W. Michigan Head Starts Gain $4.6 Million in Fed Dollars

GRAND RAPIDS, MI (MLive.com)-- Early childhood education programs in Grand Rapids and Muskegon will together receive $4.6 million in federal funding.

The Department of Health and Human Services awarded $1.95 million to the Grand Rapids Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative to support its Early Head Start Child Care Partnership program, and $2.7 million to the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District to support its Early Head Start and Head Start programs.

The funding was announced in a press release Monday, March 20, from U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters.

"Today's announcement is good news and will help children in West Michigan get the long-term support they need," Stabenow said. "Good nutrition, medical care and early childhood education can make all the difference in helping our children succeed."

Peters said the programs provide "vital educational and support services" to families and children.

"I'm pleased to help announce this funding that will help expand access to critical medical, nutritional and educational support services for children in West Michigan so they can lead healthy and happy lives," he said.

Head Start and Early Head Start programs offer a variety of services including early learning experiences, family support services and health services.

Early Head Start Child Care Partnership programs offer developmental screenings and referrals to medical, dental, nutrition, vision and mental health services, and provide families with necessities like diapers and formula. The partnership sites receive additional resources to support training and professional development for staff, and improve facilities and upgrade supplies and equipment.

In Grand Rapids, the $1.95 million will help the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative start offer a program for the community's youngest and most vulnerable residents.

The collaborative, a partnership between seven community organizations launched in 2012, has worked to create preschool opportunities for 3- and 4-year-olds without access to quality early childhood education.

W.K. Kellogg Foundation follows 2012 $5 million grant with 2016 $5.5 million funding boost.

The new funding enables the collaborative to create a program for 88 children ages 0-3, said founder and CEO Nkechy Ezeh.

"We want to make sure our children are ready for kindergarten on day one," Ezeh said. "For me, really, early childhood education is so important."

An expert in the field and director of Aquinas College's early childhood education program, Ezeh explained scientific, economic and equity arguments can be made for investing in the education of young children.

Research suggests those early years are important to brain formation and that early investments in education yield a higher return on investment, she said. Programs that focus in particular on communities traditionally facing more challenges can help to prevent and balance existing inequities in society, Ezeh said.

"The more we can invest early to help these vulnerable children to close this achievement gap, the better for us," she said.

Through partnerships with the collaborative's existing organizations as well as outside groups, Ezeh expects to begin offering a daily program at eight sites spread throughout the community in September. Altogether, there will be capacity for 88 children ages 0-3.

Though the program has the benefit of providing working parents with childcare, Ezeh said it is much more than that.

"It's a quality early learning opportunity," she said.

Interested parents can contact the collaborative at 616-608-0767 or email info@elncgr.org for more information.

In Muskegon, the $2.7 million supports the existing Head Start and Early Head Start programs administrated by the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District.

The program altogether serves 767 children in Muskegon and Oceana counties.

Stuart Jones, director of early childhood services, said the ISD is closely monitoring ongoing federal budget discussions and the potential impact on the community's Head Start and Early Head Start programs.

"We consider these services critical to prepare them for successful entry into kindergarten," Jones said.

He said the ISD is particularly concerned about a proposal to reduce the federal Health and Human Services budget, under which theĀ  programs fall, by 16 percent.

"If this is enacted it could negatively impact Head Start and Early Head Start and the services we provide," Jones said. "We are encouraging our legislators to support Head Start and Early Head Start, which are known as high quality programs serving those most in need in communities across the country."

This story first appeared on MLive.com on March 24, 2017.