Helios’s Impact Strategy: PreK-Through-College Investments in 2022

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As we embark upon a new year, Helios Education Foundation is launching a Five-Year Impact Plan focused on outcomes, specifically for Latino and low-income students in Arizona and Black and low-income students in Florida. Data show that increasing achievement rates for these specific subpopulations is the most effective way to achieve equity for all students. 

Our Five-Year Impact Plan will guide Helios’s investments and research aimed at increasing opportunities for all students to succeed, and it will guide our advocacy for policies that contribute to equitable education systems in Arizona and Florida. But our hope is that the Impact Plan will be a guide not only for our own work but will also help to shape a vision for actions that can significantly improve education outcomes in both states. 

We’ve known for decades that significant achievement gaps persist for certain student populations. And COVID-19 has shined a glaring spotlight on the fact that things have gotten worse for those students recently, not better. This is especially apparent in data on learning losses, growing achievement gaps, and declines in postsecondary enrollment. 

Across Arizona, most students failed to pass the most recent standardized test, and third-grade reading proficiency, in particular, took an 11 percent step backward. In Florida, just over one-half of third-graders (54 percent) are proficient in reading, a four percent decrease from 2019. Across grades in both states, students often showed much larger decreases in proficiency in mathematics. Community colleges in both states saw unprecedented declines in enrollment. And educators continue to navigate a maze of public-health challenges impacting classrooms. 

There is no better time to address issues of equity, and what we do in the next five years will impact student outcomes for the next quarter-century. Supporting students and regaining losses starts with focused efforts today. 

Helios Education Foundation education priorities for 2022 include:

Support preschool funding: Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman has shown that every $1 invested in early childhood programs yields a $16 return. Funding pre-K and other proven programs for children from birth to age five strengthens families in their role as their child’s first teacher, improves the quality of preschool and other early learning environments and expands access to these programs, and these investments promote prevention and early identification of health problems that can impact learning later on. 

Yet, fewer than 20 percent of Arizona three- and four-year-olds are in a quality early learning setting. If federal legislation is passed, the preschool funding provision would be a game-changer as we work toward Arizona’s goal of 45 percent of three- and four-year-olds in a quality early learning setting by 2030. Florida has voluntary Pre-K that the state pays for, and the latest data show that six percent of 3-year-olds and 85 percent of four-year-olds in Florida are in preschool.

Ensure students read by the third grade: Reading is the most essential academic skill because it is the foundation for learning. Through third grade, children learn to read; after third grade, students read to learn. Without a strong foundation in reading, children are left behind at the beginning of their education. 

Before COVID-19, Arizona had small, steady gains in third-grade English Language Arts (ELA) proficiency numbers. Since 2018-19, we have seen an 11 percent drop in third-grade ELA proficiency scores. In Florida, third-grade reading proficiency had been on an upward trend peeking at 57.8 percent in 2017. However, the pandemic has interrupted that growth with a four percent decline in 2021. Last year, both states made significant investment and policy changes to focus on early literacy. As we implement those changes, we will continue our focus in both states on investment and policy improvements. 

Expand rigorous coursework opportunities: Raising expectations for all students to enroll in rigorous courses, including AP, dual- or concurrent-enrollment courses, or International Baccalaureate, is crucial—particularly for students who have historically been underrepresented in those courses. In addition, promoting rigorous coursework often instills skills that benefit students in the workforce, such as teamwork, critical thinking, problem-solving, and a stronger work ethic. 

Last year, Arizona made a sustained commitment to fund low-income student Advanced Placement test fee waivers. This year, we will focus on providing increased access through dual-enrollment offerings. In Florida, our collaborative work with the Florida College System Student Success Center continues to identify and promote policy opportunities to make dual enrollment offerings more accessible.

Increase college completion: By every measure, higher education is the surest ticket to a better life, even with the massive rise in college costs and recent dips in federal aid. College access is not enough; college completion is what’s needed. College graduates are likely to earn $1 million more over their lifetimes than their counterparts with high school diplomas. A college degree also brings stability: For the past two decades—through boom economies and recessions alike—the unemployment rate for high school graduates has remained about double what is for college grads. Without a college degree, children born in the lowest fifth of the income distribution have a 45 percent change of staying in the bottom, and just a five percent chance of moving to the top. Yet, when these same children go on to earn a college degree, their chances of making it to the top nearly quadruple, and their chances of moving out of the bottom increase by 50 percent. 

Arizona and Florida have rallied around an attainment goal of 60 percent by 2030. Yet, in the past two years, we have seen enrollment declines in community colleges. We must address this drop in enrollment and re-engage students on the path to pursuing a college degree. Florida has a statewide financial aid system, but Arizona does not. It’s essential that one be established. A strong first step was made with the establishment of the Arizona Promise Program, which allows low-income students to attend college tuition-free. But more must be done. That includes additional investment in Arizona Promise as way to invest in our college-going population and future talent pipeline for a vibrant Arizona. 

Taken together, these focus areas provide a roadmap for clear actions that can make an enormous difference in improving education in Arizona and Florida, and thereby improve economic outcomes and people’s lives. Helios calls on policymakers in Arizona and Florida to take up these efforts and asks our partners and the public sector to join in, to ensure that all children in Arizona and Florida have the full potential to succeed in educational pathways that will take them where they want to go.