150,000 at-risk pre-schoolers await a champion

There are more than 300 agencies and organizations in the St. Louis metropolitan area working to provide programs and services for children, according to Richard Patton, director of Vision for Children at Risk (VCR).

One might then logically ask:  with this kind of attention focused on them, why are our kids in such bad shape?

There is no question that many of our children are suffering.  Patton’s organization, which does research and collects data, has been publishing “Children of Metropolitan St. Louis” every other year for the past 18 years.  The most recent publication revealed that 22 percent of the children in our five-county metropolitan area live in zip codes where “the risks to their well-being are severe.”

Even affluent St. Louisans who rarely venture from their suburban zip codes know what these children need.  They need what all kids need:  adequate housing.  Safe neighborhoods.  Good medical care.  Plenty of healthy, nutritious food.  Loving caregivers.  Quality education, which begins early.

Patton estimates that there are 150,000 children in our area who are not getting these things.

It’s not because people haven’t tried.  Most of the 300 organizations working on behalf of kids have mission statements and action plans.  They’ve assessed needs and written policies.  They’ve collected information and developed strategies.  They’ve set goals and objectives.  They’ve raised money.  They’ve involved stakeholders and set up committees.  They’ve launched initiatives and measured outcomes.  They’ve organized and lobbied.

In the name of the children, they have continued to re-arrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.

No one is more frustrated by this than Patton.  For the past several years he has focused much of his time and effort trying to convince legislators and business and civic leaders that quality early childhood education is a good idea.

“Studies have shown the importance of early brain development, and people who are looking for a good return on their investment need to look at what happens when we invest in quality early childhood education” he says.  He admits that he has not been successful in “striking a spark” in the local business community to make early childhood education a part of economic development efforts.  And the state of Missouri  “doesn’t care about this stuff,” he says.

Patton continues to press on.  His latest effort is something called the St. Louis Regional Early Childhood Council, which will “develop a community vision for a comprehensive system that addresses the full range of early childhood needs for all St. Louis area children.”  Council members will work together to achieve that vision, “implementing and coordinating policies and programs in collaboration with involved systems, programs and initiatives all playing their appropriate roles.”

With all due respect to the underpaid, overworked, idealistic individuals who are laboring to keep this ship afloat, maybe it’s time to consider something else.  Maybe what this ship needs is a captain.

Someone like Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, an aggressive (and expensive) effort to change schools, families and neighborhoods in a poverty-stricken area of New York City so the children who live there will be able to compete with their middle-class peers.

At the local level we do have Chris Krehmeyer, executive director of Beyond Housing, who has led the effort to develop a project called 24:1 in the Normandy School District.  Under Krehmeyer’s direction, individuals and organizations in the two dozen municipalities that make up the Normandy School district are working together to create good schools, healthy children and successful communities.

But Canada is not here and Krehmeyer is busy, so the field is wide open for others.  Someone who is creative, and energetic, and knows how to lead.  Someone who has plenty of money, or who knows how to get it.  Someone who is willing to take chances.  Someone who cares about kids.

Undoubtedly that will be someone who has had more advantages than the 150,000 at-risk kids who are waiting for him or her to get here.