Michigan chambers of commerce deeply involved in early childhood

By Jennifer Walkling

Today's children are tomorrow's workforce, and chambers of commerce across the state want to make sure the children are ready for the jobs.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has noted in a widely circulated report that "to keep America competitive and strong, the business community must be actively engaged on issues related to our nation's education system as a means to ensure an educated citizenry of self-sufficient, lifelong learners who have the skills needed to thrive in the global workplace, today and in the future. 

"The coordination of community resources, school support systems, family engagement programs and classroom teachers' efforts can diminish the barriers to learning. Employer engagement must be significant and have the ability to address some of the greatest challenges facing education ... These challenges includes the lack of preparation of early learners who enter school for the first time ..."

So it makes sense that in communities like Cadillac, Reed City, Traverse Bay and Coldwater Great Start Collaborative offices are actually housed inside the chambers.

Collaboratives are part of the Great Start Initiative, which was created to ensure all Michigan children arrive at the schoolhouse door safe, healthy and ready for learning and life. Chambers exist to promote businesses in their communities. When the workforce is educated and skilled, then businesses and communities succeed. But when a workforce can't do the jobs, businesses fail. When businesses fail, then communities fail and ultimately towns, cities and states. 

It is to everyone's advantage that children get the best education possible, and that the education starts as early as possible.

"The Chamber considers early childhood an important economic development issue and a critical component of regional planning," said Mary U. Manner, coordinator of the Great Start Traverse Bay / Manistee Collaborative. "Making northwest lower Michigan the best place to live, work and play; attracting and retaining skilled workers to the region; wealth creation and prosperity; and growing the next generation of talented workers are the big ideas we're working on together."
 
The next generation of the Michigan work force is starting school right now. If the children haven't been read to every day, they will start school with a deficit. If they haven't been talked to every day, they will start school at a deficit. If they start school at a deficit, they may never catch up, and may never become a productive part of a community or the state.
 
"Michigan's future is absolutely dependent on making our education system a success for our students, our teachers, our parents and our economy," said Gov. Rick Snyder in April, when he addressed education reform in the state. "Our education system must position our children to compete globally in a knowledge-based economy. To prepare and train the next generation of workers, Michigan needs a capable, nimble and innovative work force that can adapt to the needs of the emerging knowledge-based economy and compete with any nation."
 
Snyder went on to say that according to Michigan kindergarten teachers, on average, only 65 percent of children entered kindergarten classrooms this year ready to learn the curriculum. He also said that 70 percent of the state's fourth grade students scored below the proficient reading level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test. 
 
"Children who cannot meet NAEP proficiency levels, especially low income children, are likely to end up not completing high school, becoming adults who struggle to qualify for even the lowest skill, lowest paying jobs. The result for Michigan: a lack of competitiveness in the global marketplace and a significant portion of the population without hope for a prosperous future," Snyder said.
 
In Cadillac, the collaborative and the chamber are working hard at improving the future workforces' early years.
 
"It's simple really," said Bill Tencza, president of the Cadillac Chamber. "Economic impact, work force impact, quality of life for businesses."
 
Mike Acosta, co-director of the Wexford-Missaukee Collaborative said the chamber is a good partner for spreading the early childhood investment message.
 
He said the community and legislators hear from him on a regular business, "but it's different when they hear from the head of the Chamber. If business leaders carry our message, it will more likely be heard," he said. 
 
In June, the collaborative and the chamber presented a motivational speaker who spoke about the value of early childhood as part of national security, workforce development, community economic development and global competition.
 
Acosta said they are waiting to hear how the message resonated with the business community.
 
"Everyone is affected by (early childhood education), but we're working on getting them engaged in it," Tencza said. "We need to find champions in the community."
 
Community resources are being coordinated in the Mecosta-Osceola Collaborative, which also works closely with the chambers in its area. 
 
"Joining together has increased community connections and awareness of both business and agency services that are available to families," said LouAnn Gregory of the collaborative.
 
"The last Saturday in April we held our fifth annual Mecosta County Community & Family EXPO at the Big Rapids Middle School. Nearly 100 local businesses and community organizations joined together to share information with the community about products and services they offer," Gregory said. "The event is a combination of the Chamber's "Business Expo" and the Great Start Collaborative's Family Fun Day.
 
 "Parents could have their child's car seat checked and take part in the Michigan Ident-A-Child program, provided by the Masonic Lodge. Attendance was estimated at about 2,000 people." 
 
Gregory said the collaborative also joined the "Band of Locals" committee through the Mecosta County Chamber to increase awareness of the importance of buying local. 
 
"We can all improve our local economy if we shop locally whenever possible," Gregory said. "This helps our business, employers, schools and families." 
 
In Coldwater, near the southern border of Michigan, the Branch County Great Start Collaborative has been working with the Branch County Chamber of Commerce since 2006.
 
 "The Branch County Chamber of Commerce has assisted with office space for the Great Start Collaborative staff, in-kind chamber membership and most importantly, has promoted early education as workforce development within the business community," said Amy Galliers, director of the Great Start Collaborative of Branch County.
 
The collaborative-chamber relationship makes sense for Michigan's future. 
 
"Our goal must be to create a coherent system of health and early learning that aligns, integrates and coordinates Michigan's investments from prenatal to third grade," Snyder said back in April. "This will help assure Michigan has a vibrant economy, a ready work force, a pool of people who demonstrate consistently high educational attainment, and a reputation as one of the best states in the country to raise a child."