children

Advocates See Opportunity in Changing Media Climate

February 22, 2016 – Personal experience often generates the most compelling arguments for change. The real challenges ordinary people face provide the human connection that resonates strongly with the public, policymakers including elected officials and the media.

That’s what makes Deb Frisbie an effective advocate for kinship care and grandparents raising grandchildren in her adopted hometown in Northern Michigan. (See related article.) Forthright and open, Frisbie, her husband and two grandchildren recently became the subject of a front-page news article in Traverse City that explored the rising trend of grandparents raising grandchildren.

As a former newspaper reporter, I know how powerful these real-life stories can be. Made public, stories such as Frisbie’s also have the power to reach others who are fighting similar battles and offer them the courage to come forward to seek help. And equally importantly, they have the ability to grab public attention and grow support for changing policies that help families.

The downsizing of traditional journalism in the past decade has left far fewer staff with the time and expertise to ferret out stories to tell. But with change, opportunity arises. For those of us who work on behalf of the children, youth and families in our communities and state, it is even more important than ever to reach out to local media, and bring attention to relevant stories that could help improve the policies and investments that matter to our children and families.

Michigan’s Children has a strong tradition in helping raise up authentic voices to spotlight the needs of children, youth and families, whether caregivers such as Frisbie, young adults from foster care, or students needing a second or third chance at a high school diploma. We’ve seen how outspoken advocates build needed public awareness. We’ve learned that personal stories matter and that their lessons tend to stick with policymakers who have the authority to provide new investments or system changes that assist families. Equally important, we’ve seen how personal experiences shared by advocates such as Frisbie offer expertise to an issue.

There’s no mystery to becoming a voice for change in the media. Post views on social media and in letters to the local newspaper. Write opinion pieces. Lawmakers look to the media for information and pay attention to what their constituents are saying there.

Frisbie’s article in January has been a boon to her work, leading to other media inquiries to spread the word about grandparent issues in Northern Michigan. Her article also led to a follow-up opinion piece from Michigan’s Children published in that same paper, helping us to connect the dots between Frisbie’s conversation and current policy work.

Know that being an advocate means using all tools at your disposal, whether it’s reaching out through social media postings through professional organizations or getting to know the media who cover your community. Seeking the journalists in your community to educate them about what’s important to those we represent is a valuable service. Be a great source of information about kids and families in your community – and a source for change.

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

The ESSA Needs Our Help to Make Every Student Succeed

December 11, 2015 – In previous blogs, we’ve outlined the federal role in education policy falling squarely on promoting quality and innovation and promoting equity – mitigating the impact of students’ learning challenges on eventual educational success. After years of discussion and somewhat rare bi-partisan work in Congress, the Every Student Succeeds Act was signed by the President yesterday, again setting the path for federal policy and investment in K-12 education. So, what do we see?

  1. Proven equity-building strategies remain intact. Investments that provide access to pre-school, integrated student services and expanded learning opportunities will continue. The 21st Century Community Learning Centers program that supports after-school and summer learning programs is well researched and provides evidence for this strategy that requires school-community partnership and goes well beyond just expanding hours in a school day or days in a school year. Newly titled, “Community Support for School Success” continues investment in full service schools and Promise Neighborhood grants. The use of Title I and Title II dollars for early childhood education beginning at birth is more explicit and requirements to improve school stability for young people in foster care are strengthened.
  2. New priorities reflect new evidence and recognition of specific needs. Despite opposition, the law expands requirements to track how different groups of students are doing and on what. Understanding what groups are doing well and which not so well is the first step toward building more equitable practice. States will now, for the first time, be required to consistently track and report outcomes for kids in the foster care system. It has been difficult for advocates to move better educational investments in that population without adequate information that could point to better strategies for practice and investment. States and districts will also have to start tracking critical outcome indicators beyond achievement scores like school climate and safety and student and educator engagement, improving their ability to address student needs.
  3. Some strategies proving ineffective are discontinued. What has been termed a “cookie cutter” approach to improve struggling schools has not served to improve very many of them, and this bill recognizes that there need to be a broader scope of possible strategies that are much more targeted toward local needs. We continue to contend that building investment in equity-promoting strategies have a stronger evidence base than simply removing school leadership and punishing educators for the woes of all systems that serve children, youth and their families.
  4. Additional state and local flexibility in other programs COULD increase equity in Michigan. Read on…

So, what are some of the early takeaways?

