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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Success for every child, and how one Michigan county falls short

The first five years of a child’s life are critical to their growth and development. Numerous studies have shown brain development and the experiences and relationships children have during this time impact their success later in life. We also know that laying a strong foundation in these first five years is critical to increasing the likelihood of positive outcomes, while a weak foundation does the opposite.

A new analysis released by First Steps Kent underscores this research and found many Kent County children are entering kindergarten without the building blocks and tools they need to be successful in school and in life.

It also found many parents don’t have access to the resources that help ensure their children grow up to be healthy and successful. The report, Re:Focus: Analyzing Gaps in Early Childhood Services and Funding in Kent County, looked at Kent County’s early childhood services, and discovered that many children and families in our community don’t have access to vital early childhood health services and screenings, early childhood education or parenting education.

Using data available through Kent County and the U.S. Census, this analysis found fewer than 1-in-5 economically disadvantaged children has access to 3-year-old preschool. Fewer than half of vulnerable families are getting home-based parenting education and support. The analysis also found thousands of Kent County families can’t afford quality child care, which costs an average of $8,000 per year.

Our community has made great gains in making sure that young children and their families have the resources they need, but we have to close the significant gaps that remain.

Our report confirms that targeted and sustained investment in what we know is working will have a huge impact on our children’s earliest years. When we make this investment, babies are born healthy, families are strengthened and children are on track for growth and development. That also means our children are better prepared for school and the future workforce.

When we invest in young children, we can make sure they start ahead and stay ahead. We can also increase graduation rates, reduce crime and strengthen our workforce and economy. More importantly, this investment in children and their families means stronger and healthier communities. The numbers tell us if we dedicate resources to our children right now, we will get a significant return on that investment. In fact, a 2004 study on the Perry Preschool Program in Ypsilanti, Michigan found investing in early childhood resulted in a $17 return for every dollar invested.

Detractors and naysayers might say the health and learning of a child under age five is the solely a parent’s responsibility. Yet our gap analysis and a growing body of research shows that we’re not equipping parents with the quality services and latest tools they need to make sure their kids are healthy and ready to learn. We also know new parents can use a little help now and again. Autism or a hearing or vision impairment can happen to any child, and we need to make sure families and children have access to early childhood screenings and services they need to catch these health issues early and to ensure that healthy children stay on track.

If we want to close these gaps, it will take investment from the community, businesses, foundations and individuals. Together we must ensure all Kent County children and their families have access to early childhood support and services so we can continue to build on West Michigan’s success story. The future will be brighter for everyone in Kent County if we do.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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