Today’s Toddlers, Tomorrow’s Workforce: How a West Michigan Non-Profit is Preparing Them

Julie Bitely

| 4 min read

Ask any toddler what they want to be when they grow up and their answers are sure to amuse. It’s charming to hear three- and four-year-olds imagine futures as teachers, doctors and bus drivers. Even though it seems far away, a West Michigan non-profit is trying to impress upon parents that the best way to ensure a successful future for their kids is to start preparing them when “superhero” is still considered a valid answer. Ready for School is working to make sure that children in Holland, Zeeland, and Hamilton are equipped and ready for kindergarten. When they aren’t, studies show they fall behind in reading, which can lead to not being ready to graduate on time and subsequently being unprepared to start a job. “By making sure children are developmentally and physically ready for school, it ultimately ensures these same children are ready to enter the workforce in the future,” said Sandy Ham, a member of Ready for School’s ACT committee and a Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan regional sales manager based in West Michigan. “That aligns with our mission because recruiting and retaining a talented local workforce is very important to the group customers we serve. It’s the right thing to do for their business and ours. I am grateful that Blue Cross allows me to be active in this very important initiative in the community in which I work.” Making Gains The idea for Ready for School took shape about 10 years ago. An anonymous donor made a large gift to the Community Foundation of Holland and Zeeland, challenging economic stakeholders in the region to identify the issues they’d face in the next 10 to 20 years. They were also tasked with finding solutions. Early childhood education emerged as the number-one priority. Using the DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) test, they found that only 43 percent of incoming kindergarten students were considered ready for school. “That was a rallying cry for our community,” said Dr. Donna Lowry, Ready for School President and CEO. Since Ready for School began offering preschool scholarships and other assistance to families in 2010, gains in readiness have been made, despite an increase in poverty levels in those communities. This year, 63 percent of students tested were deemed ready to begin kindergarten. More than 2,100 students have received scholarships since the program started. In addition to help paying for preschool tuition, Ready for School also works with families to navigate the enrollment process as well as applying for state and federal grants to further help pay for early education. Bilingual staff are on hand to make sure no family is left out. What Does Ready Mean and Why is it Important? There are a variety of benchmarks kids need to meet to be considered ready for school. They must be socially and emotionally prepared, healthy and active, ready to learn, enthusiastic and curious. Basic skills such as counting to 20, identifying shapes and a beginning knowledge of numbers are also important. See the full Ready for School criteria here. Lowry said the Ready for School program was heavily influenced by the work of Nobel laureate James Heckman, whose research led him to the conclusion that investing in early childhood education provides a big return in terms of economic growth, while also reducing future social costs related to health, remedial education and the criminal justice system. Kids in the communities served by Ready for School are 17 percent more likely to be ready for school if they’ve had preschool exposure, Lowry explained. Many preschool programs run concurrently with public and private school-year calendars. If you have a preschool-age child, Lowry recommends that parents start evaluating their options and signing up in January. That provides ample time to find the right fit, secure funding and prepare the child and caregivers for the transition. “It’s a learning process for the child and the family as well,” Lowry said. If you live in Holland, Zeeland or Hamilton, learn more about available resources offered through Ready for School at their website. Michigan kids in other communities might find help accessing preschool programming through the Great Start Readiness Program. Editor’s note: The Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation funded a remedial speech program for identified three- to five-year-old children in the Holland and Zeeland communities, based on the integration of communication and movement, as part of a Healthy Beginnings initiative launched by Ready for School's Health Task Force in 2011. Photo credit: Matt Molinari  
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