Early On

Reading and Parenting in March

Wow, I have rarely seen so many legislators embracing March as National Reading Month as I have this year. I have seen lots of their newsletters highlighting their trips to their communities’ pre-schools and elementary schools to take the time to read to young children. At Michigan’s Children, we are thrilled with the focus on making sure every child can read, and are glad that so many members of our legislature are having direct, impactful experiences with their constituents focused on this issue.

Appropriately, March is also Parenting Awareness Month – what an amazing intersection. Parents continue to be children’s first and best teachers and their ability to consistently read to their children has certainly been proven over time to make a huge difference in educational outcomes. Along with the classroom scenes, legislators could have had other experiences with parents during Reading Month as well, maybe looking something like this:

  • A mother who had to give up her children to the foster care system was provided the parenting skills, substance abuse treatment, mental health or domestic violence services that allowed her to regain custody of her children. She was then able to read to her children, possibly even for the first time.
  • A parent who was not ever able to read to his or her children before because of low literacy levels themselves was provided adult basic education or services for English Language Learners (ELL) that allowed them to read to their children.
  • A young parent who was struggling with their own educational challenges was given support through an alternative education program that connected their need for a quality early education program opportunity for their child and a quality high school completion program for themselves. Because the services were co-located, the parent could take time to read to their child during their own school breaks.
  • A parent who had been unable to effectively reach their young child with a developmental delay, like speech and hearing, was given skill-building and support through Early On to adjust their strategies and learn how work on their child’s literacy skill-building.
  • A foster or adoptive parent who had not been able to access support for a child with significant trauma was able to access training for themselves and appropriate mental health services for their child and could then employ the parenting skills that they used with other children in their home to read consistently.

All of these parents (and all of their child readers) are impacted by decisions being made over the next few months in the state budget process. Providing adequate funding for those pre-school and elementary school classrooms is, of course, necessary. As are providing resources for family reunification services and all that is necessary to support that work; for adult and alternative education opportunities; for expanded learning; for Early On; for speedy and appropriate mental health services; and for trauma training in all arenas.

Legislators will be spending time with their constituents over the next couple of weeks while they are on their own spring break. It is up to us to make sure that they have a good understanding of parents, families, children and youth in their communities, and the programs that help them.

Find out who they are. Find out where they will be. Find out what Michigan’s Children is talking with them about. Lend your voice to the work of building better investments so that all families can thrive.

– Michele Corey

A Big Thanks to You as I Move On

February 6, 2017 – This week marks my last week at Michigan’s Children.  As I reflect back on my time at this incredibly important organization, I am so proud of the work of this agency and our advocacy community.  I’m a firm believer in the essential nature of Michigan’s Children because of our holistic, cradle to career focus; and I’d like to highlight a few things that I’ve been privileged and honored to be a part of.

I’m proud that Michigan’s Children worked collaboratively with other early childhood advocates to see a $130 million increase in our state’s Great Start Readiness preschool program.  Sure, Michigan’s Children would’ve liked to have seen a focus on infants and toddlers in addition to the four-year-old investment, but I know our willingness to be committed as an advocacy coalition and to not muddy the proverbial advocacy waters led to the historic increase our state saw for preschool programming.

I’m proud that Michigan’s Children has continued to stand firmly by the needs of the lowest-income working families who depend on the state’s child care subsidy so that parents can work while their children learn.  And even more so, I’m proud of our dedication to the families who utilize unlicensed family, friend and neighbor care as they are an integral part of our child care system that we must continue to support.

I’m so proud that Michigan’s Children helped lead the way for Early On advocacy when there were no other independent voices in Lansing talking about this important system.  Without support from amazing Early On partners including administrators, providers, and families; Michigan’s Children wouldn’t have become a leading advocacy voice on this and it demonstrates the critical nature of our partnered work.  Because of our work, children in Flint who were impacted by the water crisis have seen additional resources in their community specifically for Early On.

