Focusing on early childhood education is the secret to success in the Great Lakes Bay Region

Early childhood education is powerful.

“I think we in America prioritize education to some extent, but oftentimes we overlook the importance of early childhood — particularly those formative first five to eight years of life,” says Rich Van Tol, director of Bay-Arenac Great Start Collaborative.

The Great Start Collaborative, an organization focused on improving early childhood education, is hosting a free, virtual film screening and panel discussion of “Starting at Zero” on Jan. 15 from 9-11 a.m. Register here.

Rich Van Tol of the Bay-Arenac Great Start CollaborativeThe film highlights not only the importance of early childhood education but also how it relates to community, economic, and workforce development. 

“It’s really almost like a triangle if you think about it,” says Micki Gibbs, director of Midland County’s Great Start Collaborative. “You have impact on the child and the family, you have impact on the future because one day that child is going to be an adult and contributing to society, and then you have the impact for the family while they’re trying to work and be part of contributing to society right now.”

A quality early childhood program first ensures a child has access to all basic needs, which may include preventative health care. Then, the child will be placed in a nurturing environment aimed at promoting skills such as literacy, math, and social-emotional learning. Parenting classes are also offered, so healthy development can continue at home.

“The great thing about a quality early childhood program is they’re not only caring for and educating a child, but a quality program is teaching the family how to support that at home,” says Gibbs. “It’s sort of like a holistic approach to the child.”

Great Start Collaboratives are here to help

Not sure where to start? There’s a wealth of resources and programs in our region available for parents or caregivers. Van Tol hopes the “Starting at Zero” film screening connects communities to local Great Start directors.

“The Great Start Collaboratives are entities that help to facilitate these conversations in our community, build partnerships, build bridges, and really act as a convener for the community to disseminate information out to our partners,” says Van Tol.

Partners include health care entities, child care providers, schools, or other organizations that serve families with young children.

“Through collaboration and through networking and through communication, I think we can all support one another and we want to make sure that everybody is aware that we’re here,” says Van Tol.

If you’re interested in resources for your child, check with your local director — each region has slightly different offerings. Bay-Arenac, for example, has a Pregnancy to Preschool Partnership aimed at connecting parents or expecting parents with unique programs best suited to their needs. 

After filling out an intake form, the Great Start Collaborative will refer parents or caregivers to high-quality community programs or offer an in-house program. Many of these programs are state or federally funded.

“Our state has done a really good job of vetting certain programs and then ensuring that we’re only using evidence-based programs and programs that are shown and proven to be effective,” says Van Tol. “Which just means that the taxpayer dollars and public dollars are going to go toward programs that we know work.”
 
'In terms of talent and workforce development, if you do things later on, the return on public investment isn’t as high. The potential [in early childhood] is much higher than waiting until later.'

– Rich Van Tol of the Bay-Arenac Great Start Collaborative
Bay-Arenac is working on its 2x2 initiative, which focuses on early literacy and math skills. Additionally, there are COVID-19 resources, free meals, and a monthly family fun guide packed with local events, blog articles, resources, and giveaways.

There also are programs such as Great Start Dads and the Great Lakes MotherBaby Cafe.

The goal of these programs and resources is to begin developing children’s brains to set them up for success in kindergarten, setting the trajectory for success later in life.

“They all have strong evidence of quality, and evidence to suggest that if we can get families enrolled in these programs, they’re going to have better family and student outcomes.”

Early childhood is essential for business leaders, too

“Do you have an employee that’s sitting at their desk and they’re worried all day long about their day care? That’s the last thing you want,” says Micki Gibbs, director of Midland County’s Great Start Collaborative. “But the question would be, do you know about it? Do you care? Do you want to be part of the solution?”

If you’re a business leader, the Great Lakes Bay Region (GLBR) Business Advisory Council for Early Childhood has resources to help you support employees with young children. 

“I would like to see business owners and HR departments start to have conversations with their employees about what’s going on with their young kids,” says Gibbs. “Do you have the care you need? Can you afford the care you need? I think health care rises to the top at an HR department — and believe me, I get it, it’s so important — but this is really another important topic.”

Resources address employee retention, work-life balance, and child care options. These resources make the case for why investing in a culture that embraces high-quality child care options is worth it for recruiting and retaining top talent for businesses.

“I’m really hoping that our community leaders, particularly business leaders and our policy makers, as well as the general public,” says Van Tol, “will come to understand and better appreciate the importance of brain science, early childhood education — as it relates specifically to workforce development and as it relates specifically to long-term community and economic growth for the Great Lakes Bay Region.”
 
'I would like to see business owners and HR departments start to have conversations with their employees about what’s going on with their young kids. Do you have the care you need? Can you afford the care you need?'

– Micki Gibbs, of Midland County's Great Start Collaborative

 
The power of early childhood education

“I don’t think a lot of people in the public or the policy makers or the business leaders have the full appreciation of the power of high-quality, early childhood [education],” says Van Tol.

Micki Gibbs of the Midland County Great Start CollaborativeVan Tol cited the Heckman Equation, developed by Nobel laureate economist James J. Heckman. The equation states that by investing in educational and developmental resources, developing early cognitive and social skills, and sustaining early development through adulthood, society gains a more capable, valuable, and productive workforce.

“It’s more of an upstream approach. ...  If you put a public investment more upstream in prevention and early childhood, you’re going to get a better rate of return,” says Van Tol.

Heckman’s research shows that every dollar spent on high-quality birth-to-5-year-old programs for disadvantaged children yields a 13% per annum return on investment. This number accounts for enhanced parental income and labor income, and reduced health costs and crime.

“In terms of talent and workforce development, if you do things later on, … the return on public investment isn’t as high. ... The potential [in early childhood] is much higher than waiting until later,” says Van Tol. 

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, namely Jack P. Shonkoff’s work, first inspired Van Tol over 20 years ago to learn more about how critical the first several years of life are.

While genes play a role in a child’s brain development, the child’s experiences make a major impact. Interactions with a parent, caregiver, or community member reinforce the child’s brain circuitry to build pathways for learning. Activities such as singing, talking, and reading with children supports these pathways. On the flip side, stressful early life events can impair the development of these pathways.

“That stuff to me is fascinating,” says Van Tol. “Frankly, I don’t know if the public and a lot of our policy makers and business leaders are first of all, aware of it, and secondly, realize its implications. And the implications are very wide sweeping.”

If you want to support early childhood programs in the Great Lakes Bay Region, reach out to your local Great Start Collaborative director.

“It’s our job to have that conversation and figure out where you fit,” says Gibbs. “… I don’t know where you fit until you have a conversation with me — it might just be advocacy, it might just be sharing it, it might be writing a check, it might be talking to your employees. We can’t find the fit until I know who you are and what your concerns are.”
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