Investment in future work force a top community priority

June 1, 2010
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The W.K. Kellogg Foundation last week made another landmark investment in the economic future of the Grand Rapids metro area. The 80-year-old foundation approved a $3.1 million grant to the First Steps program administered by the Great Start Collaborative of Kent County, a coordinated network of agencies, courts, education and city and county leaders with a mission to improve early childhood education. It is a group and a commitment more important than all the economic developers, tax incentives or lifestyle considerations for the prosperity of this region.

That fact is underscored by the depth of leadership for Great Start, co-chaired by Amway Corp. President Doug DeVos, and whose founders included Whitecaps owner Lew Chamberlain and Cascade Engineering owner Fred Keller among other high-minded and diverse community leaders.

Back in February, the group co-sponsored New York Times columnist David Brooks for an appearance at the Economic Club of Grand Rapids. Brooks noted decades-long research now finally streaming into programs that make a difference. He cited a study from the University of Minnesota showing that by age 4, researchers have a 3-in-4 chance of accurately predicting whether a child will graduate from high school. Programs such as those that provide nurse visits to young mothers and preschool programs are changing those odds. Further, Brooks noted the advantage the U.S. once had in education had been squandered the past 30 years, jeopardizing this country’s status as the world’s richest nation.

Those are the types of Great Start programs benefitting from the Kellogg Foundation grant. City leaders have long recognized the extensive research, and Mayor George Heatwell’s emphasis on education is a result of the adult learning curve in these matters. Heartwell assured Grand Rapids Public Schools’ assistance when he created Our Community’s Children, a public and private partnership of the city and GRPS, in his first term as mayor. His 2010 program to employ high school students — The Mayor’s 50 — targets the young adults in matching and mentoring with local businesses.

Heart of West Michigan United Way and the Steelcase Foundation several years ago recognized the benefit of early childhood health and education, targeting those programs almost exclusively.

A report commissioned by Early Childhood Investment Corp. studied the return on investment for money spent on school readiness programs over a 25-year period. Those programs reduced spending on special education, lowered the number of children who repeated a grade, kept more children out of the juvenile justice system, reduced welfare spending and unemployment, and showed an overall reduction in crime.

Continuation and expansion of the programs for children younger than 4 sets the path for a lifetime and seeds the community’s economic ability. It necessitates a sustained commitment from community leaders who serve on nonprofit boards and foundations. The Kellogg Foundation provided a landmark investment.

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