Educating young population key to area's economic hopes

October 18, 2010
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Kent County is not lacking a community commitment to the vision of a well-educated work force, nor is the learning curve of the business community too steep in regard to impediments. The list of agencies and programs dedicated to that goal could fill this space, but the challenges remain. The past week has been pregnant with news in this regard.

The Michigan League for Human Services Kids Count in Michigan report was released last week, examining eight indicators of maternal and infant health in 69 Michigan communities, including Grand Rapids, and comparing the markers to similar research completed 10 years ago. As readers might expect, risk is higher in relation to low income levels and lack of medical access. Grand Rapids led the “moderate risk” category, an improvement over the past decade.

While any improvement can and should be celebrated, it is tenuous. First Steps Kent County reports that 43 percent of births in this county were covered by Medicaid, which is up from 32 percent in 2002.

The most striking note in the Kids Count report, however, was this: A key indicator that is uniformly high for all the highest-risk groups (regardless of ethnicity) was the percentage of mothers without a high school diploma or GED. Perhaps even more worrisome is nutritional need, especially for children from birth to age 5, a time when brain development is critical. Last week as Kids’ Food Basket in Grand Rapids moved into more spacious quarters, it reported it is now providing more than 3,130 sack suppers to Kent County children.

If the “cycle” is to be broken, it certainly leads back to information and education. The U.S. Department of Education in August released a report showing 42 percent of U.S. high school students drop out — the most terrifying statistic to come from Census updates. That underscores the importance of the $4 million W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant to the Grand Rapids Student Advancement Foundation for its “Believe 2 Become” initiative, also announced last week. The nonprofit SAF program encourages children in their education, especially at critical junctures in the third, seventh and ninth grades. The program also is supported by the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation, Heart of West Michigan United Way, Lighthouse Communities, National Community Development Institute and Grand Valley State University Community Research Institute.

Yet another safety net came in the form of a $50,000 grant to the Grand Rapids Community Foundation from the Michigan College Access Network, one of 14 grants awarded across the state. The foundation will have the responsibility to convene a local college access network and coordinate programs, services and resources to identify and reduce student barriers to college and enhance local collaboration. The grant particularly targets work to motivate and inspire low-income and/or first generation students and their families to access, enroll and succeed in college. Both the Kresge Foundation and federal grant from the U.S. Department of Education fund the Michigan program.

The past week underscored the need and the value of community commitments to its most significant economic development tool.

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