What Michigan-based nonprofit Ready for School (RFS) wants more than anything else is for children in Holland, Zeeland and Hamilton communities to enter kindergarten ready to learn.
Ready for School leadership collaborates with community organizations, school districts and other stakeholders to engage and inform parents about early childhood education and expand early learning opportunities. In 2015, the organization, with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, served more than 12,000 children through its network of partners and community members.
“We have those touch points in the community that would not exist if Ready for School was not present,” said Donna LB Lowry, president and CEO of Ready for School. “Our mission is preparing children for success by linking parents through integrated community support.”
Rosa Becerra contacted Ready for School for assistance with her son Gabriel, who had a pronounced speech impediment and limited vocabulary. Ready for School staff referred Becerra 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.”
Lowry said when staff first meets families, they give them a bookmark highlighting kindergarten preparedness and explain their role in ensuring their child enters kindergarten prepared to learn. The information provided to parents “helps prepare them to become their child’s first and best teacher,” Lowry added.
“The expectations of kindergarteners are so different now than they were when parents went through kindergarten, so it has moved us into explaining what the child will be learning and how they will transition into kindergarten,” Lowry said.
Becerra – surprised Gabriel learned so much, so quickly – agreed.
“I really didn’t know how a preschool ran nowadays,” said Becerra, who also has adult children. “I was very, very pleased that he learned as much as he did.”
Ready for School also 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. This feedback guides program updates and development.
“What we’re trying to draw from parents is what they need, and their feedback helps to inform the work we’re doing,” said Kellee Kortas, RFS community investment officer.
A 2010 RFS study showed 55 percent of children in its target communities were prepared for kindergarten. Since, the number has increased to 62 percent, bringing the organization closer to meeting its goal of having 75 percent of children ready for kindergarten. Lowry said the area’s poverty rate has hindered efforts toward that goal, noting 67 percent of parents surveyed indicated preschool costs as a major barrier.
Lowry said funding from the Kellogg Foundation was used to develop a strategic review of the organization and to host focus groups with parents to determine how to improve its programming. The report also offered guidelines for RFS to increase support and participation from every sector in the community. <
“We’re really looking at how we should be aligning our work with other activities in the community,” Lowry said. “This evaluation is supporting us to be innovative in the early childhood space and also helping us to build toward our sustainability within the community.”
Lowry emphasized that her organization cannot achieve its goals without the support of the community, which she calls the “secret sauce” to achieving better outcomes for children.
“The broad multi-sector community support for this work is going to create change in the community that’s lasting,” Lowry said. “Across sectors in our community, people are understanding the fundamental relationship between early childhood experiences and education and our community’s health and prosperity.”
Bruce Los, RFS chairman, said the organization’s approach to leveraging community resources has become an early education model.
“It all comes down to collective impact,” Los said. “You have all of these groups that we’ve seen a little bit of magic from.”
Given their success, RFS hosts other organizations at their Holland office, where they provide a toolkit, sharing their multi-sector approach and invite guest speakers from the community to share their perspectives on improving early childhood education.
Becerra continues to trust RFS as an early childhood resource, especially seeing Gabriel grow more independent. She said 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, joking. “It’s been a really good experience for him. ”