John Allison: Education, economic development and the 30 million word gap

John Allison, superintendent of USD 259
John Allison, superintendent of USD 259

Wichita leaders are passionate about the importance of an educated workforce to our region’s economic success. Our future rests on the shoulders of workers prepared to create, innovate, build, care and teach.

But have you thought about where workforce development begins? Not with our experienced workers or recent college graduates. Think kindergarten! Our future workforce is sitting in our classrooms today, and it’s essential that we focus on what it takes to help all of our young people achieve success.

Children from homes of poverty can face overwhelming barriers. By the time a child from a low-income home enters kindergarten, she will have been exposed to 30 million fewer words than peers from a professional home. If not proficient in reading by third grade, she is 13 times less likely to graduate high school.

Our focus is on both academic rigor and social-emotional supports that schools must wrap around every child in order to support their success. Words such as immoral and unethical have been used by critics of public education to cast doubt on the integrity of our expenditures. The reality is that 88 percent of Wichita’s operating budget is spent right where it should be – in schools and in classrooms, to directly benefit students. It would be irresponsible to do otherwise.

Today’s reading instruction is research-based and structured to meet the needs of students who start school with this 30 million word gap. Teaching reading is rocket science, and Wichita has invested significant time and resources on preparing teachers to be literacy experts. Through grade three our focus is on learning to read, which paves the way for a lifetime of reading to learn.

Elementary schools are filled with engaging, high-impact learning activities. Middle school students begin conversations about college and career to help them find their passion and consider the future beyond high school. More than 63 percent of all Wichita high school students will take at least one technical education class this year in subjects such as advanced engineering, bio-medical science, culinary arts, communications and fire science. Numerous college preparation opportunities allow students to leave high school with a semester or more of college credit. Across our district, real-world problem solving, career exploration, research and public presentation of ideas sparks creativity and imagination.

How do we measure success? Teachers review individual student data and create learning opportunities that increase student achievement and skill development. Focusing on individual student success has led to a 19.5 percent increase in our high school graduation rate in the last five years. Wichita students earned more than $30 million in college scholarships in 2015, a number that continues to grow.

My dream for our community is that all adults engage with our youngest citizens to support workforce development at its core. Read to a child, share a book with a class of young readers, ask children you meet what they’re reading today – and show them how much they mean to the future of our community. Allow employees time to mentor a child or provide job shadowing experiences.

Connect and engage with your child’s school in all the ways your schedule allows, and ask your son or daughter every day not just what they did today, but what they learned in school.

Wichita’s future success rests on our ability to support and retain a world-class workforce. Accept the challenge to help young scholars overcome the 30 million word gap, be inspired to change the world, and find support from an entire community along the way. This is truly where workforce and economic development begins.

John Allison is superintendent of the Wichita school district. He can be reached at 316-973-4580 or at Learn more about Wichita schools at