GRAND RAPIDS — A trio of nonprofits are partnering to develop a roughly $5 million facility this fall to help meet ongoing needs for early childhood education in a historically disadvantaged part of the city.
IFF, a Chicago-based nonprofit community development financial institution (CDFI) with locations across the Midwest, is leading the development of a new early childhood education center in Grand Rapids’ Boston Square neighborhood. The organization is partnering with Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative and Amplify GR, which is helping to secure the property. The facility’s location has not yet been finalized, but officials still plan to break ground this fall for a fall 2022 opening.
Studies have shown over the past decade that the 49507 ZIP code has a disproportionately high number of children without access to reliable care and early education.
“This is the historic epicenter of the African American community in Grand Rapids, and it’s been historically disinvested in, bottom line,” said Ashanti Bryant, IFF’s director of early childhood services. “We are part of those seeking to invest in a community that has tremendous assets and potential but not the same level of opportunity or a seat at the table. We see our investment in this center as an investment in the ward, ZIP code and neighborhoods where children and families deserve the very best.”
The new 12,000-square-foot center will serve more than 100 children, from infants to 5-year-olds. It will also be a resource for home- or community-based care providers. The facility will house certified teachers in its classrooms and also provide support services for parents and other local care providers. It also will operate for full days, all year long.
“Parents don’t just work jobs from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.,” Bryant said. “The need for quality childcare does not end at the beginning of June just because the school year ends.”
In addition to the facility, IFF’s Learning Spaces program will provide grants to help 12 to 15 local providers improve their own resources and facilities.
“We find that many childcare providers don’t have the margins to invest in and have a quality facility for the care and education of children,” Bryant said. “COVID taught us that the built environment has to be safe for humans to be inside of it. We have five-star-rated providers in our community but they’re in below-par facilities. That’s IFF’s investment.”
The plan is modeled off of IFF’s similar projects across the Midwest, including at the Marygrove College campus in Detroit that was announced in 2019. IFF has provided more than $60 million in financing to early childhood education facilities in the Midwest.
Amplify GR Executive Director Jon Ippel said more details about the Grand Rapids location would come later this summer, but stressed the importance of early childhood education.
“High-quality early learning opportunities increase children’s success in early elementary and ultimately increases the likelihood of high school graduation,” Ippel said in a statement to MiBiz. “Affordable, quality early learning can also support parents’ ability to work. Through extensive community engagement, area neighbors have consistently affirmed the need for more quality, affordable options for young children.”
Leasing to own
While IFF is developing the project, the goal is for the Grand Rapids-based Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative (ELNC) to eventually own the building in seven to 10 years. That’s a prospect that excites ELNC founder and CEO Dr. Nkechy Ekere Ezeh.
Formed in 2010, the ELNC leases space for 35 classrooms at 11 different centers. At times, the organization has had to scramble to find a new location if a particular property owner has a new “vision,” Ezeh said.
“Our children need consistency, they need to be stabilized,” Ezeh said. “We can’t be moving things around like that.”
Ezeh was “getting chills” discussing the plan for the new center, as it would help bring stability to one of the most disadvantaged parts of the state’s second-largest city.
“To have a beautiful center intentionally designed for our children in the neighborhood would do more than wonders for them,” Ezeh said, noting ELNC’s “place-based” mission. “We believe that children need to be surrounded in their own environment. The best environment for early education for children is rooted in what is local for them.
“Having this beautiful building will also help restore the faith of our community members in the system — that we can also get something good and intentionally designed for our children.”
Building a presence
Bryant said IFF has had a presence in West Michigan for the past seven years by issuing loans to various nonprofits. The organization conducted a study in 2018 that identified southeast Grand Rapids as the highest-need area of the city.
The study found that Grand Rapids needs about 4,000 more licensed and registered early childhood education slots, two-thirds of which are concentrated in just one-third of the city’s neighborhoods.
The study “helped catalyze” several new efforts, including the countywide Ready by Five millage that passed in 2018 and will generate $34 million in early childhood education funding for Kent County by 2024.
The 2018 study also sparked IFF’s plans for the new center and opening its West Michigan office in the neighborhood. Looking ahead, the organization plans to update study to reflect changes brought on by the pandemic.
“We’ve lost about 20 percent of childcare providers in the greater Grand Rapids and Kent County area,” Bryant said of the pandemic. “That created more need.”
Business groups have also focused on the ongoing need for early childhood education. The pandemic highlighted and at times exacerbated the inequalities in workers’ ability to obtain childcare.
“Childcare is important because it helps support the workforce, particularly in low- and moderate-income communities where, if people want to move themselves to a different economic position, they’ve got to be able to work,” Bryant said.
Access is also only part of the equation, Bryant added. The childcare industry is woefully underfunded and is largely staffed by women and people of color.
“Even before COVID, we were losing a high percentage of providers,” he said, noting the 20-percent decline in providers in Kent County over the past year. “Childcare is so important in communities, but it’s also an industry and sector so severely underfunded. We literally have teachers today who are caring for children and still being paid $8 to $9 an hour. The predominantly women, and predominantly women of color, doing this work are doing it because they’re committed to the children and families.”
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