Finally, I’m so proud of Michigan’s Children’s strategic focus.  We are a small but mighty team that provides an important independent voice for children, youth and families in Lansing and at the federal level.  With the new U.S. Presidential Administration, a lot of energy and attention has been focused inside the Beltway, and I’m admittedly a bit anxious about the work that lies ahead.  But I know Michigan’s Children’s commitment to equity is paramount and will continue to be a guiding force.  The team’s dedication to public policy and investment opportunities that best support the kids and families who face the most significant structural barriers to success is unwavering.

So you’re probably wondering where I’m going.  I accepted a position at the University of Michigan as a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Project Manager in the Division of Student Life.  After the last election season and the horrific rhetoric on the campaign trail – that is unfortunately continuing into this new Presidential Administration through policy action – diversity, equity and inclusion work feels essential for advocates to see more equitable public policies and investments.  This opportunity to foster the next generation of leaders in Michigan and the U.S. who understand the significance and value of our diverse society, the need and demand for equitable opportunities (including policies!), and the importance to ensure the inclusion of all people is essential for the success of our State and our Nation.

I know this is getting wordy but I have to end with a huge THANK YOU.  Thank you for being my partner and Michigan’s Children’s partner in advocacy work.  Our successes would have been failures without your support, your work, your communications with your policymakers.  Thank you for your unwavering commitment, and then some, for all you do for children and families in our state.  Your ongoing work continues to be essential and I will be continuing to fight the good fight with you from Ann Arbor.

Thanks again.  And Go Blue! (I can’t help myself!)  🙂

-Mina Hong

Counting Our Successes and Fixing Our Failures

March 21, 2016 – As another annual Michigan Kids Count Data Book is released, it gives us several opportunities.  First, using county profiles available in the Data Book each year is a great way to draw attention to the status of children, youth, families and communities.  How are things improving or declining?  Why is that happening in your community?  It is also a great opener for conversation with local policy makers.  Sometimes, they really aren’t aware of some of the facts, like how much of their income people pay for child care, or how many births are to mothers without a high school credential.  Or whether or not their communities are improving or worsening on key issues like prenatal care for moms or child abuse and neglect.   Local advocates can use the Kids Count information to help position themselves as a resource to their policy makers – a helpful thing during a state budget season, an election year and beyond.

Secondly, it is important to examine the Data Book every year to scrutinize how our current investment and other policies are impacting the lives of families in our state.   The annual report offers us a chance to renew attention to long-standing needs, examine how our efforts have paid off, and expand discussions.  Here are just two critical examples:

  1. Family Literacy. With fully one in seven births in Michigan to moms without a high school credential, increased investment in adult education and other literacy initiatives remains imperative.  Our support of teen moms, while those rates continue to drop, must also include high school completion, post-secondary and career opportunities.
  2. Expanded Learning. Increasing poverty rates, costs of child care, and the majority of Michigan students not proficient on highlighted standardized tests make new state investment in learning opportunities outside the school day and year even more of an imperative.  By the time they reach the 6th grade, kids in poor families have received 6,000 fewer hours of assisted learning than their wealthier peers, mainly due to a lack of affordable and quality opportunities outside of school.

Michigan’s Children joined the Michigan League for Public Policy and local partners in Ingham County today for a release of the Data Book to local media around Lansing.  We did this to help highlight how state policy and investment needs to do better at supporting local innovation.  This community intertwines resources available through different entities and targets families with different kinds of needs to try to make sure that parents are supported in the care of their children, that any physical or developmental delays are caught early and that the best services are made available to assist.

It is quite amazing what local communities do with limited resources, but their innovative and effective practices are often stymied by a lack of state and federal investment in necessary programs.  One example that is highlighted in this year’s Data Book is the share of families with children ages 0-3, who participate in Early On.  In Michigan and in Ingham County, that share is less than 3 percent.  Nationwide, estimates are that fully 8 percent of that population qualify for early intervention services, so we are well below that mark.  This is due in part because Michigan fails to invest state funding in that program, unlike the vast majority of the states.

Building on the disaster in Flint this spring, Michigan legislators invested state dollars for the very first time to support Early On in Flint, recognizing that it is a critical part of the intervention and investment that will be needed for years to come to deal with that human calamity.  But, the Data Book points to the need for Early On investment around the state.

