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Federal official stresses need for community involvement in early childhood development

Detroit

In mid-August, Detroit hosted a visit by Linda Smith, President Barack Obama’s assistant deputy secretary for early childhood development. Smith came to meet with government, foundation and nonprofit leaders investing in early childhood in the city.

During a forum at the Detroit Athletic Club, Smith spoke passionately about the need for more investment, at all levels, in the nation’s youngest children.

“I thought Smith was refreshingly candid about what it takes to make the nation, let alone a community like Detroit, truly able to provide comprehensive support for our youngest children,” said Wendy Lewis Jackson, co-managing director of Kresge’s Detroit Program and architect of the Kresge Early Years for Success (KEYS): Detroit initiative. “She emphasized several things, including the need for a relentless commitment to high-quality care, more robust financing models and a smoother transition from early childhood experiences into the early elementary years.”

Smith shared data that illustrated what she sees as the larger problem impacting early childhood outcomes: the pervasive gap in income equality that puts children from lower-income families behind from the start.

That data included what’s commonly referred to as the “30-million-word gap”: the notion that lower-income children hear 30 million fewer words by age 4. By age 3, about 85 percent of a child’s brain has developed, and that can have lifelong consequences, said Smith, sharing data from the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington.  

These are issues that “the federal government can’t fix alone,” Smith said. “This must also emanate from the community level.”

As she met with various groups, Smith said she was impressed with how deeply engaged Detroit stakeholders are in working on early childhood issues, and that she’s noticed energy and leadership coming from many sectors.

Still, she said, as a state Michigan is leaving as much as $20.5 million annually in federal funds for early childhood support on the table by not fully matching the federal Child Care and Development Block Grants with state money, as is required. This funding could greatly augment Michigan’s Child Care Subsidy Program.

The federal match isn’t being drawn down for a variety of reasons, Lewis Jackson said, including issues pertaining to Michigan’s declining investment in its child care subsidy program, as well as the critical need to overhaul and modernize the program to better serve the needs of working families.

Through the generous support of the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation, the Michigan Office of Great Start recently completed an analysis of what’s required to improve the state’s approach to child care. The office is working on a new child care subsidy plan for the state, Lewis Jackson said, which she hopes will alleviate some of those barriers and help Michigan increase its investment in the program and maximize its opportunity to serve families by drawing down its share of federal dollars.

Those dollars could do many things, including fund much-needed improvements at Michigan facilities, said Neesha Modi, a program officer with Kresge’s Detroit team.

“We have a lack of quality infrastructure here,” Modi said. “We don’t have enough high-quality, creative environments to adequately serve and support all of our youngest children.”

Facilities improvements is one strategy the KEYS: Detroit initiative seeks to address. It also will invest in new early childhood centers, a civic leadership partnership, social investments and building the early childhood field in Detroit.

Having Smith in Detroit “was a great opportunity to inform our national leaders about the work underway here in the city and learn firsthand about the remaining early childhood priorities of the current administration,” Lewis Jackson said. “We’re grateful that she could see and experience the commitment of so many stakeholders working to ensure that Detroit’s youngest children don’t get left out of the city’s turnaround.”

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