Regional business leaders have long recognized the importance of their support and voice in early education. Doug DeVos, Amway president, and Kate Pew Wolters, chair of the Steelcase Foundation, were just two among the business leaders who lined up early in support for the Great Start initiative, now the foundation of First Steps Kent. That was nearly 20 years ago. So, it is gratifying the Pritzker Children’s Initiative is announcing its funding support of First Steps’ work and cited its expertise in data mapping and metrics for success, making it a national example.
Kent County commissioners also wrote history with a “first” regarding early childhood development: the board, as early as 2000, established the Kent County Prevention Initiative. The areas of focus include family support services, early intervention for children at risk of abuse or neglect, and substance abuse services. It was the first county in the state to commit general fund resources to services for children and families. The reason to do so was abundantly clear after then-Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Bernard Taylor focused on the issue of children unprepared for kindergarten — he estimated 83 percent of GRPS 5-year-olds — and the corresponding impact of their likely long-term economic failure. It was a clarion call to the business community.
J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation also recognized Kent County’s initiative in home visiting programs, an outreach to all parents and especially those parents who are not able to afford quality child care or do not have access to such programs. Grand Rapids Community Foundation, Frey Foundation and others have provided funding support to those programs, numbering approximately 20 such outreach initiatives in Kent County.
Despite the sustained effort, the need for early childhood support is unmet.
The Business Journal profile of 2018 GRBJ 50 Most Influential Women awardee Nkechy Ekere Ezeh gives example. The founder and CEO of the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative told the Business Journal, “We could use space for 200 more toddlers. Infants and toddlers have the least space available. In our neighborhood, we have 1,400 children born a year, and we don’t have space for more than 88. We need funding.”
Kent County programs have shown children engaged in early childhood services have outperformed peers in third-grade reading scores. Michigan’s dismal and shocking 2018 State of Michigan Education Report by Education Trust-Midwest shows Michigan third-graders now are the “lowest-performing students in the U.S. among peers based on the state’s assessment.”
It underscores for business leaders the importance of the early childhood services.