We’re Thankful for our Partners

November 23, 2015 – It has been a busy fall. State legislators and leaders in the Administration been talking about critical things like how we spend our state resources – on roads and on other things, how we support our most vulnerable school systems like Detroit, how we can work to be a leader in the educational success of our young people, and how we care for our most vulnerable kids in the foster care and criminal justice systems.  Michigan’s Children has also been busy connecting with others in the many networks we work with to impact those conversations and help to begin or continue others.

We are thankful for the many people around the state who help Michigan’s Children move better policy for children, youth and families. They are community leaders, service providers, parents and young people who take time out of their busy lives to let decision makers know what works and what doesn’t. Michigan’s Children shares research and information with them, connects them directly with policymakers, helps to build their advocacy efficacy, and most importantly, learns from their on-the-ground experiences to build our advocacy strategies.

We do this in many ways, including participating in existing conferences. This fall, staff members were involved in advocacy, communications and youth voice workshops at the Early On Michigan conference, the Michigan Pre-College and Youth Outreach Conference, and the Michigan Statewide Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect. Another priority of Michigan’s Children is continuing relationships with existing networks, and working with those folks more often than just at a single conference session. We work throughout the year to provide advocacy support to the Early On Foundation; local child abuse and neglect prevention councils and direct service agencies, as well as human services collaboratives across the state; and Fostering Success network members who work to improve adult transitions for young people currently and formerly in the foster care system statewide; among others. And, we consistently respond to community groups who reach out to us for assistance building local policy agendas.

We also work with our networks to create specific opportunities for local voices to connect directly with policymakers. These are done through KidSpeak and FamilySpeak forums, as well as other initiatives. We’ve hosted these forums in recent months along with partners including the Michigan Association for Community and Adult Education, the Association for Children’s Mental Health (ACMH), the Communities in Schools (CIS) network, the Michigan Statewide, Foster, Adoptive and Kinship Family Coalition, the Michigan Kinship Coalition and the Kinship Care Resource Center network, and critical regional partners like Ozone House, the Student Advocacy Center and Wayne State University’s Transition to Independence program. Their voices have changed the trajectory of policy conversation and have resulted in additional champions for youth- and parent-driven solutions in the Legislature, several Departments and other local policymaking bodies, including a recent legislative focus on critical improvements to the states’ foster care system.

People around the state are working hard to share what they know with decision-makers in their communities, at the state Capitol and in Congress, and their work matters. Progress in policy work, including real gains in critical investments and thwarting or minimizing damaging disinvestment, doesn’t come by accident. It comes from us all working toward a better Michigan – one that invests in strategies proven to close equity gaps and improve lives. The challenges before us require that the work continue, but we need to take a moment to just say thanks to our fellow advocates across the state. It matters. Happy Thanksgiving.

– Michele Corey

November 20, 2015 – Last week I attended the Early On Michigan Conference and had the opportunity to present to Early On providers and families on how they can get engaged in policy advocacy.  I also got to learn more about the great state-level work and the work local Early On providers are doing to bolster the system. Given that improving access to needed early intervention services through Early On is a priority of Michigan’s Children, it was a great opportunity for me to learn directly from the folks working in the field and to figure out how we can be most helpful.  Here were some of my key takeaways.

First, like any other group of providers serving children and families, this group is very passionate about the kids and families they serve.  In my workshop on policy advocacy (that was competing against other amazing workshops focused on things like parent engagement, trauma experienced by young children, language acquisition, and other incredibly important topics), attendees ranged from folks who had good relationships with their elected officials to folks who had never spoken to an elected official before.  And all were engaged and eager to learn how to build those important relationships to improve public policies on behalf of the families and children they serve.  I am confident that at least a couple of legislators have heard from their constituents since then on the needs of Early On.

Second, I learned a lot about Medicaid in one of the workshops I attended on reimbursement for Early On services.  In the room, there was lack of understanding among services providers of how this can be done most effectively and efficiently, and the workshop was incredibly informative to all those who attended.  It reaffirmed Michigan’s Children’s priority, supported by the Early On Michigan Foundation, to push for a study on how we can better maximize Medicaid resources to help offset costs of early intervention services.

