The Great Start Initiative is aimed at making a difference in the first years of a child’s life – years that are critical to future development – through better health and mental health care, child care and early learning, parenting leadership, and family support. Understanding the status of young children in their community is a strategic part of the work conducted by each of the Great Start Collaboratives in Michigan. This is one in an ongoing series of articles that share the stories of how some Collaboratives are reacting to data about the status of young children in their community, and working to address those issues.
Members of the Sanilac County Great Start Collaborative were treated recently to a real-life representation of their efforts when a parade of preschoolers marched through a meeting while the “The Ants Go Marching In” rang through the room.
The collaborative’s March meeting featured 15 smiling children, who held tight to balloons and wore signs that declared their favorite activity. Just happy to be on a field trip, the children were unaware that they offered proof of the Sanilac Parent Coalition’s efforts to get a rising number of low-income children into preschool.
Since 2009, the coalition has raised nearly $13,000 in grants and fundraising, to award 26 preschool scholarships over two school years.
The efforts were prompted by increases in the number of Sanilac children living in poverty every year since 2006. In 2009, nearly 55 percent of children in the county received free or reduced price school lunches and only one-third of children between the ages of 2 and 5 who were eligible to attend preschool were enrolled.
“We knew we really needed to up that number and start helping children so they can start school ready to learn,” said Karolyn McEntee, director of the Sanilac Great Start Collaborative. And that, she said, is what inspired the “power-hitting parent coalition.”
Like much of Michigan, Sanilac County has seen increasing unemployment with workers laid off and budget cuts made at local employers. For Nina Barnett, Sanilac GSC Parent Liaison, it was a personal experience. Her husband was laid off from his manufacturing job and her family was feeling the pinch.
“When we looked at the data it was easy to see, but for me and a lot of parents, it was obvious because we were going through it,” Barnett said.
Of particular concern were the families who earned too much to qualify for Great Start Readiness Program and Head Start, but not enough to afford private preschool.
Barnett said a conversation with Joan Negelkirk, a member of the Sanilac GSC board and the Sanilac County Community Foundation, led the Parent Coalition to write a grant proposal in 2009. The grant for $3,850 was provided in time for the 2010-2011 school year. Fundraising events brought in another $400 and the coalition was able to fund scholarships for six children.
Researching other tools and federal rules, the team decided to adapt a sliding scale, with points assigned based on need. Consideration was given to particular stressors including unemployment, having a single parent or a family dealing with a disability. The scholarships are partial and range from 20 to 50 percent of the program’s cost.
The Parent Coalition worked with county preschools and at the end of the first year seven preschools were on board. Families who receive the scholarship also have to volunteer at the preschool their child attends.
“We want to build that parent-child-teacher relationship early and get parents involved with their children’s schooling,” Barnett said.
The Community Foundation nearly doubled the grant for the 2012-13 school year to $6,600. The Parent Coalition raised $500 more and a $2,000 grant from the Gannett Foundation brought the total to $9,100, enough to award 20 scholarships this year.
Barnett thought letting the collaborative members see the children who were being supported would be more beneficial than listening to her speak. One of the preschools volunteered a bus to take the children and their parents to the meeting.
“Our board loves children or they wouldn’t be doing this work,” Barnett said. “And you should have seen their faces as those kids marched around the room.”
The number of preschools accepting the scholarships has increased to nine. Barnett said there are applications left from this year and she knows there will be more for the next session.
“We tripled the number of children we helped this year, but there is still a growing need,” Barnett said.
When Gov. Rick Snyder presented his budget proposal earlier this year, he included a recommendation to increase funding for the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP). The plan was for the money to double the number of slots available. This was welcome news across the state, but more recently concerns about cuts to Head Start slots due to the federal sequester leave the Sanilac Parent Coalition concerned that they will have to work even harder this year.
“It’s not like things have turned around much here,” Barnett said.
McEntee said poverty is an ongoing issue in Sanilac County.
“I’m not sure what we can do to change that, but we can work at supporting our families and finding ways to make it possible for our children to arrive at school ready to succeed,” McEntee said.