Take the time to review the Data Book for key insights into your community, and use its findings to make your best case for local, state and federal investments in children and families where you live.  We are here to help.

– Michele Corey

Prioritizing Early On

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

Helping vulnerable children early is key to closing achievement gaps

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.

What’s Next for Third Grade Reading

June 22, 2015 – Governor Snyder’s Third Grade Reading Workgroup recently released its recommendations to improve Michigan’s lagging third grade reading scores. While almost every other state has seen reading proficiency rise, Michigan’s reading proficiency has steadily declined for the past 12 years. This troubling trend is even worse for students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, and students struggling with other big challenges like homelessness – all of whom are falling even more behind in their reading abilities.

For the academic success of all children and our state’s prosperity, we must do better.

To this end, Michigan’s Children is pleased to see much-needed, statewide attention on this critical benchmark for children’s learning. Failing to read proficiently by the end of third grade will lead to continued struggles in the classroom and long-term implications for students’ educational success.

The Third Grade Reading Workgroup provides a series of recommendations focused on the following strategies:

  • identify students who need reading support and then provide appropriate interventions,
  • ensure teachers have the tools they need to provide adequate literacy instruction,
  • give parents the information they need to support their children’s literacy,
  • implement a smart promotion strategy for kids as their learning progresses, and
  • have adequate data to track our state’s success.

It’s timely that many of these strategies are supported by new investments in the state’s fiscal year 2015-2016 education omnibus budget that the Legislature approved earlier this month.

However, we must point out that the Workgroup’s recommendations don’t go far enough, particularly in assisting the most challenged students. To build upon the Workgroup’s recommendations, we should consider the following.

Let’s start with the focus on parents. We know that gaps in early literacy can emerge as early as nine months of age and that parents are responsible for their children’s early learning skills. The Workgroup’s recommendations identify parent coaching and support through home visits and parent-child classes as great tools to assist parents in their child’s development. But what can we do for the parents who struggle to read? Young learners will face more literacy hardships if their parents cannot support them through their reading journey. For this purpose, the state’s $3 million expansion in adult education for FY2016 is a necessary step towards addressing parent support and early literacy, which Michigan’s Children applauds. And, we need more and better investments that support two-generation family literacy programs to effectively increase literacy for both parents and their children if we want to see ongoing improvements to the state’s third grade reading scores.

Additionally, Michigan needs to better support kids and families served by Early On. Early On provides parents of infants and toddlers who have developmental delays or disabilities with early intervention services and tools to help their young children’s development. Adequate services can help many children develop skills at a level equal to their peers by age three. In fact, 40 percent of infants and toddlers who receive appropriate early intervention services do not need special education at preschool and kindergarten entry. It’s clear that Early On makes a huge difference in child development, but Michigan continues to be in the minority of states that fails to invest in Early On, leaving many students trailing when they enter kindergarten. This must change.

A huge step in the right direct is the inclusion of a $17.5 million initiative in FY2016 to provide additional learning time for students in grades K-3 who lack reading skills. But, for these funds to have the greatest impact, they must be applied to best-practices modeled by the federally funded 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program designed for high-poverty, low-performing schools. Through partnerships with schools and community-based groups, it provides enhanced before-school, after-school and summer-learning opportunities that have proven to increase student performance in reading and math, increase student participation and engagement in their education, and promote students’ development in other areas needed for success in school and life.

We must take advantage of the Governor and Legislature’s focus to improve literacy by building upon that momentum to ensure that all Michigan children are reading proficiently.  Won’t you join us in those efforts?

– Mina Hong

This blog first appeared as an opinion piece in Bridge Magazine on June 16, 2015.

Better Supporting Early On Michigan

March 24, 2015 – This is the second blog about an opportunity that Michigan’s Children had this month to strategize action around some very important services that touch the lives of families with babies and toddlers.  In partnership with the Early Childhood Investment Corporation and the Early On Michigan Foundation, Michigan’s Children organized a session to bring together allies and stakeholders to begin to build improvements to the Early On system.  Early On is our state’s Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) – Part C program that provides early intervention services to families with young children from birth to age three who have developmental delays or disabilities.  Currently in Michigan, the main source of funding for Early On comes from the federal government, which is sorely inadequate to provide appropriate services.  The intent of the session earlier this month was for participants to gain a shared understanding of IDEA Part C and those federal requirements, Early On in Michigan and its ability to appropriately serve eligible children and their families, and to begin identifying opportunities to bolster the system.

