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Dream Big, Start Small

Dream Big

Jacque Eatmon, Great Start Collaborative coordinator

Jacque Eatmon, Great Start Collaborative coordinator

Dream Big, Start Small in Kalamazoo reaches children as early a possible to better prepare them for school.
Jacque Eatmon, Great Start Collaborative coordinator, has seen many changes over her 35 or so years working in the organization.

"Up until a couple years ago, early childhood programs were seen as just babysitting," she says. "It used to fall under human services, but finally was moved to education, and that made a great difference in federal, state and local funding."

Great Start is a statewide initiative to foster school readiness and life success for children ages birth to five. The local Great Start Collaborative is one of 55 such networks, a coordinated system of community resources tying together all Michigan counties. The Great Start system is funded by the Early Childhood Investment Corporation, a public corporation formed in 2005.

"Our goal is to give all Kalamazoo County children the social, emotional, physical and intellectual foundation they need to be successful in life," Eatmon says.

Easier said than done, Eatmon admits. "It can be a little like trying to eradicate poverty," she says with a laugh. Or creating world peace.

Forming a collaborative, Eatmon says, meant bringing many different organizations, businesses, schools, nonprofits, hospitals, churches, insurance companies, parents to one table to create one cohesive system of family support, parenting leadership, pediatric and family health, social and emotional health, and child care with early education.

"What we had was a lot of silos," Eatmon says. "What we had to do is to try to get everyone out of their lane and talking to each other. We needed to move everyone from just networking into a real collaborative."

The result was that Kalamazoo County Ready 4s, Kalamazoo RESA’s Head Start and Great Start Readiness programs, the Great Start Collaborative, all nine Kalamazoo County school districts and the kindergarten-readiness component of The Learning Network of Greater Kalamazoo are now collaborating as Kalamazoo County Pre-K. Dream Big, Start Small is the collaborative’s call to action.

"We had all these great programs, but parents were getting overwhelmed and confused by all of it," Eatmon explains. "It wasn’t always convenient for parents, and too often the kids were dropping out."

The state budget has dedicated less and less funding over the past five years to support child care quality, Eatmon says, even as 98 percent of Michigan kindergarten teachers, according to a 2009 survey conducted by Lake Research Partners, say it is important for Michigan to make a significant investment in early childhood supports and services.

A child’s most rapid brain development occurs before age 5, and early educational efforts have shown dramatic outcomes in later years. Nearly as many of those teachers have urged the establishment of a community entity--such as Great Start Collaborative--that focuses on the needs of children ages birth to 5.

"We started by sending out a survey to all the Kalamazoo school superintendents just to define what it means to be ready for kindergarten," she says. "A big part of our collaborative was the parents. More than any one thing, it was the communication piece with parents and between all of us that was missing."

Eatmon and the people around the table opened their ears to parents. One message that came through was that enrolling their children into programs was too complicated.

"Every program had its own form, and some of those forms were nine pages long," says Eatmon. "You know, sometimes it takes two years of discussion to decide where to put the comma.  But we finally got it down to one form for all programs, one page, front and back, with all of us using the same software. Instead of a parent chasing the form, now we move them through the process. We triage them. If they are missing something, say, a supporting document, we can let them know what is needed. That’s another big 'hooray.'"

Programs like Head Start, says Eatmon, have developed a stigma over years, becoming associated with poverty. By triaging enrollment into the many different programs available for children (home visitation programs, play-groups, fee-based preschools, child care centers and home-based child care, among others), teachers and families aren’t aware of the funding involved.

"Only the administrators know, so the stigma of poverty is removed," Eatmon says. "And that’s a wonderful, wonderful way to do it."

When it came time to put together a brochure and other informational pieces to promote Kalamazoo County Pre-K and recruit families to an early start, the collaborative turned to parent focus groups. What they learned was that the brochures were insulting rather than drawing in parents.

"They felt that by citing statistics about education lowering the number of teen pregnancies, for instance, we were implying something about their behavior," Eatmon says. "Or that by telling them how important it is to get their children enrolled in preschool, we were implying that they aren’t taking good care of their kids at home. So we turned all our negatives into positives."

One such positive was "Your child deserves pre-K!" Kids who go to pre-K gain confidence, learn how to learn, have richer vocabularies, are better prepared for basic math.

"And by that we mean that these kids don’t just know how to count one to ten, reciting numbers, but understand how to get five milk cartons from the fridge when asked," says Eatmon. They are also more likely to graduate from high school, find a job, and earn more money.

Along with the new brochures, Kalamazoo County Pre-K has a campaign under way to get its message out to every family in the county with fliers, radio ads and social media. Parents are bringing the informational materials to doctors’ offices, courthouses, churches with faith-based initiatives, WIC offices. "Anywhere we might find people with children," Eatmon says.

"Our parent coalition is doing great things. A lot of organizations have parents at the table because a grant requires it," says Eatmon. "But we want their authentic voice. Our parents stand up and speak up and speak out. We help them learn how to advocate for their families. Right now, a group of parents are speaking up about improving school lunches."

A grant from The Learning Network will provide $542,412, giving additional resources for parenting programs associated with Kalamazoo County Pre-K. The grant will enable as many as 60 3-year-olds to attend half or full-day pre-kindergarten; upgrade and equip facilities; provide transportation; and provide professional development for faculty and staff along with on-site teacher mentors.

Kalamazoo County Pre-K classrooms are open to children of all abilities, regardless of ethnicity, physical or mental ability, or family income. Many families qualify for low- or no-cost tuition. All classrooms are licensed by the State of Michigan.

Visit dreambigstartsmall.org or call 269.250.9333 for more information.
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