Kim Isenberg introduced Jonathan Scoonover as a Knoxville native and product not only of Fountain City schools but also of UT – with a BS in mechanical engineering and a master’s in public health.

Scoonover is senior vice president of strategic practice for the nonprofit Tennesseans for Quality Early Education and director of the Bright Start Tennessee Network.  He introduced his organization’s nonpartisan coalition dedicated to making it possible for Tennessee children to reach their third grade reading and math levels.

“All the studies show that, if they are performing at this stage, all things fall into place,” he said.  “Studies also show that kindergarten is way too late to start them on their path to third-grade competency.  We have something called a Heckman curve that shows that the earlier you invest in children’s education and development the higher your returns.”

The motto of the Bright Start TN Network is “Bright starts finish strong.”  They quantify three main domains key to kids making third-grade competency:

  • Birth-to-8-year-old learning environments,
  • Health and development,
  • Supported and supportive families and communities.

“We want to tap the power of communities,” said Scoonover. They are working in six regions: West Tennessee, Northeast Tennessee, Memphis, Knoxville, Chattanooga and Knoxville. “We are creating early-education plans for the communities with the goal of a five percent increase in reading and math levels each year. When we started out, we found that three communities already had early-ed plans for birth to age 8. For three communities, including Knoxville, these plans were new. The United Way is the backbone organization for our efforts in Knoxville, Northeast and West Tennessee.

In each of the three domains above, they have identified five keys to success. “These all answer the question, What does it take to get to success by third grade?”

Under No. 2, Health and Development, these keys include healthy birthweight, physical health, social and emotional health, oral health, and early intervention [when needed].  Scoonover talked about oral health as an indicator that could get overlooked, but can be actually a major factor in a child’s success at school.  Noting that, if you have an aching tooth, you can’t think about anything else.  He also noted that four year olds don’t brush their teeth on their own.

Under No. 3, Supported and supportive families and communities, there’s safety at home, positive parent/child relationships, reading with children, support for parents, and skilled and knowledgeable parents.

“Each indicator has a measure,” said Scoonover. “We’re tracking all 15 measures of success.”  Bright Start TN community partnerships are showing how to use data to understand barriers to success and how to deploy state and local resources to break down those barriers. “We are talking to policy makers to craft a state policy agenda and expand our advocacy network. Problems come up – for example, that we need more people in the child care industry – and we try to address them in policy.”

Frank Rothermel asked how they work with the United Way. Scoonover said that Ellie Kittrell, director of Early Care and Education Systems at United Way of Greater Knoxville, had come over as a Bright Start TN fellow and done amazing work.

Ed Anderson asked why a nonprofit is running this effort and not the state education department. “All branches of government address parts of these key indicators, but there is not a cohesive office of early learning.”  Scoonover would like to see one created.

Virginia Babb asked about the new preschool recently announced for economically disadvantaged students.  “It’s about what does the community want?”