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Straight Talk SC series addresses critical issues in early childhood education

What Mary Lou Jones learned at Furman’s Straight Talk SC series just pulled at her heart strings.

After hearing the latest research on the importance of early childhood education, the Greenville resident decided she wanted to do more in the community.

“Education has always been my first love,” said Jones, an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute member and instructor and a graduate of Senior Leaders Greenville. “We looked at each other and said, ‘Give us a school. We’re going to make the whole school year count.”

Jones was able to connect with a Greenville elementary school that had a big need for parent and community volunteers. She and seven other friends plan to volunteer at the school in the coming year; they’re hoping to recruit a dozen more folks to join them.

“We know what to do,” said Jones, also a retired educator. “We want to make the best possible use of this time in our lives.”

Nancy Kennedy, director of OLLI at Furman, said she hopes Jones’s story will be one of many that emerge from the Straight Talk SC series, a partnership between the Riley Institute and OLLI. The third and final session was held at Younts Conference Center this week.

OLLI approached the Riley Institute about starting the program six years ago, and since then, the partners have produced the series each summer, Kennedy said.

“I love the fact that we provide this compelling series each summer for our members but also that we welcome the community to join in,” she said. “The issues we have examined each summer are important no matter your age or stage in life.”

This year’s theme, “Education for Life: Working Together to Fulfill the Promise of Education,” brought together approximately 150 attendees each week from a variety of ages and backgrounds. Approximately 20 speakers discussed ways in which educational institutions, parents, students, non-profits and community members are working together to help young people to become successful adults.

Featured speakers included: Dr. Sara Ryder, pediatrician and clinical assistant professor, University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville; Susan Alford, state director of South Carolina Department of Social Services; Dan Wuori, deputy director of South Carolina First Steps; Karl Alexander, Ph.D., co-author of The Long Shadow, which examines which children eventually succeed and why based on a 25-year study of nearly 800 Baltimore school children; Terry Peterson, Ph.D., director of Afterschool and Community Learning Network and board chair of After School Alliance; and Michael Usdan, Ph.D., president emeritus and senior fellow with the Institute for Educational Leadership.

The series provided a unique format of three-minute snapshot presentations on a variety of community programs, highlighting what’s happening on the ground right now, said Jill Fuson, assistant director of The Riley Institute at Furman. It touched on challenges faced by South Carolina in a time that is bringing demographic, cultural and economic changes. It raised questions, such as how families and communities can enhance early childhood development and how funding can be best invested for positive outcomes.

After last year’s Straight Talk series on the state’s criminal justice system, Mike Murphy, an OLLI member and former president of Lee College in Baytown, Texas, was motivated to investigate college programs available to prisoners in South Carolina. He presented the results of his work Tuesday.

Research has shown such programs reduce recidivism rates among prisoners by 40 percent, yet no programs are currently available in South Carolina, Murphy told attendees. That’s something he hopes to change through some grassroots activism.

“We have to create opportunities for rehabilitation so that men and women can come out of prison as different people,” said Murphy. “We can’t continue down the road we’re going.”

Though the series is over, members of OLLI and the Riley Institute are hoping to keep the dialogue going. As a follow-up, each attendee received an email with names and contact information for speakers and community organizations so they can ask questions, share ideas and learn about volunteer opportunities.

“Much of what occurs outside of school, even before a child starts school, can have a significant impact on a child’s academic achievement,” said Scott Henderson, Ph.D., series moderator, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Education and Furman’s Director of National/International Scholarships. “There is a critical need to integrate services and programs in the community and to continue to work hard for the educational success of all our children.”

To view the first session of the Straight Talk Series online, visit: or to learn more about the series, visit



Last updated June 28, 2016
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Clinton Colmenares
News & Media Relations Director