And finally, it continues to become more and more evident that many challenges with the Early On system exist due to the two-tiered eligibility and funding structures.  This results in young children with moderate developmental delays – the majority of Early On children in our state – often receiving inadequate intervention services to address those delays compared to children with more significant delays.  The state must take brave efforts to look at ways to streamline eligibility for this program so that all children and their families can receive the services they need for optimal development.  Not only will this improve outcomes for kids, but it can also reduce the special education rolls in preschool and k-12.  You can learn more about the challenges to the Early On system resulting from this tiered eligibility system in our Issues for Michigan’s Children brief.

This program and the children and families it serves are too important to continue to ignore, as evidenced by these incredible family stories, and we are not sitting idly by.  Michigan’s Children and the Early On Foundation recently submitted a sign-on letter to the Governor requesting he begin investing state funds starting in fiscal year 2017 to address the significant financing challenges that Early On faces.  The letter was signed by numerous entities and stakeholders including the majority of Intermediate School Districts who are responsible for this program.  Over the next year, Michigan’s Children will be working closely with the Early On Foundation and others to promote the need for state investment for Early On while simultaneously working to identify ways to maximize Medicaid funds and to begin addressing eligibility challenges.  We hope you’ll join us in these efforts to ensure all families with babies and toddlers have the services they need to thrive.

-Mina Hong

November 13, 2015 – What does it take to make a great teacher? An expert group of educators, policymakers and others had been working for quite some time to answer that question and came up with a better, more consistent system in Michigan for making sure that our teaching force is the best it can be, for our most advantaged and most challenged students alike. One of the takeaways from that process demonstrated in the teacher evaluation legislation recently signed by the Governor is that better training and support is necessary so that teachers can use their talents to the best of their abilities.

What supports a great teacher? Certainly the ability to have time in the classroom to use what they have spent years learning – to help students build knowledge and skills. For some, that is in specific topic areas; for some, that is about fostering and supporting a love of learning for younger kids; for some, it is about getting kids who are struggling back on track; and for some it is about making sure we continue to challenge the imagination and creativity of those who excel. Not surprisingly, teachers report that they can better utilize their skills when kids come to school ready to learn. Unfortunately, there are a host of things that prevent kids from optimal learning in the classroom that are impossible for teachers to address on their own. Teachers are better able to teach and students are better able to learn when:

  • – kids don’t come into the classroom hungry, or when they don’t come in with a toothache as supported by integrating nutrition and health services in the schools;
  • – kids are not feeling intimidated by other kids or school staff, or feeling unsafe at home and on the way to school, which is improved by utilizing positive behavior supports and other evidenced discipline strategies;
  • – older students have a manageable job after school that they want and need, and when students have had the opportunity to catch up when they fall behind and stay motivated after school and in the summer, made possible through investment in community partnerships and expanded learning;
  • – young people have been able to manage their addictions, mental health or other special needs and other members of their family have been able to do the same through access to those services in school buildings and in the community;
  • – student behaviors are managed well in the school system by recognizing behaviors borne of trauma and addressing them through that lens; and
  • – their parents are able to build their own skills to help and encourage them at home and have the time together at home to use those skills, as supported through adult and community education programs and family friendly work supports.

Everyone knows that educational, career and life success are not built in the classroom alone. Because all of our systems, not just the K-12 system, don’t work as well as they should and often don’t work together, disparities in literacy emerge as early as nine months of age.  Those gaps can continue to grow throughout educational careers without appropriate attention and intervention. In addition, future state budgets will be stressed by recent road funding decisions and inadequate revenue putting other critical state investments at risk.

Despite these challenges, Michigan must find a way to commit investments for teachers and the children, youth, families and communities they serve. To do otherwise would fail to move ahead in the work started by this teacher evaluation legislation. As we better evaluate teachers, we must also ensure that they have the support they need to succeed.

