BATTLE CREEK – Four years ago, the students at Woodlawn Preschool were a fairly homogenous bunch. They came from similar middle-class homes, shared similar levels of opportunity and similar ethnic backgrounds.
Meanwhile, children who lived just steps from the private preschool could not afford to attend. Many
had no access to high-quality early learning or care programs.
“We had to find a way to support our parents with a center in their neighborhood and a way to support our centers so they could provide high-quality services and enrichments to all children,” Woodlawn’s Executive Director Pattie Walter said. “We had to find a way to reach the children who would benefit most.”
A prime opportunity to do just that came last fall with Gov. Rick Snyder’s commitment to invest an extra $130 million over two years into Michigan’s Great Start Readiness Program for a total of $239.3 million in Fiscal Year 2015. The historic expansion added 16,000 half-day slots to Michigan’s preschool program for 4-year-olds, but included a shift in income eligibility requiring at least 90 percent of children come from families living at no more than 250 percent of federal poverty level.
It was a mission filled with barriers – language, literacy, an understanding of eligibility, to name a few – but one the Calhoun County Great Start Collaborative and Parent Coalition have tackled head-on with unprecedented partnerships throughout the community, diverse stakeholders exploring issues facing local families and children, and some unconventional methods to reach families.
“Not only did they engage these stakeholders in these conversations, but they also involved them in processes to make sense of the data and to develop root cause chains they and others in the community can use to address the underlying reasons why children are not ready for school in Calhoun County,” said Pennie Foster-Fishman, professor in the Department of Psychology and Senior Outreach Fellow for University Outreach and Engagement at Michigan State University who has evaluated Great Start Collaboratives statewide.
The Calhoun Great Start Collaborative had two advantages already in its pocket: a universal birth to five application connecting parents to all available resources in Calhoun County, and an actively engaged parent coalition and community partners group ready and willing to accept a new task.
“We didn’t want to just settle for the kids we could reach easily,” Calhoun Collaborative Coordinator Susan Clark said. “Our goal is to reach every child eligible for GSRP and we really wanted to engage the families who haven’t been engaged yet.”
Parents, teachers, private agency partners and others helped identify community values and common barriers, and developed outreach tools to overcome them. Multi-language posters were hung throughout the Battle Creek community, particularly in areas with high concentrations of young children but few participating in collaborative and partner agency programs. Informational brochures and applications were handed out at the county fair, in schools and community organizations. Neighborhood leaders were recruited to help identify and engage families. Child care centers and private preschools agreed to advertise the new openings on electronic marquees.
The efforts yielded more than 1,400 applications for GSRP and Head Start programs. Of the 1,164 GSRP slots allocated to Calhoun ISD, 1,200 are now filled. Calls continue to come in weekly from families learning about the program through the collaborative efforts.
In all, 699 students were placed in GSRP classrooms throughout the county. The ISD shifted many half-day slots to full-day to ensure all slots were filled and to better prepare preschoolers for full-day kindergarten.
The ISD also extended GSRP to private preschools and child care centers to better reach families who need wraparound care, Clark said. The relationship between the ISD and private agencies began in 2011 with the launch of a preschool scholarship fund for three-year-olds. The success of that program provided a natural bridge for expanding GSRP into private agencies with the new funds.
Now, 25 percent of the county’s GSRP slots are in eight private preschools and child care centers, such as Woodlawn.
Adding GSRP has benefited everyone in the private nonprofit preschool, Executive Director Walter said. Staff are trained and supported by a GSRP coach, improving the quality of programming for all children in the school. The financial support has allowed the school to expand offerings for families, including parent courses, trainings and seminars, and fun family events. Being a part of the collaborative has opened up the center to a wealth of resources, including a substitute staffing pool.
Of the 19 GSRP students at Woodlawn, seven attend full-day. All GSRP students are in classrooms blended with full-tuition paying students. A few of the 60 Woodlawn families were able to access the GSRP funds, helping free up some finances for strapped families. But most of the slots were filled with children from the community.
“We are a much more open and inclusive program now,” Walter said. “We offer all our kids the same high-quality care we always have, and it’s even better now with the GSRP coach and support we receive by being part of this program. We really are reaching the kids who need help with quality programming.”