Our city has been synonymous with excellent schools, attracting parents from near and far to start their families in Mesa. In fact, Money.com named us the best big city in the Southwest in part because of our roster of stellar schools. My dad, who was a long-time Mesa elementary school principal instilled in me an appreciation for the critical role of Mesa’s schools. Education is a Mesa core value. If we lose that, we risk becoming just another set of stop lights in the greater Phoenix metroplex.
About two years ago, I had an eye-opening conversation with Mesa Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael Cowan who told me about the declining assessment scores of incoming kindergarteners. Too many kids are showing up for kindergarten unprepared to learn.
The examples are heart breaking: Some children cannot count to 10, recognize colors or even know how to turn pages in a book. This disheartening trend is happening in cities in Arizona and across the country. If we want to ensure all of Mesa’s students are ready when they enter school, it’s essential that our community bridge these pre-kindergarten gaps.
That is why I established the Early Childhood Education Task Force in early 2016. They produced a report with recommendations to City Council about how we can approach this growing problem. Over the next year, we collected more information about what early childhood education programs worked, conducted focus groups with our targeted audience, built partnerships with school districts and other Mesa agencies, looked for funding and developed a pilot project for Mesa 4-year-olds and their families.
Being prepared for kindergarten is a precursor to overall student success, which plays a role in whether a student goes to college and helps determine what kind of job they will have in the future. Why is this important to the city of Mesa? Well, a major factor in economic development is an educated workforce. When companies big and small are looking for a location for their business, they look to education statistics to see if the existing workforce can fill their need for employees. Right now, companies may be passing on Mesa because of our workforce and that needs to change.
What also needs to change is the cycle of poverty in Mesa. All the families we are targeting can’t afford to send their children to pre-school at a cost of around $4,000 per year nor do they have the time to focus on their child’s pre-k education. Most are busy trying to make ends meet and get food on the table.
Mesa K-Ready is the name of the pilot program we have developed to engage families of 4-year-olds who are living at or below the poverty line. The program includes a free device from T-Mobile with discounted Wi-Fi, Miss Humblebee’s Academy online kindergarten preparatory program and mentors to guide families through the program and connect them with partner resources like job training, food bank assistance and financial assistance.
Miss Humblebee’s Academy is already available, for free, to all Mesa children through the Mesa Public Library. Anyone with a library card can access the program. In addition, Mesa will be providing enrichment activities for children enrolled in Mesa K-Ready through our museums, libraries, arts and parks and recreation programs.
The first goal of Mesa K-Ready is to increase the number of children getting a pre-k education in Mesa from 36 percent to 50 percent, the national average. If the pilot is a success, the program will ramp up over the next five years to reach the goal of serving 1,000 children per year, which will bring us up to the 50 percent.
The next steps are implementing the pilot in January and fundraising for the future of the program. Mesa United Way, Mesa Chamber of Commerce and Mesa Public Schools are fantastic partners in Mesa K-Ready and have already provided extensive resources and leadership in our quest to turn the tide for our future.
Right now, the pilot is funded by A Better Community (ABC) utility bill donations and a philanthropic match. This public-private partnership will rely on philanthropic donors to survive. If you are interested in supporting Mesa K-Ready contact Mesa United Way.
– John Giles is the mayor of Mesa.