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Opinion: Tackling Crime Starts In Classrooms

By Ricky Godwin, posted Feb 14, 2014
Most of us have fond memories of our summer breaks from school. Exchanging classes and homework for sleep-away camps, family vacations, playing sports and exploring interests was a near magical transition.

I always viewed summer as a time of growth where I had the opportunity to explore new places, indulge in books I wanted to read and try new hobbies. So I was shocked to learn that while I was playing ball and attending summer camp during my summers, others were losing their ability to compete in school and being put on a track that could lead to serious life issues and sometimes even prison.

The reality is that there is a stark difference between summer breaks for middle and upper income families and those of limited financial means. Opportunities like those I mentioned above aren’t as readily available to lower income families. Children of these families often aren’t visiting museums, attending educational camps, and may not have reading habits reinforced. The result is what is known as summer slippage. Low-income students lose more than two months in reading achievement during the summer break from school, while their middle-class peers move ahead one month.

This doesn’t seem devastating on the surface, until you realize that the achievement gap increases every year, with the passing of every summer. By the time low-income students reach middle school, that gap can be as much as three years. As a result,
low-income youth are more likely to drop out of high school, which leads to poor job prospects and possible criminal activity.

Learning that summer breaks are the root cause for a great deal of the crime in our community was eye opening and disturbing for me.

Why, as chairman of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, am I concerned about crime? There are a number of reasons. Crime is a business issue from the perspective of protecting companies, property and employees. Crime is also a quality of life issue. We want to keep our families and property safe.

But crime also adversely affects economic development. As we learned at the chamber’s 2013 Annual Meeting from nationally recognized business site selector Jay Garner, an area’s crime rate is a prime consideration for relocating businesses and startups. It could be the reason that the next GE or PPD decides to locate elsewhere, or one of the reasons a business chooses to leave Wilmington.

The issue is exacerbated when high profile crimes occur. The media, understandably, do stories about violent crimes. We’ve seen it occur recently in Wilmington with reports about gang activity. Those high profile crimes paint an unflattering and often misleading picture of crime in a community. Many categories of crime are down in Wilmington and in geographic areas like downtown, but seeing those recent stories may make you think differently.

As part of our quality of life initiatives – mainly through the chamber’s flagship program Cape Fear Future – we have focused on crime. Chamber president Connie Majure-Rhett serves on the mayor’s Blue Ribbon Commission for the Prevention of Youth Violence. The chamber’s executive committee has held meetings with [Wilmington] police chief Ralph Evangelous, [New Hanover County] sheriff Ed McMahon, district attorney Ben David and more. The Chamber Foundation has been involved in the issue by exploring education initiatives.

One of the things that became readily apparent during our discussions is that those communities that are most effective at fighting crime – or preventing the conditions that lead to crime – are the ones where law enforcement doesn’t tackle the issue alone.  It became clear that there are ways the business community can make a difference and that the chamber could help rally area businesses to join the team.

At the chamber-hosted event Crime Hurts Kids…and Business on Jan. 22, we unveiled an initiative to tackle the issue of summer slippage by funding a summer enrichment program for low-income, at-risk students in downtown Wilmington. The Youth Enrichment Zone Summer Initiative will be piloted this year with 60 rising seventh and eighth grade students that demonstrate high need and at-risk behaviors, and are underperforming academically.

For five weeks (June 23-July 25), the students will participate in the Building Educated Leaders for Life (BELL) program at D.C. Virgo Preparatory Academy for four days per week, six hours each day. Academic instruction in the mornings will be reinforced by hands-on enrichment courses in the afternoons. Each Thursday, program participants will go on culturally enriching field trips and engage in community service projects. Breakfast and lunch will also be provided to all participants to help ensure focus on learning.

BELL’s programs are proven to boost student achievement and narrow the achievement gap. On average, students who participate in the BELL program during the summer gain 2.4 months of reading skills, instead of losing 2 months – a 4.4-month difference if they had not attended the program! Math skills are affected even more, gaining 3.9 months instead of losing 2.

I think it’s important to keep in mind that the children we’re talking about are in this situation through no fault of their own. Many are from broken homes, may not have the proper role models to provide a positive influence and – worst of all – will become part of a never ending cycle of poverty, crime and incarceration if something isn’t done.

With your help we can make a difference in their lives and transform our community in a positive way by lowering the crime rate and improving safety and security for everyone. The chamber has alreadyraised more than $21,000 of the $75,000 needed to start this program. Wilmington attorney George Rountree III donated $10,000 as part of the Wilmington Chamber’s Cape Fear Future initiative, and John Monteith (Monteith Construction Corp.) donated $5,000. An additional $6,000 was raised at the Crime Hurts Kids…and Business event through donations.

Please help us provide a way to ensure low-income students don’t fall behind in school and turn to crime as a means to survive. To donate to the Youth Enrichment Zone Summer Initiative, please contact Emily Fulp at (910) 762-2611, ext. 202 / [email protected] or visit
Rickey Godwin is the 2014 chairman of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.
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