LARGO — The head of a statewide movement dedicated to improving conditions for Florida's youngest citizens issued an impassioned challenge to Pinellas County leaders Friday to make educating children from birth their highest priority now.
David Lawrence, the former Miami Herald publisher who now leads The Children's Movement of Florida, told local community leaders gathered Friday it doesn't make sense that the government allocates $2,383 per child on Florida's voluntary pre-kindergarten program and more than $51,000 per child on incarcerating juveniles.
"Do not tell me to wait, that times are tough, that children will have their turn," Lawrence said. "I don't believe it. Children were never enough of a priority in even flush times. How foolish for the future of America."
Lawrence's call to arms came during the launch of a county-wide effort by the Health and Human Services Coordinating Council of Pinellas to better address the educational needs of kids from "cradle to career."
The group, which is led by county commissioners, the Juvenile Welfare Board and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, has already tackled issues dealing with homelessness, health and disaster preparedness.
Executive director Denise Groesbeck said a work group of at least 80 people will convene Feb. 8 in what will be known as the Learn & Succeed Network, an effort to bring educators, business owners, nonprofit groups, public service leaders and philanthropists together to more effectively prepare Pinellas citizens for future employment.
Groesbeck said Lawrence's stirring speech set the tone for what she hopes will be a productive community collaboration that will make Pinellas a better place for children and families.
Lawrence recalled his experience starting a family in Pinellas County in the 1960s, when he launched his newspaper career working for what is now the Tampa Bay Times. He painted a picture of the county as a good place to raise a family, to live work and play.
"But you are not perfect," he said, before listing some of the statistics that are driving this latest local effort:
One in six children live in poverty. Half of public school kids qualify for federally funded free or reduced price lunch. One in four third-graders can't read. And three of five 10th graders don't read on grade level.
Florida is a state that seems to have no problem finding money for roads and bridges, he said. But the needs of children — especially those in their first five years of life — have not received the same attention, he said.
Lawrence, whose leadership was key in passing a statewide constitutional amendment providing pre-K to all 4-year-olds, said more needs to be done.
He lauded the vision of the Pinellas group in pursuing that issue.
Groesbeck said she hoped it inspired some of those gathered at the Gus Stavros Institute to find solutions: "I think what he said to us today was a real call to action."
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or firstname.lastname@example.org.