Giving children a head start

$10 million injected into early childhood programming.
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Joslyn and Cory Ward with their sons, Joshua and David. Photo by Kelly Sweet

Kent County was the first in the state and one of the first in the nation to approve tax dollars specifically for early childhood programming when the Ready by Five Early Childhood proposal passed in November 2018. Now, nearly two years later, First Steps Kent is allocating Ready by Five dollars in five categories of need with the goal of improving health, school readiness and well-being of children ages 5 and under.

Much of 2019 was spent applying to the county to become fiduciary for the program, nearly tripling First Steps Kent’s staff to administer Ready by Five and creating an application form and process for organizations to apply for the funds. Outreach and Navigation was the first Ready by Five piece activated in October 2019.

Annemarie Valdez, president and CEO of First Steps Kent Courtesy First Steps Kent

“We researched other communities with dedicated funding streams like this and discovered that you can fund programs, but if people can’t find the programs they don’t work,” said Annemarie Valdez, president and CEO of First Steps Kent. “The navigation piece is so important.”

Ready by Five implemented what she calls the “no wrong door” approach. “Wherever a parent or guardian enters the system with a question about a child or about where to go for help, there is a warm handoff,” said Valdez. “We want to make sure programs that receive funding have adequate staff, so families don’t get lost.”

So far, 17 organizations and 27 programs (some organizations have more than one program) have received funds, totaling $10 million, in the following areas: Outreach and Navigation, Healthy Development, Home Visiting, Play and Learn Communities, and Healthy and Safe Homes. The next round of funding is set for dispersal later this year.

All of Ready by Five was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We had to get creative, converting to online methods of communication, texting and calling, and doing video calls,” said Valdez. “Ramping up is still happening and services are still going on. When this happened, all of a sudden we had to jockey into place to meet the needs of families.”

Organizations receiving funding across the five areas of need include Family Promise of Grand Rapids, Kent Intermediate School District, D.A. Blodgett-St. John’s, MomsBloom, Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborate, Cherry Health and Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan. For a complete list of organizations receiving funds, visit firststepskent.org/providers.

Organizations requesting funds must meet several requirements including being an established organization, having a board of directors, providing financial statements and having credentialed staff. Some requests have been turned down. A nine-person allocation committee that decides on funding dispersement includes two county commissioners, four parents, one early childhood expert, a county administrator and a First Steps Kent board member. The committee meets as needed based on funding applications.

Christine Timbol Larson, Ready by Five Early Childhood millage funding administrator Courtesy First Steps Kent

“We’ve been recognized nationally for parent involvement; it’s unique and unusual to have parents on allocation committees,” said Christine Timbol Larson, the Ready by Five Early Childhood millage funding administrator.

Joslyn Ward, a parent committee member, has participated in a number of the programs as a mother of two sons and daycare provider.

“My goal was that my oldest son was doing well developmentally, and I wanted to refer daycare parents to programs I had gone to,” said Ward, who is working on a master’s degree in business administration at Davenport University.

She has participated in Bright Beginnings, Baby Scholars, Family Connect and other programs with her sons, now ages 4 and 2. She applied to sit on the allocation committee and went through several rounds of interviews before being chosen.

“It’s a beautiful thing to see professionals and politicians looking to parents for opinions and advice on how they felt the program was doing,” she said. “Our role is bringing our experience to the table and talking about whether a program really does what it says it does.”

She feels valued for her expertise as a parent who has benefitted from the programs. “It makes me proud to be part of a county that values early childhood education,” said Ward. “It makes me feel like there are people out there who want to hear from the people they are affecting.”

Measuring results will be key to evaluating the success of Ready by Five. First Steps Kent is in the early stages of setting up a measurement structure with key indicators to ensure each child is developmentally on track and accessing services that support physical and social/emotional wellness — all contributors to making sure a child is ready for kindergarten.

“It makes me proud to be part of a county that values early childhood education. It makes me feel like there are people out there who want to hear from the people they are affecting.”
Joslyn Ward

“All contracts with organizations provided funding include them providing us with data to measure the results,” said Timbol Larson. “We look at quarterly reports and metrics, monthly data, and have shared data fields for organizations to use. The evaluation piece is going to be huge.”

Ready by Five’s reach includes all areas of Kent County, not just urban areas of high need. The goal, said Timbol Larson, is to reach all children.

“It is important to county commissioners that any children throughout the county can access services when needed,” she said. “Our intent is that outreach and access is countywide.”

Ready by Five funding is available through 2024, with about $5.7 million allocated each year. Needs assessments are done every two years, which will help determine where those funds go.

“We want to make sure word gets out that we have this funding available and organizations should apply,” said Valdez. “We’re also asking the larger entities to partner with smaller organizations that may have a greater reach into areas of higher need. We are looking at and encouraging collaboration.”

The goal is to show the community that there are good results and that more children are ready for school by age 5 thanks to Ready by Five.

“Our hope lies in these children and what they’ll be able to do and change in our world,” said Valdez. “Any help we can give along the way to get them there is an amazing thing. It’s always a good day to help little kids.”

Kindergarten readiness

  • Kindergarten readiness, a comprehensive measure of a child’s development and readiness to learn, is a critical benchmark on the path to success for all children.
  • When a young child enters kindergarten ready for school, there is an 82% chance that child will master basic skills by age 11 compared to a 45% chance for children who are not school ready.
  • From conception to the first day of kindergarten, a child’s brain develops more quickly and a greater amount than at any other time.
  • In the first three years of a child’s life, 700 new connections between cells in
    the brain are formed each second, so quality, responsive early experiences are incredibly important.
  • In Kent County, 2018 data shows that 40% of kindergartners are demonstrating kindergarten readiness at the beginning of their kindergarten year. (20% Black, 19% Hispanic and 50% White children).

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