How focusing on a community’s youngest residents can close the opportunity gap

Shelly Millen was more nervous than most parents about her daughter starting kindergarten.

Recently adopted from an orphanage in China and born with Down syndrome, Faith was still struggling to understand the language and culture of her new home.

But Millen was amazed how one program, in four short weeks, prepared Faith to start her K-12 education. 

Faith Millen's parents credit Ready for School for setting the foundation for her learning to read. Photo courtesy of Shelley Millen“I think, without it, we would have had a big adjustment period. She would have had to figure all that stuff out, but she just went from the program into kindergarten. It was this beautiful, smooth transition,” Millen says.

Faith’s story is one of thousands of Ready for School’s successes. At the cornerstone of this community-wide effort is a focus on closing the achievement gap among adults by increasing the number of children ready to attend kindergarten. 

In the past decade, this effort has delivered impressive results. The number of children ready for kindergarten has jumped from less than half to the majority of children living in the Greater Holland community. As a result, nearly 4,000 more children entered kindergarten equipped with the skills to learn.

Transformation begins early

Millen remembers her daughter’s transformation during the summer of 2014, when Faith attended the four-day-a-week Ready for School summer readiness camp at Maplewood Elementary in the city of Holland. 

Beyond the academic learning, the program acclimates children to a school setting, where their educational success begins with mastering some important basics: sitting and listening, being with other kids, and keeping their hands to themselves.

Even with very little English skills, Faith flourished with the routine and structure of a preschool program. By the third week, she had gone from throwing her backpack down as she arrived to hanging it up and getting in line with the other children. 

Faith Millen successfully transitioned into kindergarten after attending the Ready for School summer readiness program in 2014. Photo courtesy of Shelley Millen“The biggest thing was we could just see how she would function and how she would adapt to being in a formal classroom setting with other kids. And she loved it,” says Millen, who has three older sons. 

The impact of that experience was profound on Millen and her husband, Scott, who were new to parenting a child with Down syndrome. 

Ready for School’s potential to make a difference is great considering that about 2,000 children enter kindergarten every year in Holland, Zeeland, and Hamilton.  

The nonprofit’s work focuses primarily on three priorities: promoting world-class talent across the region in the field of early childhood education, accelerating access to high-quality early learning opportunities for all children in the community, and bringing people together to create innovative solutions to increase school readiness.

Documented results

Research shows the power of quality early childhood experiences to build healthy brains and resilience. It also shows that 90% of a child’s brain development occurs during the first five years. 

Looking at more than a half-century of data, Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman concluded that investment in early childhood education raises high school graduation rates, reduces crime, and increases a community’s tax base.

Holland business and community leaders looked to the Heckman Equation as their guide more than a decade ago, when they hypothesized that kindergarten readiness was an underinvested, vital part of the community’s talent and workforce solution, says Bruce Los, Chair of the Board of Directors of Ready for School.

This is a passion project for Los, who spent decades working as a human resources executive for the community’s major employers: Prince, Johnson Controls, and Gentex. He is now involved in the region as an entrepreneur and philanthropist. 

The initial capital began with a seed fund from an anonymous donor who approached the Community Foundation of Holland/Zeeland with a quest to identify critical issues tied to the community’s workforce challenges and then address them.

At the time, fewer than five out of 10 incoming kindergartners had the skills necessary to succeed in school. 

“We had identified a critical need — and an opportunity to change the trajectory. I have to wonder if that anonymous donor could have envisioned the return on investment that Ready for School delivers. Simply put, our community’s long-term success depends on our children’s success,” Los says.

From the beginning, leaders in the business community have understood that the earlier they invested in the next generation of employees, the bigger the payoff over time in terms of a talented workforce. Early childhood development impacts talent attraction, talent retention, and performance.  

Close opportunity gap

Leading the charge is Dr. Donna Lowry, a trained medical doctor who stepped away from delivering babies to raise her three sons. For Lowry, her work as CEO of Ready for School is still very much connected to health care. She understands that the healthiest people often begin with a healthy start. 

She believes that early childhood education is one of the most effective ways to narrow the opportunity gap in a community where the socioeconomic spectrum ranges from million-dollar waterfront mansions to rudimentary housing for the area’s seasonal migrant families.

“Potential is evenly distributed across the population. Opportunity is not. But when we close the opportunity gap, achievement follows, potential is realized, and both children and communities thrive,” Lowry says. 

Lowry defines readiness as little things that add up to a big difference. It’s about children learning the importance of taking turns, practicing patience, and establishing daily routines. These are skills that don’t come naturally but, for students, these are essential for learning and teamwork. This is what kindergarten teachers want to see. 

A father drops off his daughter at Ready for School summer readiness camp at Maplewood Elementary School. (Courtesy of Ready for School)“Improving access to valuable early learning opportunities builds on brain science to accelerate school readiness and reinforce positive relationships. This is where Ready for School knows we can make the biggest difference. It’s where we started and where our work continues. Our community had a problem, and we didn’t shy away from it,” Lowry says. 

Partnerships build success

Along the way, the group has learned to leverage public and private partnerships to maximize investment.

In 2008, the educational community came together, with public, private, and charter schools agreeing to use early literacy as a community kindergarten readiness benchmark.  

That initial 2009 survey showed that just 43% of incoming kindergarten students were ready for school. 

By 2019, that number had grown to 70%, Lowry announced to the group’s supporters at Ready for School’s annual breakfast on Dec. 4 at the Holland Civic Center. 

In the audience was Millen, who knew her daughter, Faith, was one of thousands of children helped by the program. Faith, now a fourth-grader at Black River Public School in Holland, is thriving. She now speaks English fluently and is reading at a second-grade level.

Millen is among the hundreds who are stepping up to financially support the efforts of Ready for School.

At the gathering, Los announced that the original donors were so happy with their return, they are making a significant new investment. They are matching up to $70,000 in donations from the community to keep up the impact of Ready for School’s efforts.

When Millen thinks of what the program did for Faith, she understands the profound impact that early education can have on all children, regardless of their challenges and abilities.

“I think it starts kids on the right path at the right time to have success,” Millen says.

This article is part of The Lakeshore, a new featured section of Rapid Growth focused on West Michigan's Lakeshore region. Over the coming months, Rapid Growth will be expanding to cover the complex challenges in this community by focusing on the organizations, projects, programs and individuals working to improve conditions and solve problems for their region. As the coverage continues, look for The Lakeshore publication, coming in 2020.
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