Dr. N. Jean Walker is vice president of United Way of Greater Atlanta and oversees the educational focus on youth and young adults for the organization. She spoke to about 400 guests during its annual leadership breakfast for women Friday. (Staff Photo: Johnny Jackson)
ATLANTA — The speakers each talked about the realities facing children who fall behind, all touting education must be a priority early to increase children’s chances of becoming successful adults.
Dr. Jean Walker, vice president of United Way of Greater Atlanta, spoke that message in her sobering account of early childhood education.
“We’re not there yet,” said Walker. “There is still work to be done. It is clear that not every child has the resources they need.”
Walker was among 10 guest speakers during Friday’s Sixth Annual Women’s Leadership Breakfast, presented by United Way of Greater Atlanta Women of Tocqueville and Johnnetta B. Cole Women’s Society.
The breakfast, titled “Early Learning Impacts Us All: Georgia’s Children Need You,” was held at the Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center in Atlanta. More than 400 guests in the ballroom heard Walker’s three points of advice for helping foster early learning in families.
“Read, read, read to young children,” she said. “Put away your electronic devices when children are around and talk to them, but more important, listen to them. They have a lot to say. Help close the vocabulary gap between low income and high income children.”
Walker’s third piece of advice referenced efforts to raise funds for United Way’s education programs.
“Take out those phones and make a difference,” she said.
Guests were asked to pledge donations via text during the breakfast, and those pledges — $50 here, $100 there — were projected in real time on two giant screens. Organizers reported attendees had pledged donations totaling more than $10,000 within the first 30 minutes.
Guest Dorothy Herzberg was impressed.
“It’s the power of bringing people together to help the kids,” said Herzberg, manager of the Atlanta Regional Workforce Board’s career resource center in Morrow.
The center, in Suite 350 at 3000 Corporate Center Drive, offers career advisement and aptitude assessments for adults seeking career opportunities. It served some 15,000 residents from Clayton, Henry and Fayette counties last year.
The center, with its federally-funded job search and training programs, is the result of a partnership between the workforce board and nearby Clayton State University.
“I would love to be able to work myself out of a job,” said Herzberg.
She said the work she does with the center fits into the United Way narrative that education is a means to abolish poverty.
“We work with adults but they have children,” she said. “We want to start with the youth, to increase their education level so that they are prepared to go on to universities and colleges.”
Herzberg quoted Clayton County’s 53 percent high school graduation rate from 2012, and she said many adults now are having to take remedial classes before they can even begin taking higher education courses.
“Poverty is taking over our world, unfortunately,” said Herzberg. “Kids are coming to school hungry and unable to learn. We need to get rid of poverty to be able to educate our children. And it needs to start at pre-school.
“Birth till 5 are the most important years in a child’s life,” she continued. “And they should know how to read. If they’re not reading on grade-level by third grade, then we can almost start counting the number of beds they need to have in prisons (by the number who fall behind).”
Herzberg said she believes parents should take ownership of educating their children by reading to them as early as in the womb.
“We need to take care of our kids, because they are our future,” she said. “They should be our first priority. The parents have to be able to rise up, and they (parents) should all have jobs. We should make sure that everyone is employed with a living wage and they have the ability to be self-sufficient.”
United Way reported that nearly 40 percent of Henry County families do not earn enough to be considered self-sufficient. The rate is 55 percent in Clayton County, according to the organization’s data.
Author and educational policy analystDiane Ravitch echoed Herzberg’s sentiments about supporting children during her keynote address.
The New York University research professor and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education spoke about making sure children are healthy at birth and as they develop through childhood.
“We know as a society that we have a fundamental obligation to our children because they are our future and we can’t afford to let them down,” said Ravitch.
Ravitch talked about education policies around the country and how they impact their communities differently. She gave words of advice to guests on how they can help affect change in metro Atlanta.
United Way of Greater Atlanta has its hands in communities throughout the 13-county region, said Judith Service Montier, the organization’s vice president of communications.
“What we want to do is to really help people understand specifically what United Way does and how we make an impact,” said Montier.
She listed the organization’s pillars of outreach in education, income, health and ending chronic homelessness.
“We believe society can stem all those issues through education,” said Montier, pointing to some education programs United Way is implementing in Henry and Clayton counties.
The Parent Leadership Institute is designed to help parents get involved in their PTA organization and improve local GED programs. She said the Early Reading First program promotes early childhood literacy and reading to learn.
To learn more about United Way’s presence in Henry and Clayton counties, visit www.UnitedWayAtlanta.org.