barriers … that could potentially limit their ability to be present in class and learn? And how do we get at fixing those barriers?’”

What are the barriers?

NC Child is North Carolina’s partner for the nationwide Kids Count project, which gives a snapshot of what life is like for children, per the most recent data in each category:

  • 25 percent of children lived in poverty in North Carolina. In the Triangle, where jobs are more abundant than in many rural counties, the figures are 22 percent in Chatham County, 22 percent in Durham, 13 in Orange and 15 percent in Wake.
  • 56 percent of students received free or reduced lunch: 52 percent in Chatham, 64 percent in Durham, 32 percent in Orange and 38.6 percent in Wake.
  • 682,000 of North Carolina’s children, or 30 percent, have parents who lack secure employment.
  • 127,000 children, or 6 percent, live in low-income households where no adults work.
  • 508,000 students lived in households that had experienced food insecurity within the past year.
  • 206,000 North Carolinian children lived in a household where the resident parent was not a citizen. 12,000 children lived in a household where the resident parent had lived in the United States for five years or fewer.
  • 256,000 children in NC live in what’s categorized as crowded housing.
  • 151,200 children in NC under age 6, or 20 percent, are read to by their parents fewer than three times per week.
  • 88,000 of the 3- and 4-year-olds in poverty, or 67 percent, do not attend school. This compares to 53,000, or 45 percent, of children not in poverty.

Bridging the equity gap

Third grade comes up frequently in education advocacy discussions. Students who can read on grade level by the end of third grade are more likely to graduate from high school.

“All the research and evidence tells us children who are not reading by the time they reach the end of third grade are already behind academically, and are at risk of never catching up,” Bell said.

Under an equity-driven approach to education, the plan to get all kids reading by third grade starts when they are born.

NC Child has partnered with organizations across the state on Pathways to Grade-Level Reading, a project of NC Early Childhood Foundation, NC Partnership for Children, and BEST NC to measure and improve conditions that help children come to school ready to learn. The outcomes include goals as disparate as increasing the percentage of children born at a healthy weight and helping children reach literacy milestones throughout early childhood.

Orange County’s Family Success Alliance and Durham Connects’ Family Connects are examples of community organizations with smart approaches, Bell said.

In Orange County, the health department coordinates with schools, social services and many organizations to address the health, safety and welfare of students in two high-poverty school zones.

“It’s not enough for the schools to be working in the silos,” Bell said. “Schools and local health departments should be working together, along with local DSS departments.”

This is where Bell’s data collection for Kids Count comes in, to help those community partners made evidence-based choices with equity in mind.

Evidence-based choices come from “using that research and data to help illuminate where there are gaps between outcomes for kids and opportunities for kids,” she said. “And then using that data to lead the way so that they can begin to explore strategies and research-based solutions to those challenges.”

With equity in mind — helping all students enter school ready to learn — every student can take advantage of the state’s equal opportunities in education.

“What we know is, children come from different circumstances,” Bell said. “And that doesn’t limit their ability to learn and to do well academically. … It does create a different set of challenges or barriers that some kids have to overcome before they even cross the threshold into the school.”

Laila Bell of NC Child will be leading an opening session at What Matters: Our Kids on April 26, 2017. Through Our Focus, the Foundation is partnering with NC Early Childhood Foundation and United Way of the Greater Triangle to leverage resources, making a regional impact on literacy.  We believe that by working together to fund this critical work we will effectively ensure more children have access to the resources they need so that they can become proficient readers, and that we can change the landscape of future success.