The Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative (ELNC) is expanding its reach to children in Grand Rapids to ensure they are ready for kindergarten.
With support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the State of Michigan Great Start Readiness Program, this fall, ELNC will open 17 preschool classrooms for 3- and 4-year-olds serving more than 300 vulnerable children.
“Earlier on in the game, we found that our children needed a minimum of two years [of preschool] to be fully ready for kindergarten, so we expanded our program to include 3 year old preschool,” Dr. Nkechy Ezeh, ELNC’s CEO. “Now we are realizing that for some, an even earlier start is needed, so this year will open two infant and toddler classrooms with plans to open two more in January.”
Last year, at two of its seven sites, the collaborative launched a pilot program called EPIC (Empowering Parents Impacting Children), that utilizes a dual generational approach by focusing on creating opportunities for and addressing needs of both vulnerable parents and children together.
The core strategy of the model is to provide support to families, through the services of a family coach, to identify and address barriers preventing them from meeting their basic needs and developing a Family Centered Social Capital building plan.
“Parents who are struggling to meet basic needs and have little or no social capital may have limited capacity and resources to act as a positive change agent for their children,” Ezeh said. “They are like every other parent and want a good education for their children but when faced with ongoing issues such as lack of transportation, stable housing and food for their families, the energy to make sure they get to preschool dwindles. For our effort to be sustained, we must pay attention to our parents.”
Based on the success of last year’s pilot project, this fall, ELNC will be embedding its Empowering Parents Impacting Children (EPIC) Model within all of its early childhood education programs. The on-site family coach will connect and build a supportive relationship with each family assessing needs, developing a family centered plan, making referrals and providing ongoing follow-up services to ensure the family does not slip through the cracks.
They also host parent engagement workshops during the school year, giving parents a platform to develop problem-solving and better parenting skills.
Janet Piccolo, an EPIC family coach at Steepletown Neighborhood Services, a preschool partner of ELNC, said the group participation fosters confidence and gives parents “a community where they can get to know other parents and help build that support system within themselves.”
As a coach, Piccolo served 32 families at Steepletown, making home visits and ensuring that the family is connected to the existing community support system. She said her job is very challenging, but said the children are worth it.
“That’s what keeps me going today, because I know if I could do it, they [students] can do it too,” said Piccolo, who grew up in poverty as the daughter of migrant workers. “There’s nothing that sets me apart from them.”