– Michele Corey

October 30, 2015 – Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend the launch convening of the Washtenaw County’s My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) initiative.   My Brother’s Keeper was launched by President Obama to focus on specific solutions to improve outcomes for boys and young men of color.  Washtenaw County joins a dozen or so other Michigan communities who are part of the MBK initiative, demonstrating that many communities across our state are committed to reversing the trend we see in decades of data  suggesting that  our attempts to reduce disparities by race continue to fall short for boys of color.

The goals of the MBK initiative are to ensure that all children enter school cognitively, physically, socially and emotionally ready and read at grade level by 3rd grade; that all young people graduate from high school, complete post-secondary education or training and remain safe from violent crime; and that all youth out of school are employed.  Michigan is far from those outcomes now.

All of these areas are of great importance to Michigan’s Children, and as a Washtenaw County resident, I’d love to help connect the dots between these localized efforts in my community and public policy priorities.  I was very pleased to see a handful of policymakers in attendance, ranging from local city council to U.S. Congress and everyone in between.  However, the locally-focused conversation felt like a bit of a missed opportunity to connect the great ideas generated at the convening and the role of public policy to help implement or remove policy barriers to them.  As Michigan communities continue to roll out MBK action plans, a few thoughts.

First, the challenges of boys and men of color are important to everyone.  The prosperity of our state relies on the success of all of our future workers.  If data and evidence demonstrate that a significant portion of our child population is falling behind, it is the responsibility of all of us to ensure that programs and services are providing equitable opportunities for all children to succeed.  We can’t rely solely on localized efforts, but rather, statewide public will and policies must support these efforts to ensure that all children and youth – including children and youth of color – can succeed for the future prosperity of our state.

Second, the state department that was represented, and who represents the MBK initiative in Lansing, is the Michigan Community Service Commission (MCSC).  While I am glad to see that there is state-level connection to these localized efforts, the role of the MCSC is to connect its programs like AmeriCorps, Mentor Michigan and other volunteerism initiatives to MBK efforts.  This is an essential piece, but to really impact outcomes, we need other state departments to be part of the conversation like the Education, Health and Human Services, Workforce Development, Civil Rights, Corrections, and others whose investment strategies and everyday decisions impact the lives of boys and men of color.  These departments can help design better investment, policies, rules and programs that can best support MBK efforts.

And finally, along those same lines, we know that public policies and investment strategies have contributed to the  “pipeline” that we see too often play out in the lives of boys of color, and that changes to those policies and investments can and should play a vital role to prevent and mitigate its continuation.  Public policy must support efforts to improve access to high quality early childhood education for the children who are most at-risk of starting kindergarten behind, expanding afterschool and summer learning programs for students who wouldn’t otherwise have access to these equity-promoting programs, connecting students and families to wraparound needs through integrated school services, or connecting the dots between community-based initiatives and state department efforts’ to expand trauma-informed practices across all sectors.  As MBK initiatives across our state continue to develop and implement plans, and local communities take responsibility for improved outcomes for boys of color, Michigan’s Children will stay connected to those efforts to help connect the dots between local innovation and the policy and investment required to support them.

-Mina Hong

October 12, 2015 — John Green, award winning young adult author, recently gave a TEDx Talk in Indianapolis entitled, “The nerd’s guide to learning everything online.” He explained how he was a terrible student and felt education was a series of hurdles he didn’t care to jump. He said teachers would threaten him by saying he couldn’t get a good job because his GPA was too low and it would go on his permanent record. “As far as I could tell at eleven or twelve years old, people with good jobs woke up early in the morning and the men with good jobs, one of the first things they did was tie a strangulation item of clothing around their necks,” he said. “That’s not a recipe for a happy life. Why would I want to jump over all of these hurdles and have that be the end? That’s a terrible end!”

John Green’s example may seem exaggerated but it is the perception of many students and as experts say in the world of sales and advertising, perception is reality. Students who struggle with trauma in their lives often see little to no importance in attending school. They see it as a hurdle, a hurdle that by law is required of them and a hurdle someone other than them cares more about. Why should a student who is burdened by the crushing weight of poverty, hunger, abuse, having to be the main source of income, living in a crime-infested neighborhood, loss of family and friends to violence, being a teen parent, being the parent to their parent(s), and having intermittent heat, electricity, or running water want to attend school? When life is about survival, school is an unnecessary hurdle.

