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Dalton Links Early Education and Workforce Development

August 4, 2014
Early childhood literacy is a community-wide priority in Dalton. Early childhood literacy is a community-wide priority in Dalton.

The future looks bright for the city of Dalton and its youngest residents thanks to several community stakeholders collaborating on one issue.

In 2009 the Archway Partnership, a University of Georgia outreach program designed to help communities articulate their highest priority needs and link those needs to the resources of the University System of Georgia, came to the city of Dalton.

“Unlike many community development initiatives, we don’t just drop in, tell the community what to do, and then leave,” explained Melissa Lu, a University of Georgia Dalton-Whitfield Archway professional. “Instead, we actually work in the community for a prolonged period of time.”

In 2009, Lu moved to Dalton to help community leaders articulate their highest priorities. “We conducted an extensive visioning process through which we identified 14 priorities,” she explained. “However, as residents continued to meet and talk about the priorities—whether it was economic development, the workforce or even how we have a robust trail network—the conversation always came back to education.”

With education as its focus, the Archway Partnership launched several initiatives. One is First Five, a prenatal to pre-K collaboration that includes a professional supported by a community team. The city of Dalton helps fund the position and vocally supported its creation.

“The city talked incessantly about the importance of the birth to pre-K years and rallied community support around the issue,” Lu said. The First Five group is focused on developing education programs and activities for children from birth to age five. Soon after coalescing, the First Five committee noticed that a lot of local children were entering kindergarten unprepared. That’s when the Archway Partnership launched Saturday Academy for children ages 3-5 and their families. The city along with several community partners also helped to fund the program.

“We were able to provide 30 families with a 3- to 5-year-old with family-oriented preschool experiences on Saturdays,” Lu explained. “After the academy, we compared pre- and post-testing of the children and saw that those Saturday classes made a statistically significant increase in how prepared the students were for kindergarten.”

Another Archway initiative is the Readers to Leaders program, launched in 2012. The program is designed to make early childhood literacy a city- and county-wide priority.

“Readers to Leaders is a coordinated community effort to strengthen education and workforce development both inside and outside the classroom,” Lu said. “It developed after community leadership decided to develop an intensive literacy focus in all elementary schools. Our initial focus is on the early end of the learning cycle—ensuring that students are ready to learn when they enter primary school, and that all students are reading at grade level by the end of the third grade. However, we hope to expand our efforts over time to bolster learning and workforce development along the birth to work continuum.”

The Readers to Leaders program promotes literacy through a number of efforts, including literacy celebrations, mobile libraries and book giveaways. Health professionals are also engaged. When parents bring in young children for doctor visits, the physicians often review literacy and brain development milestones.

“Through Archway’s ability to connect our community with UGA’s resources as well as Archway’s ability to actively facilitate conversations amongst our community leaders, the entire community was ultimately able to unite on the Readers to Leaders program,” said Dalton City Administrator Ty Ross.

With continued city support, the residents engaged in the Archway Partnership want to sustain programs launched by the group and continue to unify the community around improving education.

“We decided to form The Northwest Georgia Education Alliance,” Lu said. “The vision for that organization is simply to transform the community by using education as a catalyst.”

For cities who want to support education efforts, Lu offers this advice: “The mantra in our community is that ‘Schools cannot do it alone.’ A robust partnership between multiple community players ensures long-term success.”