  1. Evidence and advocacy matter. Some positive shifts were the result of coordinated, strong advocacy efforts in Michigan and around the nation, like the coordinated efforts to maintain the 21st CCLC program and supports for integrated student services, as well as expanding initiatives before kindergarten. Some negative shifts were too, but those who were talking with their elected officials had definite impact on the final negotiations.
  2. Funding will obviously matter – this law outlines what COULD be funded by Congress. We still don’t have an actual federal funding bill for the current fiscal year, and continue to operate under resolutions that maintain FY2015 spending levels. This has avoided the disinvestment proposed by some conservative members of Congress, but also avoids any conversation about shifting or increasing investment strategies.
  3. Engagement at the state and local levels will matter more than ever before. For example, Congress increased the ability to address learning challenges early by allowing a variety of funding to be used for activities before kindergarten. Additional flexibility was added for the Title 1 program, which provides consistent and significant investment in the most challenged schools. There is always risk and opportunity in this flexibility to avoid taking resource from evidenced programming for one group of students to pay for expanded programming for others.

At this moment, Michigan’s Children and others are engaged in the Superintendent’s call for suggestions on how to move educational success in our state over the next decade. With more flexibility in federal education spending, being a part of state priority conversations becomes more important than ever. And, of course, we have already begun another state budget conversation where we will need to continue to fight to keep and build critical state investments while still not seeing education funding levels return to where they were before the recession in 2008. And with other budget pressures resulting from continued disinvestment in our most challenged school systems and spending decisions mandated by road funding compromises, our voices are critically important to ensure that our state is providing equitable educational opportunities for all students.

– Michele Corey

Additional Resources

More on Early Learning: Every Student Succeeds Act and Early Learning
More on Expanded Learning: Senate Passes ESEA, 21stCCLC: Sends to President for Signature 
More On Foster Care: President Obama Reauthorizes ESEA, Affording Groundbreaking Provisions for Children in the Foster Care and Juvenile Justice Systems 
More On Integrated Student Services: Community School Prominent in Every Student Succeeds Act 
More on Equity Building Strategies: ESEA Reauthorization Shows Promise
More on Accountability: The president just signed a new ed law that teaches the naysayers a thing or two
More on Local Decision Making: President Signs ESEA Rewrite, Giving States, Districts Bigger Say on Policy 

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

Students, Living with Trauma, Struggle in School

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.

September is a Time to Tackle Root Causes of School Absenteeism

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.

Moving Toward the Top

August 20, 2015 – Trying to get better at things is good, particularly trying to get better at things that are in the best interest of children, youth and families in our state. New leadership in the Department of Education has come with new opportunities to get better, and Superintendent Whiston has already shown that he is committed to setting goals and working with others to achieve them. In a state where we ranked 37th of the 50 states in education in the last National Kids Count Data Book, this is essential. The Superintendent and the State Board of Education are spending some time over the next couple of months getting feedback about what it would really take to move Michigan to a top 10 education state.

Michigan’s Children is weighing in on that conversation with what we’ve talked about consistently for years – a focus on shrinking achievement gaps by investing in what works for children, youth and families, and their schools and communities. Six specific areas rise to the top, each with a myriad of strategies that can and must be forwarded:

Take responsibility for early strategies beyond pre-school by increasing parent coaching and supports through voluntary home visiting options, building state investment and maximizing federal investment in Early On and continuing to improve our child care subsidy system.

Support parents’ role in their children’s literacy by expanding initial efforts to help parents in their role of first and best teachers and to help them reach their own educational and career goals by better investments in Adult Education, workforce supports, and family literacy options so that parents can fully support their children’s literacy journeys.

Change school practice related to student and family trauma by providing school personnel the tools they need to recognize and deal with symptoms of trauma in their students and families and evaluating their ability to do so. It also includes building better connections with community partners who can assist.

Close equity gaps by integrating services and expanding learning opportunities. This includes building assurance that state and federal resources for service integration would go to the best models of service and that supporting services needed by children, youth and families would be available throughout the state. It also includes investing in after-school and summer learning at the state level, in addition to maintaining federal investment.

Give young people multiple chances to succeed by promoting attendance through adjustments in school discipline policies and investment in programs beyond the traditional, arbitrary four-years of high school. The effectiveness of these programs is increased when young people themselves are involved in planning and are clearly connected to a pathway leading toward college or career.

And finally, we suggested that the Superintendent and the State Board provide real leadership in this difficult work that often requires the efforts of many areas of expertise and many sectors of work, including the family and community resources. With so many things impacting a child’s ability to succeed in school and life – many of which are not within the walls of a school and the purview of education pedagogy – it is essential to bring efforts together.

