If it wasn’t for a tenacious school counselor in ninth grade, Jason Maxwell’s life could have taken a very different path. Instead, a hurried Saturday morning drive to a PSAT led him down the road to college and the opportunity to merge his love of kids, talking and science into a lifelong career.

Today, Dr. Jason Maxwell is the chair of pediatrics at HealthPartners and the medical director at HealthPartners Como Clinic. The kindness displayed by Dr. Maxwell’s determined counselor continues to be paid forward through the doctor’s passion in serving the underserved.

When it comes to current disparities in Black and Indigenous pediatric care, there are almost too many to mention. However, the cause near to Dr. Maxwell’s heart targets one that, if narrowed now, can have a massive impact on all our futures. In today’s Off the Charts, Dr. Maxwell discusses how early education and developmental screenings can give children of color the best opportunities for success. Listen to the episode or read the transcript.

Compassion and care today for a brighter future tomorrow

It’s clear that Dr. Maxwell is loved and trusted by the patients and families he serves. It’s also easy to see why – the feeling is overwhelmingly mutual. “I love what I do and I love my patients,” says Dr. Maxwell during the podcast. “The reason I get up every day and go to work is because I absolutely love my patients ... it’s so easy when you watch these lovely children grow up and you see their strengths, you see their deficits, their opportunities. It becomes very easy to help guide those families.”

Dr. Maxwell knows firsthand how necessary it is to have smart, caring and compassionate guidance at a young age – especially for kids limited by income instability or disparities from being in minority groups. As Dr. Maxwell says during the podcast, there is a special need to educate and nurture the children in these communities so we can have the friends, family, workforce and leaders we need for the future.

The importance of early childhood literacy

One of the most well-researched and disquieting disparities in developmental health is the effect of early literacy delays in a child’s future:

  • By the time they reach kindergarten, two out of every 10 children are behind on their reading level by one year, with an additional two out of 10 behind by two years or more – a total of 40% with delayed literacy by the first day of school.
  • Children who are a year or more behind on their reading in kindergarten are very unlikely to catch up, continuing to lag throughout elementary school and beyond.
  • Children who aren’t caught up to reading level by third grade are six times more likely to drop out of high school. For children of color that are behind, the dropout rate is eight times higher.
  • At 9 to 10 years old, fourth graders that aren’t to reading level have a 66% chance of either ending up on welfare or incarcerated.

Soberly put, if parents, pediatricians and other community members don’t catch and correct reading problems at an early age – well before kindergarten – we are dooming kids to a possible future of unemployment, reliance on public assistance and even incarceration.

Building the trust to do what’s needed

Fortunately, for Dr. Maxwell’s patients and other children seen by the pediatricians of HealthPartners, conversations around literacy start the earliest possible – at pregnancy. By talking about the urgency of getting and keeping kids at reading level with parents early, both families and patients understand the stakes well in advance.

The same importance follows developmental screenings. While the general recommendation is for children to have their early childhood screen (also known as a kindergarten screen) by age 3, Dr. Maxwell’s patients start receiving screens at 2 months, then every visit after. This way, successes and hurdles can be caught as soon as they develop and well in advance. Then, the right resources can be drawn on without delay and without negatively affecting the child’s healthy growth.

It's necessary work, but it takes trust and buy-in from everyone involved – not just parents and doctors, but school districts, county departments of health, religious organizations and community leaders all need to understand, create and support clear messages that benefit children together. It also helps when families have a consistent medical home. With regular visits, doctors can know more about families and patients, building context, understanding and trust. This way, if difficult conversations are needed, families can be assured that their doctor cares for them and is doing everything on behalf of their child.

As Dr. Maxwell says, we still have a long way to go in closing the gaps minority children face. But through standardization, dialogue, understanding, alignment and, above all, love and trust, progress is moving faster than it was 10 and even five years ago. And, as Dr. Maxwell puts it, these gaps are closing now because we’re able to focus our energy and make it happen.

To hear more from Dr. Maxwell, including additional statistics, success stories, changed strategies, the unintentional rallying effects of magazine covers and why his title isn’t Jason Maxwell, Dolphin Trainer, listen to this episode of Off the Charts.