Free Preschool Spotlight: Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative

We all know that Success Starts Early!  As high quality preschool is one of the most critical factors that determines a child’s success, we at First Steps Kent want to recognize those partners in Kent County who are working tirelessly to expand access to high quality early education and preschool for children throughout our community.

This month, we would like to spotlight a community collaborative that has relentlessly dedicated their time, energy, and resources to expanding access to preschool for Grand Rapids’ most vulnerable children:

The Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative (ELNC)
Their Research

Early in the process of forming this collaborative, Dr. Nkechy Ezeh, an international scholar and tenured Associate Professor of Education and Director of Early Childhood Education Program at Aquinas College, led an effort to understand the current reality of children in specific neighborhoods in the core city of Grand Rapids.  Through her research, she found that:

  • 24.8% of all people live with incomes below the poverty level
  • 8.5% of infants born receive inadequate prenatal care low birthweight
  • 54.9% of infants born have moms without a high-school diploma
  • 19.4% of infants born have moms who are still in their teens
  • 83% of three and four year olds in these targeted areas are considered not prepared for kindergarten.
  • There are huge gaps between the numbers of preschool-aged children and the availability of slots in licensed preschool programs in their neighborhoods.

(Statistics taken from

Their Collaborative

As Dr. Ezeh and her team were acutely aware of the consequences of a lack of access to high quality early childhood education, she led the formation of a team of neighborhood organizations that agreed to work together for the purpose of ”planning and designing an intentional preschool service system aimed at providing, expanding and sustaining the capacity of high quality early care and education programs in the vulnerable neighborhoods of Grand Rapids.”

These partner organizations include:

Their Accomplishments

With a $5 Million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in 2012, ELNC set this lofty goal: In 2015, 75% of children attending ELNC Preschool will be assessed as ready for kindergarten. To achieve this, they created hundreds of quality preschool slots for vulnerable children living in the ELNC target neighborhoods.  Now, over 600 children have attended one of their quality preschool programs and data generated through the Teaching Strategies Gold Online Assessment demonstrates that they not only MET their goal but surpassed it with 95% of 4 year old children attending ELNC Preschool demonstrating readiness for kindergarten. What a remarkable achievement, considering that just three years ago, the Grand Rapids Press cited a United Way Report stating that only 17% of the students who start kindergarten in GRPS were reading at the kindergarten level. What a difference it makes when children are given opportunity to access a quality preschool!

While preschool access stands as a priority in creating a more equitable community in which all children have equal opportunities, ELNC understands that educating children is a comprehensive effort.  As Director of Early Childhood Education for ELNC, K’Sandra Earle highlights the critical role of parents: “In order for our children to sustain the progress and gains made, we must also intentionally support and partner with their parents to provide the tools necessary for them to be actively involved in the educational needs of their children.”

In direct response to this need, ELNC developed and piloted the Empowering Parents Impacting Children (EPIC) Model – a two-generation approach based on the philosophy that parents are essential partners in a child’s development and education process, and they must not only be a part of the solution but the driving force.  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. This whole-family approach focuses equally and intentionally on services and opportunities for the parent and the child, utilizing existing community collaborative resources. ELNC successfully piloted the EPIC Model last year and now plans to integrate it within all of their preschool sites.

Not surprisingly, ELNC has garnered a great deal of attention and recognition in the community for the incredible work they are doing.  They have hosted state representatives and journalists in their classrooms, built a new playground through a partnership with Amway and Ka-BOOM!, and even won the Connecting with Community award through WoodTV this past May!

For more on ELNC and the link between early childhood education and a better life, watch this video from WoodTV: “Early Education Where it Matters Most

First Steps, the Great Start Collaborative, & many more in our community would like to thank and congratulate the ELNC for their relentless commitment to vulnerable children and their families!

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