As we’ve said many times before, our educational leaders have their work cut out for them, and as public and private partners available to help, we have our work cut out for us as well.

– Michele Corey

What Children, Youth and Families Need in the New State Superintendent

March 10, 2015 – The search for the new Superintendent of Schools is in the homestretch. Six candidates have been identified.  All but one have led local and intermediate school district work in Michigan, the other is a deputy in Massachusetts’s education department.

This choice has enormous implications for Michigan, particularly in how we build educational success with the most challenged among us. Clearly, we can assume that the candidates are steeped in education pedagogy expertise, and know what they are doing running a classroom and a school building during the school day. The job requires that expertise and more as they face Michigan’s big challenges – some of the largest achievement gaps in the nation; consistently poor showing compared to other states on education measures; and limited improvement on state assessments.

Current Superintendent Flanagan is certainly leaving a legacy. He helped to facilitate the enormous expansion of 4-year old preschool, and has been an outspoken advocate for the importance of the early years for later educational success. Under his watch, the state committed to closing gaps in educational outcomes for African American boys, resulting in shifts in Department practice, and support for local system efforts. In addition, he helped to facilitate several public/private task forces that looked closely at some of the critical issues feeding these gaps including truancy and school discipline practices.

There also have been enormous strides to broaden our methods of attaining, measuring and documenting college and career readiness skills. Partnerships have begun to form with employers, post-secondary institutions and community partners who provide learning opportunities outside the school day. This work points to the need for significant changes in our system that will not only benefit all kids in K-12 schools, but would be a game changer in skill building and credit accumulation for the most challenged young people in this state.

The new Superintendent will need to redouble all of that work. And to be successful, they will need to skillfully collaborate – not only with the Governor and the Legislature (both of whom hold the purse strings), but with the leaders of other state departments, with the rest of the education and workforce continuum, and with other community resources. They will need to capitalize on the broad recognition that what happens beyond the school doors impacts educational success, and call on resources beyond their own purview to help.

Beyond continuing support for current initiatives, what are some specifics priorities for the new Superintendent?

  1. Better address the educational needs of parents. The most consistent predictor of educational success for children remains the educational success of their parents – the research couldn’t be clearer on that. If we want to improve 3rd grade reading and college and career readiness, we not only have to look earlier than kindergarten and bolster children’s experiences beyond the school doors, we also have to look at our support of adult literacy through our adult education system. This system has not successfully served the most challenged adults for quite a while, many of whom are the parents of the most struggling learners.
  2. Focus investment on expanding learning options for children, youth and families beyond the traditional school day. At this point, Michigan relies almost entirely on uncertain federal funds to support before- and after-school and summer programming evidenced to cut equity gaps. In addition, fully coordinating community services through evidenced integrated student services models needs to be given priority.
  3. Extend leadership in improving care for young children beyond pre-school. While Michigan has taken and made strides in improving the quality of our child care system, we’ve done that with fixed federal rather than state investment, limiting our ability to drastically improve access to high quality care. Our subsidy system for the poorest working families consistently ranks us at the very bottom in the nation.  A few years ago, Michigan brought the state’s child care system under the auspices of the Office of Great Start, and additional strides to improve that system are needed.
  4. Develop consistent ways to engage young people in reform strategies and priority development – particularly those experiencing the most challenging educational and life circumstances. This is not easy, but could be done with the help of partners, including Michigan’s Children.
  5. Lead cross-department efforts.  Early on in his 1st term in office, the Governor developed a strategy to connect the dots between state departments by establishing what he termed, the “People Group.” This group is comprised of the directors of the Departments of Human Services, Community Health, Civil Rights and Education. The new State Superintendent is ideally suited to lead that group, in light of the transitions occurring with the merger of DHS and DCH, and the space to focus the group’s work on building college and career success.

Whew!  They have their work cut out for them and we have our work cut out for us.  We realize that this is a lot to ask of the next state Superintendent, but there are a lot of public and private partners available to help, if they can take advantage of them.

– Michele Corey

Note to Gov. Snyder: Look Out for Kids and Families in New Budget Year

February 10, 2015 – Applying the imagery of a “River of Opportunity,” Gov. Rick Snyder outlined the importance of using public resources to help people in his State of the State address last month. We couldn’t have been happier to hear that. This week, we’ll learn how he plans to support the “needs of people, rather than programs” when he delivers his FY 2015-2016 budget address.

On Wednesday, we’re counting on the Governor to prioritize kids and families and the critical programs that ensure their well-being – particularly as he’s pressured to fix a $325 million hole in the state budget. In that vein, here’s where Michigan’s Children believes investments should focus.