School should not feel like a hurdle, should not feel like something one has to do for someone else. Students have mastered the basic economic principle of opportunity cost without realizing they have. Many students living with trauma see the cost of attending school as greater than the benefits. By being at school, they see the lost opportunity of getting a job, making money, parenting younger siblings, and having the freedom to make their own choices. They don’t see nor value the future benefits promised of an education because they are focused on trying to survive the present.

According to the 2009 New York Times article, “Large Urban-Suburban Gap Seen in Graduation Rates,” the urban-suburban school attendance and graduation gap is due to the inequality of teacher quality from classroom to classroom. We have to start at ground zero, in the classroom, with increasing the quality of teachers and teaching if we are to motivate students to attend school. The teacher ultimately holds the power to motivate students to attend school and the classroom is ground zero for inspiring students. If teachers create a safe and nurturing environment in the classroom, if they differentiate and individualize instruction based on the needs, wants, and learning styles of students, students will want to attend school. If teachers provide students extended learning opportunities such as guest speakers, field trips, contests, simulations, projects, character building workshops, and college and career fairs, students will attend school.

Steps are being taken to improve the quality of teachers and teaching in the alternative and urban schools; however progress is slow and infrequent. Hamtramck Public Schools is one of the few school districts in Michigan to have a person dedicated to teacher evaluation and instructional improvement, which is my current position with the district. The University of Michigan –Dearborn is one of the first and few universities to have a concentration area in Metropolitan Education for their Education Specialist and Doctoral degree programs. More secondary schools and institutions of higher learning should develop programs and plans specifically to improve the quality of instruction within urban and alternative education schools. By doing so, students living with trauma will receive the emotional, social, and academic support they need and will be motivated to attend and stay in school.

– Tim Constant, Director of Teacher Evaluation and Instructional Improvement, Hamtramck Public Schools

Michigan’s Children invited Constant to write a blog about the importance of trauma-informed practices in education and the need for integrated school services to help all students achieve greater academic success. Tim has been involved with Michigan’s Children for many years, ensuring that the young people he serves have a voice in the public policy process. We were glad for him to share his thoughts about recent work to include components of trauma informed practice into expected outcomes for the educators he supports.

October 6, 2015 – After spending the last 10 months interning for Michigan’s Children I have learned about the importance of raising community voices up to policymakers. Through this process we can all learn about the true needs of a community from the people who understand the situation best. It is this idea that inspired me to help organize and plan a FamilySpeak event where caregivers of many different forms (birth parents, foster parents, kinship parents and adoptive parents) would come to Lansing and share stories of struggle and triumph in their journey to raise the child(ren) in their care.

On September 22, 2015, 11 caregivers from across the state came to the State Capitol Building in Lansing to address a listening panel comprised of policymakers and community organizations. Watching the Speaker’s Library fill up with elected officials, representatives from DHHS, MDE, and the Governors Office I felt very excited about the policy and administrative changes that could come from this event.

Though the policymakers hold the power to make change, the real stars of this event were the families who made the extraordinary effort to travel from all across the state to share their stories at the Capitol. Few people enjoy public speaking, and even fewer enjoy public speaking about personal, and emotional struggle; but that didn’t stop the 11 caregivers from getting up and telling those in attendance about their experiences with the child welfare system – the good and the bad.

Already, only two weeks out from this event, Michigan’s Children has seen the affects of this event in the Legislature and the Departments. I recognize that policy change is usually slow and incremental, but I truly believe that positive policy change will come from this event.

From myself, and on behalf of Michigan’s Children, thank you to all who attended our FamilySpeak event. And to all the caregivers – Thank you, thank you! This event would not have been possible without your efforts.

– Cainnear Hogan

Cainnear is an intern for Michigan’s Children. She is currently completing her MSW at the University of Michigan – School of Social Work.

