Looking home for solutions

Published Jun 2, 2018 @ 6:36 am

Journalist sees her Florida hometown boosted by program for kids

Of all places to look for solutions, why Pensacola, Fla.?

Up until a decade ago, the Pensacola I knew was a pretty town with a stagnant economy based on summer beach tourism, a large Navy base — and an aversion to change. I grew up there. The city’s raging social and racial inequality was hardly acknowledged, let alone addressed.

The spark for change came from the business sector.

Quint Studer, a hospital executive from Chicago, took on the city’s woes as a pet project, while at the same time winning the confidence of locals by investing heavily in Pensacola’s beautiful-but-moribund Spanish colonial downtown. Around the same time, the CEOs of the city’s four largest businesses — Baptist Hospital, the Navy Federal Credit Union, Gulf Power and Sacred Heart Hospital — decided enough was enough. They, too, wanted to do something to better educate the region’s children and develop a workforce that was ready to work.

I went home to visit family last year and could barely believe the change. Suddenly, Pensacola was the Early Learning City. Hospital CEOs, school teachers, pediatricians, nurses, new mothers,  old friends and neighbors … everyone had something good to say about the Early Learning City idea and Brain Bags project.

Its impact is still unclear, but what struck me was the community-wide excitement. That buy-in  has inspired normally sparring factions to work together for solutions.

New Mexico has long been consumed with talk of investing more in early childhood, but there has never been a clear plan around which the community – parents, educators, business leaders – could rally. What, I wonder, would happen if Albuquerque, Las Cruces and Santa Fe dubbed themselves “Early Learning Cities”? Or if New Mexico decided to hang its reputation on an  enchantment with exceptional early childhood programs that make a difference?

Top photo: Lauren Villagran at 10 years old in Pensacola. Provided.