In the six years since Calhoun Intermediate School District’s Early Childhood Connections program began providing early childhood education and services, the number of children entering kindergarten ready to learn has more than tripled.
“We strive to empower and engage families to actively participate in their child’s development, which leads to them to actively participating in their child’s education,” said Susan Clark, director of Early Childhood Services for the Calhoun Intermediate School District.
More than 3,000 young children and their families have been serviced by the program since it started in 2011 with kindergarten readiness at 25 percent. Since then, administrators say kindergarten readiness has improved and 89 percent of the children serviced are now developmentally on track.
Clark said the ECC’s Raising a Reader program has significantly improved families’ and children’s literacy behaviors, and the Great Start Readiness Program professional development efforts improved early educators’ classroom practice, positively impacting student motivation and learning. Both have increased kindergarten readiness overall, according to ECC data.
With support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the organization uses the Parents as Teachers curriculum, a national parent education model, to increase kindergarten readiness among local children from birth to age 5. As part of the curriculum, ECC also offers home visits by trained family coaches, who teach parents to engage with their children to prepare them for kindergarten.
“We provide them with activities that they can do with their child to better understand their child’s development and really have them looking at their child through a lens of development and how they can support their development as the child progresses,” Clark said of the home visits, provided to more than 700 children in the district.
The organization’s Welcome Baby Education program provides every nursing mother in Calhoun County a baby gift basket and three home visits. Erika Burkhardt, ECC assistant superintendent for the Calhoun Intermediate School District, said the program strengthens their bonds with families, while ensuring parents’ continued participation in services offered by ECC.
“Part of it is building that relationship and safety with the families in hopes that we’re able to retain those families in the programs that we offer,” Burkhardt said.
The organization also supports children’s developmental growth through hands-on creative playgroups offered at one of its 40 partner facilities in Calhoun County. Playgroups not only provide a fun atmosphere for children to socialize and learn, but also allow parents to develop connections with other families.
“The playgroups allow parents to network, learn from each other and build social connections across the community,” Clark said of the playgroups, which have served 964 children since 2011.
Transportation is provided to and from playgroups because most families enrolled in ECC do not have their own vehicles.
“When my neighbor told me about ECC, I was initially concerned about travel arrangements,” said Crystal Hankinson, who received assistance from ECC for her son Jacob, 5, and daughter Anna, 4. “Without ECC’s transportation services, I don’t know what we would do.”
In addition to providing transportation, ECC provides weekly car seat clinics, offering free car seat inspections and tips on child vehicle safety.
The program also has successfully engaged children with its “Raising a Reader” book bag initiative, where families exchange books with other families and parents are taught to engage children in daily reading activities. During the 2013-14 school year, ECC served more than 1,500 children through the program.
Haelee Hanlon, an ECC family coach since 2012, believes the organization has built trusted relationships with families because of its holistic approach to servicing families.
“We take the family as a whole and not just that child,” said Hanlon. “We bring those answers and solutions out of parents themselves instead of telling them what they need to do for their children and I think that’s been really beneficial to our relationship with parents.”
Hankinson is effusive about the impact ECC has had on her family.
“To be quite honest, ECC has changed my life,” Hankinson said. “Both of my children are now doing wonderful things, and I feel closely linked to their success – a feeling I did not have before my children began here.”