September 30, 2015 – As you all know, Michigan’s Children has been bringing together the voices of the most challenged young people and policymakers for nearly 20 years through our signature KidSpeak® forums, and that work has changed the trajectory of policy conversations over those years. But children and youth don’t grow up on their own, they grow up in families, in schools and in communities – often many different ones if they are involved with our foster care system. Michigan is too often not the best parent to the young people who we have taken responsibility for, but there are a lot of caregivers who are working as hard as humanly possible and against multiple odds to try to do better for kids in foster care. We heard from about a dozen of those caregivers last week, and learned quite a bit about how we could do better.

Michigan’s Children; the Michigan Statewide Foster, Adoptive and Kinship Family Coalition; the Michigan Federation for Children and Families; the Michigan Kinship Coalition and the Kinship Care Resource Center were recently joined by nearly fifty local, state and federal decision makers at our latest FamilySpeak. We were joined by Congressional staff, by Michigan Legislators and their staff, by staff from the Michigan Departments of Health and Human Services and Education, and by staff from multiple private agencies and service providers wanting to hear more about how to better support the very challenged children, youth and families that they serve.

Eleven caregivers, including foster, adoptive and kinship parents, spoke about what had brought them into the system, how their expectations differed from their reality of parenting and outlined their specific challenges. And all made recommendations for changes in policies and programs to make the system work better for their families and others. They talked so eloquently and emotionally about how the young people they were helping to raise at times just need access to the same things that other kids need– early identification of problems so that they can be addressed promptly and avoid larger problems later on. Michigan’s Children was glad to hear this recommendation coming from caregivers as it aligns with our ongoing advocacy work on ensuring a variety of early childhood programs and services are accessible that maximize future opportunities for all kids, rather than expanding equity gaps.

And they also talked eloquently and even more emotionally about how the kids in their care, and they, needed more help than they currently receive. More understanding of the impact of trauma – for themselves, to be able to negotiate it better as parents and for the systems serving their children, so that they are better served in their homes, in their schools and in their communities. More access to necessary services – better and early assessment of what is needed immediately, and consistent access to those services. They spoke a lot about how services were not available right away, or weren’t available in a way that worked for the young people they were parenting – many of whom will need supports like child care well beyond the traditional age of 12, and supports of all kinds well into adulthood, beyond 18 for sure.

They also talked about themselves – how they are workers and citizens and how both of those roles are at times compromised because of a lack of available support or understanding on the part of employers and workers in the systems. And some caregivers – particularly those family members who are caring for their grandchildren, their nieces and nephews – are often left out of access to critical services that their children need as much as others who have come into the child welfare system through other ways. In addition, it is clear that once children and youth have been adopted, there are far fewer services available to families, which also needs to be remedied.

Michigan’s Children is working with policymakers to see the connections between what we hear from young people in the system, and what we hear from their caregivers. So much of what young people experience as instability in their world and lack of services toward their eventual independence and adult success stems from exactly the same issues that caregivers articulate as lack of access to services and support so they can best care for their children.

We thank all of the amazing young people and parents who have taken the time to talk with us and to policymakers about their very personal experiences so that we can make sure that the state is taking its job as primary caregiver of children and youth in foster care as seriously as is required. Michigan needs to be the best parent to the children, youth and families in our care and we need to adequately support those who are helping with that effort.

– Michele Corey

September 10, 2015 – While working as a student teacher in a local high school some years ago, I was introduced to the mind-numbing business of taking attendance before each class hour. The routine process, involving some quick key board clicks on a digital report across 156 student names and six class hours, wasn’t itself time-consuming except for assembling lesson materials that needed to be set aside for absent students each day. Doing so gave them and their families some sense of what took place in the classroom that day. But in reality, it didn’t entirely replicate the learning process, the active exchange of questions, discussions, ideas and those wonderful unexpected ah-ha moments that come from the daily teacher-student experience. And not everyone was able to take advantage of take-home material.