The governor’s recognition of the importance of “pre-natal through 3rd grade (P-3) as one of the important metrics in someone’s life” is right on. We agree with him when he says there’s nothing to be proud of when 30 percent of our children can’t read for understanding by the 3rd grade. We also expect to see strong investments in proven strategies to reduce 3rd grade reading disparities – strategies that don’t focus solely inside the school walls.

So, first, let’s start with our youngest children.

We’ve started by investing in 4-year-old preschool. The governor’s commitment in recent years to the Great Start Readiness Program, the state’s preschool program for low-income children, has made great strides, and we should continue to build on them.  Now we need to see important investments even earlier. We know that investments in babies and toddlers do have significant impact towards reducing the “achievement gap” and also saving taxpayer dollars on necessary intervention programs needed over time when children fall behind.

These investments are supported by research. Research tells us that gaps in literacy skills are evident in children as young as 9 months old. The weight of this important information should underscore the need for remedies that address the gaps early and throughout children’s school-age years. Opportunities matter. Before- and after-school and summer programs as well as services geared to family support go a long way toward strengthening learning by the time a child reaches 6th grade.

If we were Gov. Snyder, we’d also put some of our political muscle into working with the state Legislature to improve school funding in the K-12 years, as well. Have we ever seen a time when so many school districts have become busted, broken and in debt? It’s no surprise their problems have followed reductions in school funding and in other programs supporting children, youth, families and communities that support learning.

As a start, we do hope the Governor takes action to build a more equitable model for funding education for our kids. One element of this equity conversation is to acknowledge that more and varied resources are required to educate the most challenged learners. The recent $40 million increase in the state’s At-Risk categorical is a start, but much more needs to be done. We hope that a portion of any increases in that fund will be targeted toward specific, evidence-based practices that leverage community and other resources beyond School Aid.

On Wednesday, therefore, take out your scorecards and let’s see how Gov. Snyder’s budget plan adds up on that “River of Opportunity” for children, youth and families on the dashboard for children, youth and families.

– Matt Gillard

Get to know your lawmakers: Tell them you’re watching and that you care about kids and families

Jan. 14, 2015  – When I was a 19-year-old Michigan State University college student I was hired as an intern in a Detroit lawmaker’s legislative office. In my totally realistic teenage mindset I smartly arrived for duty expecting to help champion important, headline-making legislation. Instead, a wry office manager greeted me with a husky manila folder and thrusting it in my unwelcoming arms instructed me to start writing: congratulatory letters, condolences and appropriate replies that she would instruct me on in cases of specific constituent concerns. Pouring into that stack of intimate personal stories, that’s what I did — every Tuesday and Thursday – for an entire semester.

What I learned is that the daily bread of a legislative office is all about what people are experiencing back home. Their struggles and troubles, celebrations and milestones. That is what I learned from the man I worked for, a public servant who served for nearly four decades with distinction (before seniority-ending term limits) in the House and Senate. Over the course of those years, he demonstrated the critical nature of constituent services for getting to know what really matters to people in a personal and meaningful ways.

Today, one-third of Michigan’s incoming state Representatives and Senators are newbies in state government. Some may have local representative experience that put them in touch with the issues weighing closely on citizens’ minds; others come to Lansing because they won a campaign. Maybe they succeeded because they had a competitive edge, more fire in the belly, the right political leanings, or an ability to outspent, out-organize or out-perform the other guy.

Maybe you voted for him/her, maybe you didn’t. It doesn’t matter either way. Starting now is when all citizens should begin thinking about molding campaigners into the political servants we all need to shape public policies that give Michigan’s the children and families, especially those who have been under-served and under-represented, a stronger chance at a brighter future.

Our children won’t make it unless they get the education they deserve, a chance for a safe and healthy environment to live in, and at the most basic level, particularly important in a state where one-fourth of all babies are born into poverty, food and medical care to strengthen the body and spirit.

You can make a difference by telling your story and opening a line of communication with your representatives in Lansing today. Tell them what’s important in your community, what children and families need to be successful, what you’re observing about gaps in services and programs that do exist, how they can help to make things right. Write an email, send a letter, make a call. Believe that everyone has an important story to tell, an opinion of value. Make your voice heard for our children’s sake! Here are some tips for reaching out.

