Life According To... James Mejia

Native Denverite James Mejia has made public service his life. Today, he helms the Denver Preschool Program, which provides preschool tuition credits to families. Here, Mejia talks to us about family, the growth of Denver, and the importance of early education.

September 2009

I'm ninth of 13 kids from an education family growing up in Park Hill. My dad taught high school for 37 years, and my mom, besides raising all of us, had a daycare in our home. People always ask if it was loud and crazy, but it was just the opposite—very quiet and organized.

My mother went back to school to finish her bachelor's degree when my youngest brother started college. They entered the same time; she beat him out, got straight A's, and went on to graduate school in her 60s. That gives you an idea about the kind of woman she is and how important education was to our family.

When I went to high school here, we were a small city—there was just not much going on. We could walk down the 16th Street Mall and there would be only one restaurant open during the week.

The Colorado paradox is that we're consistently ranked number one or two for the highest educated people, but it's not because we're doing a good job in our public school system. These people aren't from Denver—they're coming from Philly, New York, Chicago, and Ohio.

I personally believe we have to stress our neighborhood schools again. Do I believe in choice? Yes. But I also believe there is a balance, and when kids don't have a choice—because their parents aren't involved, for example—they're going to go to their neighborhood school. And if that's not a good school, they're in trouble.

We're in the bottom quartile compared to other states in education funding. From my perspective, we're turning out a lot of folks who are destined for a life of menial labor—things that are beneath their potential.

The agrarian calendar for school is over—we should kiss that good-bye. At minimum, we should be increasing our school funding by 25 percent, which means to cover the summer. I think it's shameful we're not doing more for these kids during the summer months.

A better-educated, better-compensated populace will attract better industries to town.

The Denver Justice Center [where Mejia was project manager] gave me a glimpse of where we don't want people to end up. Having done that for a few years, I thought, "OK, how do we stop them from getting to that point?" I remember being on the DPS School Board, and everyone said, "Start as early as you can." Teachers were telling us that one in three kids was not ready for kindergarten. They wished we could get these kids in early childhood education, because that's what really matters.

During the preschool program initiative campaign in 2006, people talked about having 4,000 children enrolled in the program. After a year and a half, we have 5,100 kids in the program. We're way beyond where anybody thought we'd be, period. This year, we'll give out $11 million in tuition credits. It's been very gratifying to reach that many kids in this amount of time.

Without preschool, you can enter kindergarten with about 1,000 words. With preschool, you can enter kindergarten with up to 5,000 words. It's a big difference; if kids have that, they're going to fly in kindergarten.

My own little girl, who is five years old now, has been my own test case of rapid brain expansion. Eighty percent of brain development happens from zero to five years old. It's amazing—you'll see them make gains in a day!

I think kids should be kids. They should always have a good time and play—and learn.