Even though I frequently shared the importance of keeping up by coming to class with the teens and parents I worked with, I knew the problems some kids faced attending regularly were varied and complicated by their personal challenges. Chronic asthma; sick parents at home; early morning jobs teens took to support their families; struggles with mental illness and family trauma. Rarely could skipping school be explained by teen obstinacy alone. But absences did cause them to struggle in school and ultimately put roadblocks to their post secondary schooling and career training. Now, new information from Attendance Works and the Healthy Schools Campaign this month gives a deeper look into chronic school absences – an issue gaining priority in education as a national crisis.

Released this September during Attendance Awareness Month, the report, “Mapping the Early Attendance Gap: Charting a Course for Student Success,” spotlights a problem bigger than many people would expect with 7.5 million students missing nearly a month of school a year. It’s a problem that can be tracked to preschool and kindergarten whose absentee rates are nearly as high as teen’s rates, according to the report. The life-long consequences are serious, too. Children who are repeatedly absent in kindergarten and first grade are less likely to read proficiency by third grade. In middle school, students with chronic absences are more likely to drop out in high school. School testing and performance measures are negatively impacted, resulting in limited opportunities for success as students move on.

Using survey data taken during national testing of 4th and 8th graders, the report also pinpoints who is missing school, and in Michigan it doesn’t bode well for children of color, children with disabilities and children from low-income families. Once again, a national educational issue is hitting our vulnerable populations hardest and the numbers are compelling.

  1. The report found 32 percent of Michigan’s African-American 4th graders missed three or more days in a given month compared to 22 percent nationally. The rate was the same for Michigan 8th graders, 32 percent, compared to 23 percent across the country.
  2. Michigan’s Hispanic children also missed more school than the national average: In 4th grade, the Michigan rate was 28 percent compared to 21 percent nationally and in 8th grade, 26 percent compared to 22 percent.
  3. And Michigan children with disabilities also missed more school then peers nationally: 31 versus 25 percent in 4th grade, and 34 vs. 28 percent among 8th graders.

Attendance and truancy have gotten attention from political leaders in Michigan in recent years. Gov. Snyder’s Pathways to Potential program launched in 2012 as a means to reduce truancy by co-locating Department of Health and Human Services staff in schools. Some communities have developed successful strategies that are seeing progress in attendance, like the Kent School Services Network and others. Michigan needs to learn from success and build whole-community approaches statewide.

The State Board of Education and School Superintendent Brian Whiston are taking a serious look at what’s needed to make Michigan a top 10 state in education. Addressing the causes of school absenteeism should be a part of those conversations as we set our sights on helping all kids learn and achieve in Michigan.

– Teri Banas is a communications consultant working for Michigan’s Children.

September 9th, 2015- Hello! My name is Elena Brennan and I am Michigan’s Children newest M.S.W. intern. I am so excited to join the team here at Michigan’s Children, as I am eager to immerse myself in public policy issues surrounding children, education, and advocacy work towards social justice. In May of 2014, I earned my B.A. in Psychology at Michigan State University and I bring knowledge and experiences surrounding various social systems, specifically those concerning youth and families from a policy and community based level. I will be graduating with my M.S.W. from Michigan State in the spring of 2016 and look forward to working with Michigan’s Children on the final portion of my graduate journey.

I have been interested in human development, specifically the relationship between the individual and their environment early on in my education. In 2012, I was involved in the Adolescent Diversion Program (ADP) at Michigan State, an intensive two-semester internship working with adjudicated youth in Ingham County’s court system, where I found myself working with an extremely vulnerable population. This spurred my interest in program development, mentoring, policy and advocacy work, and analyzing the criminal justice system within the United States. I then went on to direct a 5-month program in 2014-2015 called Youth Advancement Through Athletics. This multi-faceted youth development program was designed to improve the lives of Lansing youth through mentorship, athletics, community outreach, and career-driven activities. My involvement directing the program sparked my interest in teaching higher education courses and solidified my interest in the Organizational Community Leadership (OCL) route of my graduate studies, allowing me to pursue more of my passions through organizations like Michigan’s Children!

I have previously interned at the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency as well as participated in an international study abroad in Finland focusing on social service delivery. This recent trip deepened my passion and love for the field of social work, as I had the opportunity to study in a country with one of the most progressive social systems in the world. I hope to pursue more international studies in the future, as there is much more to learn outside of the United States.

