The Speaker’s Task Force on Education and Poverty: Mentorships and Early Childhood Programs Providing Pathways out of Poverty

The Speaker’s Task Force on Education and Poverty concluded its sixth hearing on October 26, 2017. The task force heard testimony from subject matter experts Susan Zelman, executive director of the Ohio Department of Education, and former State Senator Shannon Jones, who now serves as the executive director of Groundwork Ohio.

Zelman, who previously served 10 years as the state superintendent of public instruction, testified on the successes of the Ohio Community Connectors program. Signed into law in 2014, Community Connectors is a grant program designed to bring community, business, and religious organizations together with parents to support students in school districts with high proportions of disadvantaged students and high dropout rates. The program encourages students to examine future prospects through mentorship opportunities. According to Zelman’s testimony, students with mentors have better attitudes toward school and a greater appreciation for learning new things. They are 52 percent less likely to miss a day of school than their peers without mentors, and 55 percent more likely to enroll in college.

Joining Zelman in her testimony were representatives of organizations currently receiving Community Connectors grant dollars. John Neville, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of West Central Ohio, expressed that the grant allowed his organization to provide mentorships that otherwise never would have been possible for children that lack positive adult role models at home.

Task force members expressed curiosity about the depth of evidence supporting the positive impacts of mentorships on educational outcomes for at-risk youth. Zelman and Neville each assured the task force they would provide data from their respective programs as well as national studies to the chair for review.

Shifting the focus from adolescence to early childhood, former Senator Jones testified on the need for greater attention toward the first five years of life for at-risk children. Jones’ organization, Groundwork Ohio, is an advocacy group that focuses on early child care and education, by emphasizing the role education plays in Ohio’s greater economic landscape.

Jones drew attention to the disconnect between the fact that 90 percent of brain development occurs before the age of five, while over 90 percent of public education dollars are used on programs for children over five years old. According to Groundwork Ohio, every public dollar invested in early childhood education could yield an ROI as high as $9.20, with cost savings from less time served in jails and prisons, fewer teen pregnancies, and more high school graduations.

The Step Up to Quality initiative was an area of particular focus in Jones’ testimony, as she pointed out that Ohio is falling behind on its goal to have 100 percent of its licensed child care providers be rated in the 3-5 star range in the voluntary program by 2025. As of 2016, only about 13 percent of providers received such ratings.

Task force members had several questions about data presented by Jones, showing 43 percent of eligible children under 130 percent of the federal poverty level are not currently being served by publicly funded child care programs. State Representative Janine Boyd emphasized the importance of the Ohio Department of Health’s “Help Me Grow” home visiting program, which can serve as an entryway for hard-to-reach families to gain access to child care assistance. State funding for Help Me Grow has been cut by nearly 50 percent since 2014.

In closing, Task Force Chairman Bob Cupp announced that the group’s next meeting on November 9 will focus on wraparound services. At the final task force meeting on November 16, members will draw from their own expertise to prioritize lessons learned from each of the meetings and compile recommendations into a comprehensive report.

More on the committee can be found here in a recent Community Solutions blog post.