Opinion Extra

Noble: After the flag: building a new legacy

Actress Jennifer Garner reads to a 4K class at Bishopville Primary School as part of her tour for the nonprofit Save the Children, which has partnered with 15 S.C. communities since 2003 to serve 6,616 children.
Actress Jennifer Garner reads to a 4K class at Bishopville Primary School as part of her tour for the nonprofit Save the Children, which has partnered with 15 S.C. communities since 2003 to serve 6,616 children. kkfoster@thestate.com

One hundred fifty-seven children will be born in South Carolina today. They are among the first in more than a half-century who will be born into a state that doesn't fly the Confederate flag at its seat of government. A state whose leaders listened to their constituents, their hearts and the teachings of their faith, then took action in the name of grace.

Heritage was a word heard in the flag debate almost as much as grace. It means what has been given to us by those who came before. What will the 157 new citizens of our state born today inherit? These new South Carolinians, will they grow up strong and healthy, secure and loved? Will they receive the educational opportunities that allow them to become successful here at home or anywhere else they may go?

Babies’ brains are organs of nearly infinite potential. Each day, they are building new connections. As those neural pathways fire, they are building their abilities and understanding of the world. Adverse experiences build negative connections, while nurturing experiences create positive ones. According to early childhood researchers, nearly one in eight children (12 percent) have had three or more negative life experiences associated with levels of stress that can harm their health and development. That percentage is even higher for children living in poverty.

Richland County First Steps and the other First Steps county partnerships work to ensure that the 157 children born today will have as many nurturing experiences as possible by focusing on their relationships with the people most likely to care for them: parents and child-care providers. We work with pregnant mothers to give their children the best start possible, through evidence-based program models such as Parents as Teachers and Early Head Start that give parents the tools they need to be their children’s first and best teacher.

An estimated 90 percent of brain development occurs before age 5, yet 90 percent of all education spending occurs after 5. This is an inequity that must change if we want our new citizens to inherit a state where they can build a legacy for their families. The Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman writes, “We can invest early to close disparities and close achievement gaps, or we can pay to remediate disparities when they are harder and more expensive to close.”

During the flag debate, many legislators said they had never received so many constituent calls as they did on this issue. What if we felt the same passion and urgency for building our future as we do for representations of our past? We could make a commitment to health for these new children by convincing our leaders to expand Medicaid coverage. We could give today’s babies the experiences they need to be successful by making sure more of them receive high-quality early care and education through programs like the ones offered by First Steps. We could resolve the issues of education funding raised in the Abbeville school lawsuit. We could start a community conversation about our legacy and our future. We can build a stronger state today.

The bipartisan effort to remove the flag in the name of grace inspires another virtue: hope. Hope for the 157 new South Carolinians born today and the other 56,998 who will be born this year, that they will have the opportunity to live in a state whose leaders remember that grace, and that ability to work together to improve our state. There’s more work to do. Let’s start at the beginning.

Mr. Noble is CEO of Richland County First Steps to School Readiness; contact him at rick@noblebelfast.com.

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