Salvatore’s Restaurant owner Sal Lupoli put himself on the map by building pizzas. Now, he’s building brains.

Members of the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce gathered at Andover Country Club yesterday morning for a breakfast forum looking at how to guide the regional workforce “from preschool to prosperity.”

The forum served a dual purpose of kicking off of a collaboration between Lupoli Companies, owner of Salvatore’s Restaurant and Sal’s Pizza, and the United Way’s Brain Building campaign, which works to support and grow early childhood development programs.

“Although kids represent a very small percentage of our population toady, when you think about 10, 20, 30, 40 years from today, they’ll be sitting in your chairs,” chamber President Joe Bevilacqua said. “There will be someone standing at this podium and discussing with others why it’s important to help kids learn. They’re our future.”

Susan Leger Ferraro, founder of childhood development ventures Little Sprouts and Imajine That, said the human brain develops most rapidly in its earliest years. Studies have shown that a brain aged one to five years creates around 250,000 synapses per minute, while an adult brain creates only around 1,000 per minute, she said.

A child’s ability to learn at earlier ages has life-long impacts that lead into the business world since students with stronger early development perform better later on, according to Ferraro.

“The reason (Lupoli) got excited about this campaign, the Brain Building campaign, if he had known 10, 15 years ago what he knows now about his work force, he wouldn’t be struggling so much,” she said. “The significance of it to his work force would have been better, faster, stronger and more able to take on what he needed them to take on.”

Mike Durkin, president and CEO of United Way of Mass. Bay and Merrimack Valley, used the example of his son Brendan, who has Downs Syndrome, as an example of where early childhood education can have far-reaching impacts.

“What Brendan’s path is on, and I swear it’s because of the right early stimulation and intervention, is being able to be to the best of his potential, gainfully employed as an employee, and he’ll be a great worker for whatever organization he ends up with,” Durkin said.

Jeff Riley, the superintendent/receiver of Lawrence Public Schools, also spoke to the value of early childhood education, speaking regularly to his experience with the school system he took over about a year ago.

“The earlier we start with kids, the better off kids are. The research is pretty clear,” Riley said.

Particularly in Lawrence, students who speak English as a second language “come to school knowing tens of thousands fewer vocabulary words than their suburban peers,” Riley said. “Our kids come with an achievement gap, and we’ve got to fix that. The quicker we can get in and work with our kids, the better off our kids are going to be.”

For him, the focus on early childhood development is akin to the American dream, he said.

“It only works if all kids start in the same place, if they have the access to a quality education, and until all our kids actually have the same opportunities as the kids in Andover, Methuen or North Andover, we’re not doing our jobs,” Riley said. “Our kids in Lawrence, a lot of our kids come to this country expecting the American dream, and we’ve got to give it to them.”

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