For the next eight months you will find me at Michigan’s Children researching, writing, and advocating for the children of our state between cups of hot coffee.

– Elena Brennan

Michigan’s Children is proud to welcome intern Elena Brennan to our staff.  You will hear more from her throughout her year at Michigan’s Children, and can get in touch with her via email



September 9, 2015 – No longer a top tier state for education, Michigan today has larger gaps in student outcomes among its diverse populations than many other states, jettisoning our state to 37th in the nation according to the National Kids Count project. These learning gaps start early and persist and grow throughout educational careers without appropriate intervention and support, threatening our state’s future and the futures of thousands of our children.

New State School Superintendent Brian Whiston has begun his tenure focused on asking groups (many with competing interests) to talk with the State Board of Education about fixing that, and restoring Michigan to a top 10 state in education within 10 years.

At Michigan’s Children, we believe the answers lie in shrinking these achievement gaps and reducing student disparities through known evidence and practices that works best for children, youth and families, and their schools and communities. Positive change can happen even as state decision makers face unique pressures to fund costly road fixes while determining investments in the most struggling schools and districts.

We shared our recommendations that support students within and beyond the classroom to assist with their eventual success in a presentation to State Board of Education and School Superintendent Brian Whiston this week, outlining a strategy that includes several specific areas for attention.

Start early. Education is a lifelong process beginning at birth with differences among children becoming evident as early as 9 months. By 6th grade, children from low-income families have 6,000 fewer hours of learning than their peers due to fewer opportunities for early, consistent and expanded learning. The education system must continue to focus early to head off future problems by increasing parent coaching and supports through voluntary home visiting options, building state investment and maximize federal investment in Early On, and continuing to improve our child care subsidy system.

Because children succeed when their parents do well, the education system must support parents’ role in children’s learning. The evidence on this is clear, particularly for early literacy skills and retention in the early grades. Today, four out of 10 Michigan schoolchildren aren’t reading proficiently by third grade, and the rates are much higher for children of color. The education system must expand support to help parents reach their educational and career goals through investments in Adult Education, workforce supports and family literacy options, and promote effective two-generation programming where families can learn together.

Trauma from family stress, mental and behavioral health issues, violence and loss, abuse or other social or emotional issues can undermine a child’s ability to learn and grow academically. Yet, we don’t fully recognize its impact on learning gaps and educational achievement in our policy and practice. The education system must implement good practices in schools and provide educators with the necessary tools to deal with symptoms of student and family trauma. Improving connections with community partners who can help is vital.

When schools are able to unite families with other community resources, there are more chances to find and address the causes of school absence, behavioral issues and academic problems be they caused by health issues, unstable housing, bullying or disengagement by parents or students. There is ample evidence that after-school and summer learning programs help to integrating community services for students and families, and support their academic progress by getting students motivated and engaged with their learning, helping them get caught up when they get behind and keeping them on a successful trajectory.

Finally, there is no one-size-fits-all for student success. Because children are inherently different and come with an array of challenges, young people need multiple pathways to success beyond the traditional, arbitrary four years of high school. Therefore, we must invest in second-, third- and fourth-chance programs for high school completion. In addition, we must prevent unnecessary expulsions that leave too many students adrift from college and career by promoting school attendance and adjusting school discipline policies.

It is clear that the Superintendent and School Board are uniquely positioned to provide needed robust leadership for this difficult work by taking into account the expertise of many sectors of work, including family and community resources. To do so recognizes a universal truth: A child’s ability to succeed in school and life relies on multiple factors, most that aren’t exclusive to what happens inside the classroom, but extend far beyond that learning environment. Improving the state’s ability to build success in more students is possible and essential, will require a commitment from many partners. We encourage our educational leadership to join Michigan’s Children and many others to put all of our children and families at the forefront of what it takes to make Michigan’s education great again.

– Matt Gillard

This blog first appeared as an opinion piece in Bridge Magazine on September 8, 2015.

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