Talent is a hot topic of conversation in Michigan these days for everyone from business leaders and educators to policymakers and parents. And it’s no coincidence. Michigan is facing a serious talent shortage with more than 800,000 career openings to fill through 2024.
Closing the talent gap is essential to Michigan’s long-term economic vitality. In order to attract and keep employers and the good-paying jobs they create to our communities, we must provide pathways for academic and career success for all of Michigan’s children — starting at an early age. It’s not only the most important phase for overall development throughout a person’s lifespan, but investments in early learning and development programs also are critical for boosting our local and state economies and building a pipeline for a competitive workforce.
At the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative (ELNC), we know firsthand that Michigan’s future talent needs to start with a high-quality early childhood education for all children. However, social and systemic barriers put those early learning opportunities out of reach for too many children in Grand Rapids’ most vulnerable neighborhoods.
As a collaborative nonprofit organization, we work to remove those obstacles and change the trajectory of our youngest and most vulnerable residents — Michigan’s future talent pool.
Our innovative place-based model provides access to free, quality preschool programs. We partner with several community organizations — including Baxter Community Center, Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, New Hope Baptist Church, South End Community Outreach Ministries (SECOM), Steepletown Neighborhood Services, The Other Way Ministries and United Methodist Community House — to provide 35 preschool classrooms at 12 sites throughout the city’s urban core.
This community-driven approach extends beyond our young students to reach and engage with vulnerable parents and families through our dual generational model. Our Empowering Parents Impacting Parents (EPIC) component provides support to parents in our neighborhoods who struggle to meet basic needs and are unable to act as a positive change agent for their children as their first teachers. They are like every other parent. They want a good education for their kids, but in the face of ongoing issues like lack of transportation, stable housing or food for their families, the energy to make sure their kids get to preschool — understandably — just isn’t there.
That’s why we provide family coaches who work one-on-one with each family to assess needs, develop a family-centered plan, make referrals and offer ongoing follow-up services to ensure the family does not slip through the cracks. In addition to addressing the needs of and lifting up parents and families, our innovative place-based model also provides access to quality early learning programs, including:
Preschool: Our preschool programs, which serve close to 400 children each year, are designed to increase the accessibility of early scholastic resources for vulnerable children and provide quality education to children in our neighborhoods.
Early Head Start: In 2017, we were awarded a federal Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership grant, which allowed ELNC to enroll 88 of our most vulnerable children, ages 0 to 3, in one of our 11 culturally relevant classrooms for a quality early learning experience.
Baby Scholars: We provide this 10- to 12-week program to give parents the tools they need to equip their children for kindergarten and help their babies grow smarter so all children can succeed in school, work and life.
In just eight years, these expanded early childhood and parent engagement opportunities have helped more than 1,700 children and their families in Grand Rapids. As a result, the ELNC network of community partners has grown from a pilot project into a model for success for other communities in Michigan to follow and build upon.
This success would not be possible without the tremendous support of the community and the many individuals, families and organizations throughout Grand Rapids and West Michigan. While we have seen tremendous progress toward expanding access to early childhood education and improving school readiness, there still is much more work to be done in order to strengthen Grand Rapids’ most vulnerable children so they are prepared for academic and career success.
To ensure we have the highly skilled workforce of tomorrow, we must focus on giving children today the great start they deserve. As the conversation around Michigan’s future talent continues, let us remember to focus our attention on the community-based solutions and collective action needed to provide access to quality early childhood education and parent engagement and family support programs, which ELNC and our partners have proven to be the foundation for success.
Dr. Nkechy Ekere Ezeh is founder and CEO of Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative (ELNC), a place-based early childhood education initiative committed to changing the current reality for vulnerable children in Grand Rapids. Learn more at elncgr.org.