SJ-R Column – Successful children create a successful community

As originally published in the The State Journal Register.

Research tells us how important education can be in a child’s life and how important it is to our local community. A high quality education is essential to getting and keeping a job with a livable wage and health benefits.

At United Way, we believe every child deserves a chance to succeed in the classroom and in life. This is why United Way invests more than $665,000 in 11 local programs helping to address three community identified Education priorities.

These priorities include children enter Kindergarten prepared with the skills needed to succeed; children reach academic milestones on time and successfully transition to middle school; and lastly, children transition to high school and develop the skills needed to graduate on time with a plan for success after high school. 

A current focus of our local United Way is kindergarten readiness. Kindergarten-aged children from low-income families and those with little to no prior pre-k experience can struggle with basic skills such as recognizing letters of the alphabet, speaking in complete sentences, gripping a pencil and more. United Way of Central Illinois steps in with programs that provide the tools and resources for young children to be prepared for their first day of school.

We know children enter kindergarten at different levels of abilities.  To address this we partnered with District 186 and Matheny-Withrow Elementary School’s Camp Kindergarten: Ready, Set, Go! program to help twenty students have a greater chance at being ready for kindergarten.  New to our community, Camp Kindergarten: Ready, Set, Go!  is a three-week intervention which will work to ensure these twenty children have more skills they need for day one of kindergarten than if they had received no services at all.

Student behavior and attendance are also key markers of success. On average, one in ten kindergartners and first graders are chronically absent. Studies have shown missing too much school early on will make it harder for kids to master reading by third grade, a critical learning milestone. Chronic absence in kindergarten and in first grade can lead to problems with literacy, passing subjects and graduating high school on time.

We partner with local programs and their agencies such as Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Illinois, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Illinois, Compass for Kids, United Cerebral Palsy Land of Lincoln and Girl Scouts of Central Illinois. Together, we all work hard to provide strong role models, caring supports and new techniques to boost the child’s confidence, relationships and cognitive skills leading to improved academic performance.

We want to make all children strong, so our community can be strong. We work with local schools districts and families to minimize any obstacles that prevent children from performing their best in school. Together, the programs supported by United Way are improving the academic performance of hundreds of children in our community. Last year, these programs served 1,600 students in year-round and summer programs. As a result of their participation, 74 percent of children achieved growth in reading skills, and 79 percent showed growth in math skills. On top of academic achievement, 71 percent of students improved their behavior and 88 percent of students improved their attendance.

In addition to our work with local programs, United Way of Central Illinois is proud to partner with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library (DPIL) to bring new, free books to preschool age children in Sangamon County. Since launching the program in 2011, United Way has provided more than 130,000 free books to children in Sangamon County.

Children who are registered in DPIL receive an age appropriate book in the mail from when they sign up until their fifth birthday. The books the children receive also include engagement activities for the caregiver to read with their children and help with their overall development.  The program’s objective is to foster a love of reading for children and encourage parents to read with them. There is no cost or obligation to families who want to participate.

While investing in education is one clear way we can help our community, we also know the lives of our children are impacted by more than just school.

Children deserve to have a safe place to lay their head at night, to not be burdened by the stress of financial crisis, and have access to quality healthcare. This is why United Way of Central Illinois fights for the basic needs, education, financial stability, and health of every person in our community. Because to live better we must LIVE UNITED.

United Way invests in solutions that work to create change that will last. Thank you to all who give, advocate and volunteer to support United Way’s work. We invite others to join the fight and donate today. To see how your donation directly impacts our community, a copy of United Way’s 2019 community report, is available at www.springfieldunitedway.org.

John Kelker is the president at United Way of Central Illinois.

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