The Early On session was one of the first times in recent years that a room of state-level early childhood advocates, staff from the Michigan Departments of Education and Community Health, and local Early On providers had the opportunity to talk about how to advance that system.  It was clear that folks were glad to be having the conversation because it’s not often that you get a room of 45 busy individuals staying to the last minute of a 3-hour long meeting and even sticking around afterwards to continue some conversations in smaller groups.  It was clear from that session that ensuring young children and their families can access appropriate early intervention services across the state was a high priority for those from inside and outside the Early On system.  It was also clear that adequate and equitable services are currently not available and that this must be remedied with additional state investment.  While the group heard from one local community about their fairly robust early intervention services being supported by a sizeable local mileage, local support for Early On varies widely across the state with many communities having no local investment to support early intervention.  And given that there is no state investment for the majority of Early On eligible children and their families, the significant disparities in the adequacy of services available continues to persist.

One of the action steps identified by this group was for the state to look into maximizing federal Medicaid funds to support aspects of the Early On system – much like many other states do but not in Michigan.  While all kids who receive Early On services aren’t Medicaid recipients, a good portion of them are, making this resource a viable option to support some intervention services such as physical or occupational therapy.  Michigan’s Children is leading efforts to explore this option.    However, drawing down Medicaid funds isn’t possible without a match, reinforcing the need for a state appropriation for Early On.  Michigan’s Children in partnership with the Early On Michigan Foundation and others will continue to pursue this route in the FY2016 budget being debated and into the future.

Learn more about Early On by reading our Issues for Michigan’s Children publication.

-Mina Hong

Join the #InvestInKids Twitter Rally Today

September 10, 2014 – I try to play the social media game but I honestly feel like I can’t keep up.  I’m just beginning to dabble in the use of #hashtags and still struggle to get my message across in 140 characters or less.  What can I say?  I’m a policy person… trying to get something down to one-page is hard enough!  But, I do recognize that social media can be an effective strategy to move public policy priorities.  And to that end, I urge you to fight any possible social media hesitations – or embrace your love for social media – and participate in today’s #InvestinKids Strong Start Coalition Twitter Campaign from 2-3pm or anytime today if you’re unavailable during that hour.  The purpose of the Twitter storm is to let members of Congress – and I would add our state legislators and candidates for public office – know that investing in young children is a top priority.

The Strong Start Coalition is focusing on expanding access to early childhood opportunities – an issue that Michigan’s Children is prioritizing this election season via the Sandbox Party.  With our state’s significant focus on preschool over the past two years, it’s now time to focus on our littlest Michigan residents.  We must expand funding for programs that serve young children prenatally through age three through a variety of evidence-based services including home visiting, early intervention for developmental delays, and high quality child care.  These are all parts of Michigan’s early childhood system – particularly Early On Early intervention – that have received significantly less attention than preschool.

Michigan’s Children is glad that the importance of home visiting has expanded over the past several years in Michigan, with some increases in state and federal funding for evidence-based home visiting services and through the Governor’s Partners for Success opportunity.  And, we’re glad that the need to increase access to high quality child care is being worked on by the Administration through Michigan’s Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge grant.  But I would argue that both of these parts of the early childhood system still have quite a ways to go to ensure access to all families who are eligible for these services.  At the same time, Early On continues to be left behind.  An Auditor General’s report that came out last year highlighted some significant challenges with the Early On system – many which are the result of historic underfunding of the Early On system for decades.  In a nutshell, opportunities for our youngest Michigan residents continue to fall far behind.

I hope you will join many other early childhood advocates across the nation today by participating in the #InvestinKids Twitter action.  In addition to targeting our members of Congress, please consider tailoring your message to candidates running for public office.

To learn more about Michigan’s Children’s election efforts, visit www.michigansandboxparty.org.

-Mina Hong

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