By Heidi Stukkie
When Dr. Nkechy Ezeh was growing up in Nigeria as a child, they didn’t have any early childhood learning opportunities like they do here. No one knew what the children were missing. Now that she lives in the U.S., what baffles her the most is that we have early education programs here, but not all children have access.
“We have early childhood education programs, but we’re not reaching all kids here — that’s an injustice,” she says. “Why are we not giving this to everyone?”
ELNC targets neighborhoods in the southeast, southwest, and northwest sides of town that have the highest number of vulnerable children.
In the areas they serve, there are approximately 1,500 children under the age of 5 and only 20 percent of them have access to an early education. That means nearly 1,200 kids don’t get any formal education before kindergarten. Without this, they’re already behind by the time they start and some never catch up.
ELNC neighborhoods show a huge disparity between the number of children and the preschools and licensed childcare centers available. There are simply not enough spots available to accommodate all of the children. Plus, nearly 25 percent of the families within the target area have incomes below the poverty level so even if they could find an opening, many cannot afford it.
With the initial Kellogg grant, ELNC is working toward increasing preschool openings and developing programs to train teachers and parents on the skills they need to improve the lives of the children.
ELNC’s vision is to create a community where all children — regardless of geography or income — can thrive developmentally and educationally so that they can one day become self-sufficient adults.
“We want to change the face of early childhood education,” says Ezeh, ELNC’s CEO.
The reason why an early childhood education is so important is because without it, children enter kindergarten already behind academically, socially, emotionally, and even sometimes physically.
In the ELNC target neighborhoods, Ezeh says nearly 83 percent of the children are not ready for kindergarten by age 5 and “if you’re not ready for kindergarten, you’re not ready for life.”
Ezeh believes the children who don’t have access to an early education are usually the ones who need it the most. She says that geography and racial inequity play a role in who gets a quality education and who doesn’t.
ELNC collaborates with many established agencies already helping the families and children. These community partners include: Baxter Community Center, New Hope Baptist Church, South End Community Outreach Ministries, Steepletown Neighborhood Ministries, The Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, The Other Way Ministries, United Methodist Community House, and Wellspring Church of Grand Rapids.
The goal of ELNC is to empower these agencies and give them the resources they need to help the families and children. Ideally, they want to continue supporting them until there is no longer a need for ELNC to exist.
Some of the services and programs ELNC will offer the targeted communities include:
– Increasing available spots and enrollment in early learning centers by adding new buildings or rehabilitating old ones, hiring more teachers, and providing financial scholarships to the families
– Educating parents and caregivers on early learning and child development
– Working with fathers through the Proud Fathers Program on relationships and raising a child
– Providing leadership training to parents — the Parent Leadership Training Institute is a 20-week program that teaches leadership, community building, cross cultural learning, advocacy, and civic engagement
– Assisting the partner organizations in a variety of ways
– Advocating as a voice for the children so they may all have access to an early childhood education
In June, Kellogg awarded an additional $1.5 million, three-year grant for ELNC to offer a replication of the national AVANCE
program. The name AVANCE comes from a Spanish word meaning “to advance” and the program has traditionally been targeted toward Hispanics.
Kellogg and ELNC are currently testing the program’s approach with the African American community in Grand Rapids for three years. Next year, the program will also be expanded to the Hispanic community at the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan.
While the ELNC initiative mainly focuses on educating children 3-4 years old, this program focuses specifically on those 0-3. Ezeh says the AVANCE program “completes what ELNC set out to do.”
The program, which will be called PREP (Parent Resource Education and Play) locally to suit non-Hispanic audiences, educates both the parent and the child once a week during the school year, with parents and children attending classes in separate rooms at New Hope Baptist Church.
ELNC is only just beginning, but they’re already off to a very good start. One of the first tasks they did was to create a strong, diverse board of directors with people of all ages and experiences. They’ve chosen members who understand the needs of the people they serve.
“We can’t help our partner agencies unless we’re strong,” says Dana Boals, the board’s president.
They have also developed a partner advisory board with two people from each partner organization. Two co-chairs from this board sit on the ELNC board as well.
A parent advisory board under development will advise the ELNC board of directors and the partner advisory board. From September to May, 20 parents are participating in the Parent Leadership Training Institute program and afterward, these empowered parents will sit on the advisory board.
Ezeh couldn’t be better suited to lead this Kellogg-funded initiative. She grew up in Nigeria and after coming to the U.S. with her husband, she found herself pregnant. Without any family here to help her, she signed up for a class in child development out of curiosity. Now, many years later, she has her educational doctorate degree and in addition to running ELNC, teaches early childhood education at Aquinas. Prior to her current positions, she taught early childhood education for many years and uses that experience to guide her.
“Children don’t exist alone,” Ezeh says.
She believes young children need attentive, loving parents, quality teachers, and a stable, secure environment. If any one of these areas is out of balance, the child will suffer. Ezeh says that in order to educate a child well, you have to understand what is going on in their home. She adds that educating is not just about sharing knowledge and kids don’t always behave in lovable ways.
“Sometimes you have to remove the weeds to get to the real plant,” she says.
With that in mind, Ezeh plans to grow the ELNC initiative until its services are no longer needed. That day will come when every child has access to an early childhood education.