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  • Janelle Irwin, Tampa Bay Business Journal

Early childhood learning dominates Tampa business summit

Business, economic development and education leaders as well as elected officials from across the state were in Tampa this week for the Learners to Earners summit hosted by the Florida Chamber of Commerce. The two-day conference focused on early learning initiatives that could bolster the state’s “cradle to workforce” pipeline.

“There are 2.9 million Floridians out of 21 million who are living in poverty,” said Florida Chamber President and CEO Mark Wilson. “Of those, 1 million are children.”

Those numbers were the center of the chamber’s summit this week as speakers noted that kids who are not reading at grade level by the end of third grade are four times more likely to not complete high school than their literate peers. For students who aren’t proficient in reading by fourth grade who also live in poverty, that number skyrockets to 13 times, according to chamber research.

The state chamber is working with local chapters on an initiative aimed at ensuring 100 percent of all first grade students are able to reach reading proficiency before entering second grade. The idea is to lay the foundation for quality learning early to ensure that graduating seniors are either college ready or prepared for a vocation or other continuing education.

“We had a lot of good representation from across the state from a number of different industries that were able to go deeper into our conversations about ‘how do you engage the greater Tampa business community on this,'” said Charles Hokanson, senior vice president for Florida community engagement for the Helios Education Foundation.

Helios focuses on early childhood learning, college readiness and college and postsecondary competition.

Hokanson, who spoke at the conference, said conversations about various industry skills gaps have been ongoing for decades, but those discussions are beginning to attract action. For example, a bill passed this year in the Florida Legislature provides protections for children within early learning provider settings like day cares and voluntary pre-kindergarten programs by increasing accountability measures. The bill’s champion, Rep. Erin Grall (R-Indian River), was recognized at the summit for ushering the bill through a contentious legislative session.

The chamber and speakers at its summit also highlighted efforts to better engage parents. A speaker Wednesday showed a widely circulated image of two brain scans. The brain in one image was significantly larger than the other, yet the two scans were of similarly aged 3-year-olds. The 3-year-old with the larger brain lived in a household with educated and involved parents; the other’s parents were low-income and less involved. The image visually makes the point that brain development is affected by environment and access to early learning.

“There really is a significant energy around the business community right now,” Hokanson said. “Kindergartners now will be graduating high school in 2030. They are our future workforce. This really is a pipeline issue.”


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