Column: Business, civic leaders meet for early education summit

By Maria Saporta
Friday, October 8, 2010

Georgia’s children took center stage Oct. 5 during the inaugural “Early Education Summit” in the studios of Georgia Public Broadcasting.

It was the kickoff event for the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students (GEEARS) — bringing together nearly 300 leaders from all over the state.

“We are beyond thrilled by the turnout today,” said Stephanie Blank, a philanthropist who is chairing the GEEARS board. “We have business and civic and government leaders from throughout the state and beyond.”

Among the leaders present were both top candidates for governor and other candidates for public office. The co-hosts for the summit were Liz and Frank Blake (The Home Depot Inc.); Stephanie and Arthur Blank (Atlanta Falcons); Molly and Mike Eskew (Annie E. Casey Foundation); and Defne and Muhtar Kent (The Coca- Cola Co.)

Expert after expert outlined the issues. The United States ranks 22nd in the world, and Georgia ranks 42nd among the 50 states in the well-being of children.

Research shows that the greatest period for learning is between the ages of birth to 5 years old.

Mindy Binderman, GEEARS executive director, said the organization has conducted a survey of Georgians that showed that 83 percent support using lottery funds for early education. Also, 79 percent believe the voluntary Pre-K program should be expanded.

When it comes to Pre-K, Georgia is a national leader, according to Ruby Takanishi, CEO of the Foundation for Child Development.

“Georgia was the first in the nation to provide universal, voluntary Pre-K programs,” Takanishi said. “Georgia’s example has been an inspiration to the rest of the country.”

She added that of all the states in the nation, Georgia serves more children than any other.

“Despite the gains that have been made, Georgia, Florida and Oklahoma are the only three states that can claim universal access for 4-year-olds,” Takanishi said. “There’s always room for improvement.”

But a question exists — given that Georgia has been a leader in Pre-K for a generation, why is the state near the bottom of national rankings for education.

“Georgia is a leader, yet your scores at third grade are not where you would like for them to be,” Takanishi said. “There needs to be closer coordination between Pre-K and school districts.”

Another reason Georgia hasn’t shown more progress is that because its Pre-K program is open to everyone on a first-come, first-serve basis, usually the more affluent families get access. The program might have more success if it preference was given to families in need. Also, expanding the Pre-K program would help reduce the waiting list.

So GEEARS has its work cut out for it. Among those who will be advocating for children will be GEEARS’ founding board of directors, the members of which were announced at the summit.

In addition to Blank, they include United Way’s Milton Little; Spelman College’s Beverly Tatum; Childrens Healthcare of Atlanta’s Jay Berkelhamer; CWT Enterprises’ Lee Torrence; philanthropist Courtney Amos; St. Joseph’s Hospital’s Bill Garrett, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Gail Hayes; and Hughes Spalding’s Lovette Russell.

A million for Habitat

Atlanta-based Habitat for Humanity International honored former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, at the “Thanks a Million” gala dinner in Washington, D.C.

The dinner was extraordinary in another way. Home Depot CEO Frank Blake, who was co-chair of the dinner, reached out to his top arch-competitor — Lowe’s CEO Larry Stone, to be his co-chair.

“You can put competition aside for a night for a good cause,” said Brad Shaw, a Home Depot executive. And that was not all. The dinner’s proceeds for Habitat had fallen a bit short of the $1 million goal. So the co-chairs of the dinner agreed to split the difference so the goal could be met.

Liz Blake, who is an executive with Habitat and married to Frank Blake, said former President Carter was in great spirits. “He stayed till the end of it,” she said.

New name for longtime mission

The Atlanta Union Mission is adopting a new name and a new look. From here on out, it will be known simply as the Atlanta Mission. The decision to drop the word “union” was to remove any confusion that it was related to workforce organizations. Instead, in the 1930s, the word “union” reflected that the organization was a nondenominational Christian ministry.

Also, the mission’s new logo is of a lantern instead of a lamppost.

The 72-year-old organization is the largest and oldest provider of homeless services in Atlanta.

“The changes to our logo and to our name really reflect a renewed and transformed approach to impact the city,” said Jim Reese, the mission’s president and CEO, in an e-mailed statement. “With more and more individuals and families finding themselves in, or at the edge of, homelessness, we have modified our programs to be centered around life-on-life relationships that help guide and love people toward taking the next steps off of the streets.”

By the way, the mission has hired Jill Mays as the new director of My Sister’s House, an emergency shelter for homeless women and their children.

Emerging nonprofit

Another nonprofit organization is changing its name. The Possible Women Foundation International now will be known as Emerge Scholarships.

The nonprofit has helped dozens of women pursue their goals of getting a higher education and building toward a better life.

Emerge provides scholarships to women who have overcome significant challenges, who have had their education interrupted and have given back to the community.

Kathy Leggett Eldridge, who chairs Emerge’s board, said the organization has provided more than $200,000 in scholarships to 49 women since it was founded nine years ago.

Charlie Shaffer honored

Charlie Shaffer, a vice president at Westminster Schools in Atlanta, will receive a Distinguished Alumnus Award at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill during its University Day on Oct. 12.

Shaffer has played several significant roles in Atlanta. He was a trial lawyer at the prestigious King & Spalding LLP law firm. He was among the original leaders in Atlanta’s bid for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. And he has served as the head of the Marcus Institute.

At UNC, Shaffer received two degrees — a bachelor in history in 1964 and a law degree in 1967. He played on the university’s basketball and varsity tennis teams.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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