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SIMMONS: Give venture philanthropy a good look

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Those of you paying close attention to the race for the White House probably have noticed the two concurrent themes on center stage. One is government-driven solutions; the other encompasses market-based solutions.

There's not much discussion about the third way, through the philanthropic efforts of the private sector, which includes venture philanthropy.

Like traditional nonprofits and foundations, venture philanthropy aids governmental and nongovernmental programs that bring about socioeconomic change. But unlike traditional nonprofits and foundations, venture philanthropy groups often look outside the typical boxes and use dual-purpose magnifying glasses to peer at the scope of a problem as well as the effectiveness of solutions.

One such group, Venture Philanthropy Partners, focuses on education in general and, with its first-of-a-kind comprehensive study of the Washington region, early childhood education in particular.

Planning to announce a major initiative on Wednesday, VPP supports school choice, youth mentoring and internship programs, and organizations with pipelines into careers and higher education.

Pre-K education is a tricky and prickly cause mostly because preschool hasn't produced academic results that were sustained by the third and fourth grades, when federal and state education systems measure the effectiveness of teaching and learning.

A 2012 VPP study, "Capital Kids: Shared Responsibility, Shared Future," provides keen insight into who is holding the short academic stick, where they reside and why our region should be repositioned to think outside geographical boundaries to grow a workforce for our already-global economy.

"I got a chance to get a great education," said D.C. native and founding VPP investor Raul Fernandez, chairman and CEO of the Reston-based ObjectVideo Inc., during an interview in his office at the edge of Georgetown.

While VPP's charitable ways always have embraced low-income families, the chief reasons why early childhood is ripe for microscopic innovation include:

Mr. Fernandez's point regarding the plight of those who fail to master the basics. Children who do not master reading by the third grade have a much lower chance of graduating from high school by age 19, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child has pointed out that middle-class children have a vocabulary of about 1,100 words by age 3, compared with low-income youths who have a vocabulary of about 525 words.

There are other factors. In the capital region, the U.S. Census reported declines between 2000 and 2010 in the number of white children younger than 5 (42 percent from 36 percent), and substantial growth in that age range among Asian children (8 percent to 11 percent) and Hispanic children (14 percent to 23 percent).

These additional facts from "Capital Kids" sharpen the image. The proportion of immigrant children rose across our region from Loudoun County in Virginia to Montgomery County in Maryland, with Arlington County being the only area to see its numbers decrease. Also, 1 in 5 students in Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax County is an English-language learner and 40 percent of children in our region have at least one immigrant parent.

Also, wealthy Fairfax and Montgomery counties are home to the largest numbers of children of immigrants in the region. In D.C. proper, the largest number of immigrants live in Ward 4, whose landmarks include the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

In paraphrasing Mr. Fernandez, you get a complete picture of the challenges: The immigrant population is changing the face of our region. Train teachers to teach young brains, the innovators of tomorrow. Reward, recruit and retain good teachers. Be smarter in positioning our students. There have been a lot of mistakes in execution. Reform doesn't happen overnight.

The third way doesn't kick Uncle Sam and his one-size-fits-all education policies to the curb, but it does entail employing proven solutions. (Besides, Head Start needs some stiff competition.)

For the sake of our children, wish VPP well.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at

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About the Author
Deborah Simmons

Deborah Simmons

Award-winning opinion writer Deborah Simmons is a senior correspondent who reports on City Hall and writes about education, culture, sports and family-related topics. Mrs. Simmons has worked at several newspapers, and since joining The Washington Times in 1985, has served as editorial-page editor and features editor and on the metro desk. She has taught copy editing at the University of ...

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