1.  Letters should be brief, kept to one page. Be respectful in tone.
2.  Introduce yourself in a few lines: I’m a veteran schoolteacher, a new mother/father of a child with special needs, a parent trying to make it off public assistance. Etc.
3.  Make your point. Are you advocating for a particular piece of legislation, or writing to detail a troubling issue perplexing your neighborhood, community, school. Spell it out. Make a case. Use arguments that have been thought out. Use details that highlight the issue’s relevancy to the home district.
4.  Before signing off, describe how you plan to follow-up and how and when the representative’s office can reach you.
5.  Make sure the communication is properly addressed. For a listing of Lansing lawmakers, see the House website and Senate website.

Politicians make it to public office because of vote totals. True public servants are remembered because they identify issues worth fighting for based on the experiences and needs of their constituents back home. Become an advocate for children and families and help shape the public debate. Get the conversation started. Reach out to your lawmakers today.

Teri Banas is the communications director for Michigan’s Children.

This New Year, Let’s Resolve to Improve the Lives of Michigan’s Children & Families

January 5, 2015 — In most ways, the future is written by the individual actions we take each day.

For more than 20 years, Michigan’s Children has consistently acted with one goal in mind: to make a positive difference for children and families. As a result, the policies we’ve researched and promoted were selected with the intent to create a brighter future for all children, especially those from low-income families, children of color, and children, youth and families shouldering other challenging circumstances.

With the start of a new year, we begin to look at the future with a fresh pair of eyes once again. As a child is born prematurely in a Detroit hospital, as an older teen ages out of foster care in Muskegon, as a Saginaw family struggles with mental health issues and economic self-sufficiency, and as a Northern Michigan community strives to re-examine ways to boost third grade reading, we’ll be looking at those issues too, but from the perspective of moving ahead public policies that have the best chance for helping children and families.

Won’t you join us in advancing public policies that give kids and families a fighting chance for success in life this year? Make the choice to keep informed and connected through our bulletins, blogs and reports, follow us on social media, help us bring the voices of youth and families to policymakers through KidSpeak, FamilySpeak and other opportunities, and answer our calls to action when it’s imperative to reach out to decision-makers. Each action matters.

Our public policy agenda is straightforward and detailed on our website under the caption, Policy Opportunities. But here in a nutshell is how we see the future getting better for children, from cradle to career, and their families, if Michigan invests more in its people:

Improving school readiness: It’s now a universal truth that success in school and life begins years before a child enters kindergarten. Scientists have shown that as much as 90 percent of a child’s intellectual and emotional wiring is set in early childhood. A healthy prenatal experience, support when there are developmental delays early in life, and high quality early care and education can make a huge difference in a child’s later school and life success. That’s why we fight every year for strong investments in services such as evidence-based home visiting, Early On early interventions, services that prevent child abuse and neglect, high quality child care and preschool and family supports as their children move toward third grade.

Ensuring safety at home: To grow and thrive, children physically and emotionally need to feel secure and supported in their homes and communities as they mature, move through school and reach adulthood. While Michigan’s poverty has shot up by 34 percent in recent recessionary times, child abuse and neglect cases sadly have risen too. The state can counter the negative impacts on children, however, by offering economic supports to help stabilize families and also offer support for behavioral healthcare when needed. Specifically, mental health services are needed for children in foster care and the juvenile justice system, where children have experienced high incidents of damaging abuse and neglect. We continually need to push for better investments in assessments and intervention, mental health and substance use/abuse, domestic violence prevention and treatments to quell the numbers of children entering both systems. Then as youngsters age out of foster care, transitional services are needed to help them get on their feet, earn a diploma, and find a post-secondary path that leads to self-sufficiency.

Improving college and career readiness: We know Michigan’s future is linked to all children getting ready for a post-secondary education, work and life. Bottom line: Without a high school diploma, today’s youth have little chance for a good outcome. In addition, we know that the achievement gap among poor children and children of color leaves too many of our youths without good prospects for success. Consistent support for integrated services that help students and their families focus on education; providing second and third chances for high school graduation for those who need extra time and different kinds of opportunities to succeed are essential to ensure more young people can obtain their high school credential. If Michigan is to have a strong future, we can’t leave any of our youth behind.

Supporting families: Because the well-being of children is inextricably tied to their parents, we strongly believe in the value of public policies that are based on two-generation strategies. Policies that take into account the needs of both children and parents include education and job training for parents so that they can better provide for their children and high-quality child care and education to help children thrive. Successful two-gen programs often include services such as evidence-based home visiting, Early On early intervention, adult and community post-secondary education, behavioral health services and connections to family and community resources.

Throughout the year expect to hear from us as we monitor Legislative and budget decisions and promote those that can make a positive difference for Michigan’s children and families. Better yet, join us as we promote a policy agenda that promises to do just that! Together we can make a difference.

— Matt Gillard

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