Kent County joins child development initiative


Kent County is among 29 communities nationwide joining an initiative focused on child development from birth to age 3.

As part of this initiative, leaders in Kent County will develop innovative local solutions that give children a healthy start from birth, strengthen support for families with infants and toddlers, and expand access to high-quality child care. Kent County is particularly cited as a leader on the forefront of data and metrics.

During this five-year program funded by the Pritzker Children’s Initiative, a project of the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation, national partner organizations will equip communities with tools to strengthen early childhood systems and share best practices with other cities, counties and states.

In turn, communities will share resources to drive policies and promote public and private investment in core services for infants and toddlers.

Annemarie Valdez, president and CEO of First Steps Kent, the organization managing the project in Kent County, said the project is meant to further engage the business community, schools, county government and service providers in working toward its goal.

First Steps is a public-private partnership that works to strengthen and coordinate early childhood services in Kent County. The organization has significant backing from the business community, with board members including Doug DeVos of Amway, Steve Heacock of Spectrum Health, Sean Welsh of PNC Bank, Joan Secchia and Kate Pew Wolters of the Steelcase Foundation.

Having high-quality child care available is important not only so parents are able to work, Valdez said, but also to get children adequately prepared for kindergarten.

“If you don’t intervene early and a developmental delay or issue is caught later, it takes much longer to intervene and correct that issue or that delay,” Valdez said.

“When they become school-age, you don’t want teachers to have kids that are at all different levels because it’s almost impossible to teach a classroom when you have to give special attention to the group of children who are unprepared.”

Valdez said unpreparedness could lead to issues down the road, pointing to low third-grade reading levels in Michigan, for example.

She said the local business community already has shown it understands the “return on investment” that comes from providing resources early.

“Business leaders recognize that investment in early childhood development is a sound investment,” said Andy Johnston, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of government and corporate affairs. “The root of this K-12 problem is that these children are unprepared to enter school, and schooling doesn’t close those gaps. That’s why we really focus on the importance of a child’s early years.”

Welsh, regional president of PNC Bank, said the company has been investing in early childhood development for 14 years. The company invested $114 million during those first 10 years and then made a commitment to invest $250 million over the next 10 years.

Welsh, also a board member for Talent 2025 and co-chair of its early childhood working group, said he believes businesses have a responsibility to help children facing economic obstacles and invest in the future workforce.

“The more business owners understand the importance of it, the more successful we’re all going to be,” he said.

Of the 23 communities involved with the PCI project, Kent County is one of six “prototype communities” whose practices will be used as an example for others in the group, Valdez said. Kent County’s expertise and data and metrics is its focus for the project.

In collaboration with First Steps, KConnect has worked to create an interactive data mapping system to track work and progress in this area.

Valdez said the goal is for communities across the country to have similar data systems and tracking methods, which improves the ability to compare progress.

Kent County also is being noted for its use of home visiting programs, meant to proactively determine services needed for households with young children. Many parents are unaware of services available to their families, Valdez said.

“It’s really tough to find where you need to go if you don’t know what you need,” she said.

There are more than 20 providers of these types of programs in the county, Valdez said.

First Steps recently received a $75,000 grant for the third year from the Kent County Prevention Initiative to evaluate home visiting.

PCI has committed $25 million for its five-year program, with $5.6 million going toward the first year. Each community will apply for a varying share to help fund its efforts in the initiative.

The Sorenson Impact Center, housed at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business, is working with PCI and the partner organizations to manage the initiative.

Kent County is working on the project with the Center for the Study of Social Policy, a national organization based in Washington, D.C. The national partner organizations working with other communities are the National Association of Counties, National League of Cities, National Institute for Children’s Health Quality and StriveTogether.

Some of the other communities involved with the project include Boston, Denver, Los Angeles County, Orange County, Cleveland, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City.

While those in poverty often are affected more greatly, Valdez said the initiative targets all children.

“The need for early childhood intervention really can happen anywhere because developmental delays can happen to anyone,” she said.

To make progress, Valdez said it will take more than just putting money toward programs.

“If we don’t fix the system, then we will not change things for young children,” she said.

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