Though he graduated from Grady in 2005, David Suitts returned to Atlanta heavily invested in the quality of public education. To help combat the poverty cycle, Suitts founded the program Unite4Kids, a nonprofit fighting for a minimum of $20 million of annual funding dedicated to early childhood education by 2018.
After graduating from Grady and later the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Suitts spent seven years as a high school teacher in Charlottesville, VA. He calls his return to Atlanta his ‘sabbatical from teaching,’ and founded Unite4Kids in the process. According to Suitts, Atlanta has the highest income inequality of any city in the United States, and he believes that investing in early childhood education is a way to combat this reality.
“The first step towards changing that for future generations is by making sure families have all the resources they need to raise happy, healthy, high-functioning babies,” Suitts said.
One way to ensure healthy babies is by providing quality early education. Ninety percent of children’s brain development occurs before the age of five, so a quality early education can make a significant impact on a child’s future. Unite4Kids sees this issue as a priority in policy making. By canvassing in communities and coordinating with office holders, the program hopes to establish sustained funding for early education programs by levying special taxes or passing referendums.
Suitts also wants to establish an independent Board of Early Childhood Development within the City of Atlanta once the program has been implemented.
“This board would be tasked with ensuring that money set aside for early childhood development is spent in the most transparent and best way possible,” Suitts said.
The initial goal of Unite4Kids is to better prepare kids for kindergarten and increase literacy levels for students entering the third grade, thus laying a foundation for future successes. The program aims to invest in early childhood development by purchasing baby boxes for hospitals, using subsidies to lower the costs of preschool and building childcare centers in areas that lack them.
Atlanta School Board member and 2006 Grady graduate Matt Westmoreland says that Atlanta Public Schools (APS) has already taken some steps toward bettering early childhood development. APS has expanded the number of Pre-K classes so that 38 schools have at least one. The merged districts of Whitefoord Elementary and Toomer Elementary now have three and four-year old classes, and the salaries of Pre-K teachers have increased to equal those of kindergarten teachers.
While he supports these initiatives and the Unite4Kids program, he is wary of the funding challenges initiatives like these face.
“I think everyone agrees that this is important,” Westmoreland says. “But early childhood education is not inexpensive. There is only so much money to go around.”
He also acknowledged that, while APS is making some strides in the area, there is still much more that needs to be done.
“You walk into APS elementary schools now, and not every kid in kindergarten knows all the letters of the alphabet,” Westmoreland says.
The staff of Unite4Kids recognize that although voters and officeholders almost universally believe in early childhood development, finding funding is the main issue. Jacob Friesen, a 2012 Grady graduate and a leader of Policy Outreach for Unite4Kids, says that setting priorities is the main objective in the search for funding.
“The issue in Atlanta is not what to support, but what to support first,” Friesen said.
While similar programs exist and have found success in other cities, they were only able to be successful after receiving substantial city funds. A program in Philadelphia was financed by a special soda tax, while a program in New York City was bankrolled by an existing education budget.
Friesen and Suitts understand that this relies on partnerships with elected officials and that funding is not set in stone. Friesen explains that early childhood development is a long-term game, and that benefits are more widely seen by studying graduation rates and career statistics. However, Atlanta has recently been concerned with only the short term, he says, particularly the fallout from the APS cheating scandal.
“Atlanta was focused on other problems,” Friesen says. “Which is why I think we are just now coming to the forefront of early childhood development.”
Suits says that the eventual goal for Unite4Kids is to allow Atlanta to become a leader in early childhood development across the United States. By investing in childhood education at an early age, he says the groundwork will have been laid for future generations: quality early education is proven to lead to higher high school graduation rates, which in turn lead to better secondary education, then to healthier wages and lives.
While Suitts agrees with Friessen that the benefits of investing in early education are seen long term, Suitts says there are also important short-term gains as well.
“Not only is it good because of future benefits, but it also helps the economy in the moment by allowing more parents to work,” Suits says.
While heavily enjoying his teaching experience in Charlottesville, Suitts also observed first hand the negative effects that a lack of quality early education has on students down the road.
“The old adage is ‘anyone can be what they want to be.’ By the time young men and women get to high school, that is not necessarily true,” he says. “I wanted to work in a place where this saying was true.”