GRAND RAPIDS — Collaborations between different sectors in Kent County to improve every child’s school readiness have caught the attention of national foundations that are pumping money into the countywide effort.
The most recent cash infusion came from the Pritzker Children’s Initiative, which is investing more than $6.5 million across 29 communities, including in Kent County. The funds were awarded to First Steps Kent, an independent nonprofit that works to strengthen and coordinate the system of early childhood services through research and innovation.
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An analysis conducted by First Steps found that early childhood education initiatives were only serving about one-third of the needs and that the biggest gaps were for services directed toward children who are two and three years old, according to CEO Annemarie Valdez.
First Steps has established kindergarten readiness and third-grade reading proficiency as its targeted milestones.
“Fifty percent of students in Kent County are reading at the third-grade level. Pritzker is very interested in changing policy and leveraging more local funds for early childhood education,” Valdez said. “Pritzker really cited that Michigan does this well in partnership with the business community and chambers of commerce.”
For example, during an April 26 conference hosted by First Steps, representatives with the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce held a breakout session on the business case for quality childcare. The presentation focused on the Chamber’s advocacy efforts, how they are advancing this work and how other stakeholders can effectively lobby the legislature on these issues.
First Steps does not know yet how much it will receive from the nationwide Pritzker grant. However, Valdez said the money will be used to raise awareness of the need to reach Kent County’s youngest residents and their families. She said the importance of early childhood education has taken center stage in the community over the past five years.
“First Steps is more of an advocate for systems stakeholders. We don’t provide early childhood services,” Valdez said. “We use a lot of signage and guerilla tactics to get our message in front of people.” While this could seem like an over-the-top reaction, it’s not, according to Ron Koehler, assistant superintendent with the Kent County Intermediate School District.
“Some years ago, the brain science that was emerging made it very clear that the early years of child development are very important to our children for overall long-term academic growth,” Koehler said. “Connections are made in the brain at a very rapid pace when children are young.”
The education piece is only one part of a more holistic approach that increasingly is being adopted to address the issue of early childhood education.
Additionally, First Steps Kent was among local organizations selected to represent Grand Rapids in a twoyear program hosted by the National League of Cities and funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The Promoting an Alignment Framework to Build an Early Learning Nation program is intended to help participants better collaborate at the local and state level around early childhood education.
Access to quality health care and childcare are needs that must receive increased attention, Valdez said.
“We have free preschools for 4 year olds,” she said. “By 2025, there will be free preschool for 3 year olds. The only way we can do it is by linking arms with other services.”
However, the Pritzker Institute wants to ensure children are born healthy and with early access to health care so both mom and baby can thrive. Valdez cited statistics that 85 percent of a child’s brain develops during the first three years of life.
“What we suffered from everywhere was a lack of funding and resources. There is an alignment so (fewer) children are slipping through the cracks,” she said. “It’s important that children are getting the right services and are really prepared for kindergarten. Books are only one part of it. We also need to make sure that every child has food and stable housing. We want to make sure children and families are thriving.”
Navigating the system and accessing resources can be a challenge for parents, especially those who are low-income and working two and three jobs to provide the basics for their children.
Despite the employment growth Michigan has experienced since the last recession, the state still has a relatively low per capita income rate, Koehler said.
“Salaries have not recovered from prerecession levels,” he said. “Nearly 50 percent of the population we serve is eligible for free and reduced-cost lunch. We have a long way to go to reduce economically challenged circumstances.”
The fallout from the inability to pay for services such as quality childcare or preschool becomes apparent when a child begins school.
Koehler said studies have shown that children born into high socioeconomic families will hear and learn as many as 10,000 more words than children in low-income families who don’t have the same type of support in their homes and neighborhoods.
“Hearing those words, a child makes connections in the brain that may not occur later,” he said.
“Resources are not available to make Head Start available to all children. We’ve dramatically increased access, but we still aren’t reaching all of them and we need to reach them at an earlier age.
“Those families who have both adults working may only have access to a caregiver who is a family member or neighbor in a similar economically challenged situation. The children don’t have the same opportunities and end up with the TV being the babysitter, or worse.”
With more than 45,000 children in Kent County under the age of five and more than 20,000 of them coming from economically disadvantaged families, First Steps initiated an effort called “Parent Engagement” that deploys parents into the homes of families regardless of their economic status, Valdez said. The program currently has more than 20 providers.
“We hire and work with parents to be key liaisons in the community. They help parents with any kind of behavioral, social, emotional issues,” Valdez said. “Parents relate to and respond much better to other parents. They accept it much better hearing from other parents.
“Home visiting moves the needle.”
The Kent ISD has a similar program called “Bright Beginnings.” Koehler said the research shows that families who had 10 or more visits benefitted in various ways.
“Parents were better able to organize their time, and their children outperformed the population as a whole in terms of thirdgrade reading performance,” Koehler said. “It demonstrates a great return on investment.”
In the early part of this century, the attitude was that being prepared to enter school and thrive was the responsibility of the parent. Over the last decade, Koehler said there has been a recognition that it requires buy-in from different sectors at all levels.
“The mathematics that we are asking our 8th graders to do today matches the math we were asking high schoolers to do in the 1990s,” he said. “We are asking more of our kids. To have a better career, they need to be better prepared. This is something that has become recognized across the board.”