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The achievement gap, and how the Boston public school system is working to close this gap, has been talked about for as long as many of us can remember. By all accounts, the city has made important strides and has narrowed the gap between the academic performance of low-income minority high school students and their peers. In fact, over the past six years Boston has seen a seven percent increase in the graduation rate of black and Latino students. I applaud the city for this success but we need to do more, intervene earlier, and finally close this elusive gap — we do not want to be here in another decade talking about the same problems.

The solution is found not at the end of the learning continuum but rather at the very beginning. If we are to truly commit to closing the gap for the next generation of Boston Public School students, like any preventative medicine, we must remove the causes from the lives of our children in order to eradicate the illness. This requires our focus on the gap that exists with our youngest learners between the ages of 0 and 5. Currently, in Boston, just 34 percent of third graders score proficient or above on the MCAS reading section. The other 66 percent, who struggle with reading in third grade, are four times less likely to finish high school. Conversely, by investing in early education, we know that we are increasing the likelihood that low-income children finish high school by 30 percent and that 50 percent of those same children go on to college.

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Each high school dropout in Massachusetts, on average, costs $349,000 more over a lifetime – in decreased tax revenues and increased public assistance costs – than the average graduate. To prove this point, let’s look at the cost for one year. If we take the total number of students who did not complete high school in Boston during the 2012 academic year and multiply that number by $349,000, it would come to just over half a billion dollars. Any reliance on logic that we can’t afford to focus on early education, is not based in fact. The reality is we can’t afford not to.

If we are to be an economically vibrant city that is prepared to replace our aging workforce with highly skilled graduates, and ultimately setting up our students to be successful, self-sustaining citizens, Boston must invest in early education to close the achievement gap. It is here where the most impact can be made. Consider:

• Low-income children who receive two years of high-quality early education are 40 percent less likely to need special education. This number is significant if not staggering. We have seen special education costs in Massachusetts increase by 56 percent, or $760 million, between 2006 and 2012 compared to 36 percent for all public education.

• Conversely, for every $1 the Commonwealth invests in high-quality early education today, $10 is saved down the line by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, and even reducing violent crime.

It is imperative that Boston’s next mayor builds upon the great achievements of this current administration and takes this work and expands on it, ensuring that all of Boston’s children are ready to learn when they enter the Boston Public School system.

Dianne Luby is interim CEO of Horizons For Homeless Children.
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