Profile: Cass County Great Start Collaborative

By Brenda Brissette-Mata

CASSOPOLIS - Cass County was the last county in Michigan to start a Great Start Collaborative. But last is turning out to be a great way to start as far as Heather Merrill, the group’s coordinator, is concerned.

They’ve been able to learn lessons from the collaboratives – there are now 54 in Michigan – that came before them. And that has allowed the Cass GSC – formed in late 2009 – to get off to a fast start.

In just a year’s time, the group, like all GSCs, has begun the process of creating a strategic plan that first analyzes the problems facing local children then creates solutions to confront them.

But it has also worked with local school districts to build a county-wide preschool.

“Last hasn’t hurt us,” Merrill said. “The timing has been perfect. We have been a whirlwind. A lot of things are getting done before the strategic plan is completely on paper.”

Another reason that things are moving quickly, Merrill said, is the recent hiring of Robert Colby as superintendent of the Cass County Intermediate School District.

Colby is a strong backer of early childhood efforts and a big believer in the work of the local Great Start.

“We’ve been doing this together,” Merrill said of Colby. “He’s willing to be risky in talks and consider using general fund money in ways it hasn’t been used before.“

For his part, Colby says he’s been very impressed by the work done by the Cass collaborative in such a short time. But to work even more collaboratively, the ISD is creating a special Great Start Department.

“What makes Great Start great is a comprehensive approach to early childhood services,” Colby said. “We are building partnerships and collaboratives to offer a system of services for children in our county from birth through their first year in school.

“Our goal is a ‘perfect fit’ delivery of services that will have every child ready to start school and every parent an effective ‘first teacher’ for their children.”

It is often a challenge to keep people at the table when the analyzing and demographic work is being done. “People are used to doing, not just talking about it,” Merrill said. “The disadvantage of being late has worked as an incentive to get things moving quickly.”

For Merrill and other members of the GSC, one of the early challenges the organization has confronted has been explaining the difference between an initiative and a program.

“It’s important to understand that Great Start is an initiative,” Merrill said. “Our vision is long term, but there’s a narrow scope. Getting every child the opportunity for a great start to succeed encompasses so many things, health care, family support, parent leadership and education.”

In an initiative much time is spent analyzing and looking at county demographics, an almost investigative approach to determining and identifying community needs and gaps in services.

Working collaboratively in Cass County hasn’t been difficult. There is an active sense of urgency in the community to see to it that children from birth to age five get what they need for a great start.

For instance, the expanded preschool program the collaborative has worked with local districts to create.

The state-funded preschool provided to every county is generally run through individual school districts. Part of the GSC strategic plan, however, is to focus on quality early education opportunities through supporting a countywide preschool consortium run by the ISD. The consortium kicked off in September.

“Short term, we are looking to take the program and make it uniform across the county so that regardless of the school district, all preschools will be using the same curriculum and referral service,” Merrill said.

While legislators control the funding, Merrill said putting the preschool in a system where the focus is advocacy and public will-building helps the collaborative to support the efforts.

“We’re trying to be financially smarter, use what dollars we do have in a better way,” she said.

The GSC also determined that one of the major gaps within the county is home education services for parents and families.

With the support of the ISD and a partnership with the local United Way, they are working to fill the gap, by collaborating to increase in-home services.

Through that partnership, the GSC was able to multiply by four the Great Parents Great Start grant that will help address home education. It , too, will be part of the new Great Start department at the ISD.