Three-year-old Gabriel Becerra is a typical energetic toddler. Clutching a red toy-dinosaur with one hand, Gabriel excitedly tugs at the arm of his mother, Rosa Becerra, with the other, shouting out things that catch his attention during Ready for School’s open house.
At the facility in Holland, Michigan, Gabriel plays, runs and laughs. By most standards, he’s your typical 3-year-old. But that hasn’t always been the case.
Less than a year ago, Gabriel had a pronounced speech impediment and limited vocabulary. Becerra said she worried that her son would fall behind his peers. But through a colleague, she connected with Ready for School (RFS), which referred her to a preschool that fit her son’s needs, and today Gabriel is thriving.
“He’s very verbal now,” Becerra said. “His vocabulary has grown so much in such a short period of time.”
RFS, serving children beginning at birth in Holland, Zeeland and Hamilton communities, advocates for kindergarten readiness. The non-profit collaborates with community organizations, school districts and other stakeholders to engage and inform parents about early childhood education and expand early learning opportunities. In any given year, RFS comes in contact with 10,000 children.
RFS Executive Director Pat VerDuin said when staff first meet families, they give them a bookmark highlighting kindergarten preparedness.
“Most of the time parents will take a look at that bookmark and say, ‘that’s what I thought they were going to learn in kindergarten,’ and then there’s kind of a gasp at the fact that their child is not going to be ready,” VerDuin said.
Becerra said she didn’t expect Gabriel to learn so much, so quickly.
“I really didn’t know how a preschool ran nowadays,” said Becerra, whose older children are now adults. “I was very, very pleased that he learned as much as he did.”
RFS uses community engagement to change attitudes and behaviors around the importance of early childhood education. The group issues parent surveys through its network of community partners to identify gaps in the local education system and address challenges facing families.
They also host dozens of community, private, neighborhood and church events annually to connect with parents. VerDuin said the parent feedback serves as a “road map as to how we navigate and the services that we provide.”
“We worked in different sectors … to get the word out and the community speaking in one voice about what it means to have children ready,” she said.
Their efforts are paying off.
A 2010 RFS study showed that 55 percent of children in its target communities were prepared for kindergarten. Since, the number has increased to 62 percent, bringing the organization a step closer to meeting its goal of having 75 percent of children ready for kindergarten by the year 2015.
VerDuin said a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the community’s investment has been pivotal to the organization’s success in helping children become prepared for kindergarten.
VerDuin said their work can be best described as a “community movement.”
“The way the people are coming together around their youngest children is really nothing short of amazing.”
RFS Chairman Bruce Los said the organization’s approach to leveraging community resources has become an early education model.
“Doctors can’t do it alone, schools can’t do it alone, parents can’t,” Los said. “It all comes down to collective impact. You have all of these groups that we’ve seen a little bit of magic from.”
Given the success of RFS, VerDuin said she would like to help residents across the state gain greater understanding about kindergarten readiness.
“We have this moral obligation to share our lessons learned with other communities,” VerDuin said. “Every community has its own assets. It’s time for us to share how other communities can do something similar.”
Becerra said she has come to trust RFS as an early childhood resource. She said Gabriel has grown more confident, independent and efficient in his communication skills, adding that the toddler has even outpaced her in some ways.
“I think it’s amazing that they can work an iPad and I can’t,” Becerra said, jokingly. “It’s been a really good experience for him. It was more than I expected.”