Tim Penny Opinion-Editorial: MLK Day/State of the Union

Op/Ed
Tim Penny, SMIF
January 23, 2015

What Inspires Our Work

Last weekend, I took my 10-year-old granddaughter Ramona to see the movie Selma. I knew that there would be some scenes that would be hard for her to watch, but sometimes life is hard to watch. I felt she was old enough to understand and appreciate the important messages of the film-the value of moral leadership, and the virtue of equal rights and opportunity. Of course, she's getting to be the age where she'd rather go to Selma with me than go see Paddington with her younger brother. She's growing up.

She clearly knew that the events of the movie happened 50 years ago, and that what was being tolerated at that time was very, very bad. During the movie, she would lean over and comment and ask questions, and I marveled at her understanding. After the movie, she shared something special with me. She told me, "My best friend is black. And tomorrow, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I'm going to post a photo of us that says 'Friends Forever.'"

This powerful statement from my granddaughter shows huge strides in creating equal rights and opportunities for all. In her multi-cultural school, students are essentially color-blind and largely unaware that we once lived in a nation where discrimination was commonplace. However, we all know there are still challenges, and there is still work to be done.

And, we also know that in too many communities, too many students still do fall behind. Here at Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF), it is part of our mission that all children are ready to learn when they enter Kindergarten. All children-regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic background-should have equal opportunity to start school with a solid foundation for their future. We know that these critical preschool years can often determine whether a student falls behind and never catches up. With the generosity of donors, along with our own resources, SMIF continues to invest in this focus area-including grants, books, AmeriCorps LEAP personnel, provider trainings, and parenting classes.

In President Obama's State of the Union Address on January 20, he gave us some encouraging news. He reported that our younger students have earned the highest math and reading scores on record. In addition, high school graduation rates have hit an all-time high, and more Americans are finishing college than ever before.

That means we are moving in the right direction. Our work in early childhood development is paying off-and we're seeing the returns in those students who are now becoming our workforce. One of the areas that SMIF has a direct impact is in the preschool classroom, especially in places like Head Start, where many of our Foundation's AmeriCorps LEAP members serve. Our LEAP members provide one-on-one assistance to the children most at-risk of falling behind-and create opportunities for these children that they may not have had in the past.

The LEAP members who serve in these classrooms work to address social and emotional readiness, as well as reading skills. These special efforts mean that these preschoolers will be fully ready for Kindergarten and future academic success.

Here at SMIF, we believe that equal opportunity is advanced through the early childhood programming that we provide-and that the benefits of quality early education will last a lifetime.

As always, I welcome your questions and comments. You can reach me at 507-455-3215 or timp@smifoundation.org.

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