KALAMAZOO – The ABCs of the importance of early childhood education is a lesson many area business leaders have already learned.
But if you ask Ron Kitchens, CEO of Southwest Michigan First, he’ll say the focus for education must be on the mission and not the rhetoric.
“Our role is first and foremost that of a facilitator and collaborator,” Kitchens said. “We have about 30 people who are actively involved. They represent business, education, faith-based communities, and local government and they’re talking about what the needs are and what the contributions need to be. … The retention and growth of college graduates is something critical for us.”
His remarks came after a gathering of regional leaders representing business, education and the nonprofit sectors held Feb. 7 at the Radisson Plaza Hotel in downtown Kalamazoo.
A report by The Center for Michigan titled “The Public’s Agenda for Public Education” served as the foundation for the discussions that took place during the gathering. Phil Power, chairman of The Center for Michigan, said his organization focuses on improving policy and the political climate in Michigan from the bottom up with citizen input. The group’s focus for the past 14 months has been on early childhood education, Power said.
A diverse group of more than 7,500 Michigan residents took part in more than 250 statewide community conversations and two large-sample polls to offer their views on how best to improve student learning in the state’s K-12 education system.
Power said these residents want to see an expansion of early childhood education efforts, an improvement in teacher preparation and stronger support of educators — as well as efforts to hold educators more accountable for student success.
The increased attention on early childhood education comes as Gov. Rick Snyder proposed adding $130 million over the next two years to the state budget for early childhood education initiatives and as President Barack Obama devoted a portion of his State of the Union speech to the issue.
Kitchens said he wants to concentrate on what can happen in the next 10 years instead of looking back at what didn’t happen in the past 10 years.
John Dunn, president of Western Michigan University, and Marilyn Schlack, president of Kalamazoo Valley Community College, co-chair Southwest Michigan First’s Education Committee, whose members have been focusing on college readiness — the foundation of which begins with early childhood education.
“They’re looking at where the deficiencies are and how we as a region can get better,” Kitchens said. “We’re working with a group of manufacturers to develop short-term solutions. There are a couple thousand unfilled manufacturing jobs in this region because people have small skills gaps.
“We’ve got to do a better job of defining what the real skills gaps are and remediating those shortcomings so we can participate in the economic recovery.”
However, Kitchens said, the process starts with ensuring every child has access to high-quality educational resources even before they enter the traditional K-12 school system. He said such readiness is critical to their success from elementary school through high school and college.
“Cradle to career” is how Carrie Pickett-Erway, president and CEO of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, defines this early childhood education initiative. She serves as chairwoman of the Learning Network of Greater Kalamazoo, which will be a unifying force to ensure all children in the county will be ready for school, post-secondary education and a career.
The Learning Network is being funded by a $6 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and a $5 million grant from the Kalamazoo Community Foundation. Within the Learning Network, there are three Action Networks: Kindergarten Readiness, College and Career Readiness, and Adult Learning. Pickett-Erway said these action networks support the mission of the Learning Network to create and sustain a culture of learning at home, in school, at work and throughout the community.
“The Learning Network was established to be a generational initiative,” Pickett-Erway said. “We’re building a structure in the community to keep at this work and to increase educational outcomes for children. We are going deeper and broader throughout that developmental continuum.”
Scorecards and benchmarks will serve as indicators of whether or not the Learning Network is fulfilling its mission. Proposed benchmarks put together this past fall include tracking the rate of college-going high school seniors, ACT scores and FAFSA completions.
By mid-year, Pickett-Erway said measures will be set and clearly defined so “we have a clear reality of where we are today and where we’ll be in one, five or 10 years.”
Kitchens said this requires stakeholders throughout the region to take an unvarnished look at what the shortcomings are and make a concerted effort to change what that looks like.
“To have 50,000 college students within 10 or 12 minutes of my office downtown, that’s a rare infrastructure for a place our size, and it’s created an education expectation and a dialog about education that is unique to our region,” he said.