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Helping Hands for the Youngest Newcomers

Kent ISD Reaches out to Burmese Parents

Kentwood resident Van Cung told representatives from about a dozen local organizations what the Kent ISD early childhood program, Bright Beginnings has meant for him, his wife, Nzun Chin, and their three sons. The list was long: help with school and homework for the children, who attend Kentwood Public Schools; filling out paperwork; connecting to resources; and preparing their two youngest boys to be successful in kindergarten.

“I really appreciate all your help,” Cung, an immigrant from Burma, told the group with help from a translator. “Even just inviting me here today. Thank you so much.”

The group was gathered at Kent ISD to talk about the needs of the Burmese community and serving families like the Cungs even better. The group discussed results of a survey conducted by Bright Beginnings, in conjunction with the Center for Social Research at Calvin College, to better serve the Burmese population –– one of the fastest growing refugee communities in Kent County.

Staci Zuspann reads to John last year during a parent educator visit
Staci Zuspann reads to John last year during a parent educator visit

The survey, which interviewed 51 Burmese families last summer, was funded by an $11,000 grant from the Frey Foundation. Its goal was learning how to better serve the population through childhood education, said Jan Sabin, parent educator coordinator for Bright Beginnings, which aims to help parents be their child’s first and best teacher.

Van and his family are among more than 5,000 refugees in the U.S. from Burma, also known as Myanmar, according to the Department of State’s Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System. Michigan is home to the nation’s largest population of Burmese refugees, with a large percentage settled in West Michigan through Bethany Christian Services and Samaritas, formerly Lutheran Social Services of Michigan. Most lived in refugee camps for several years before resettling. Many now live in the Kentwood Public Schools district.

Serving immigrant students well is crucial nationwide. According to information from the 2015 report “Immigrant and Refugee Workers in the Early Childhood Field,” by the Migration Policy Institute, “The growth of the U.S. 0-5 population is becoming increasingly diverse. Homes in the U.S. with children ages 5 and under who have at least one immigrant parent now account for all the net population growth of children in that age group in the U.S.”

Identifying Their Needs

The local survey sought to increase understanding of the needs, concerns and barriers of Burmese families, and to improve coordination of services by area agencies and Kent ISD’s early childhood programs, Bright Beginnings and Great Start School Readiness. Main barriers included completing paperwork and signing up for services, cost, cultural differences, finding services, language and communication and transportation.

Key findings include the following:

  • The most frequent household size was two adults and two children; most had an income range of either $10,000 to $24,999 or $25,000 to $39,999 per year.
  • Half reported needing help with basic needs more than once a month. A quarter reported needing help to meet their children’s health-care needs and to find early childhood program information. Language and communication was the most difficult barrier to meeting those needs.
  • In general, respondents with greater incomes and who have lived in Kent County longer reported needing help less frequently, and experiencing less difficulty from potential barriers than others.
  • 90 percent reported their children have health insurance; almost all said their child has a personal doctor and has had a checkup in the past year.
  • 90 percent indicated interest in a free program to help them get their children ready tostart school.

Moving forward, Sabin said the hope is to enhance Bright Beginnings’ capability to serve families zeroing in on language needs, and perhaps supporting Burmese families in opening home day care centers to increase income and help working families.

Excited for School

Bright Beginnings parent educator Staci Zuspann worked with Cung and Chin’s family for several years. She helped James, now a kindergartner at Brookwood Elementary School, and John, now a Young Fives student at Glenwood Elementary School, on kindergarten readiness skills. Van Jr. is now an eighth-grader at Crestwood Middle School. She also helped them complete paperwork and make phone calls.

Zuspann developed a strong bond with the family, and fondly remembers how excited James was to start school.

“James loves to learn,” she said. “He would pray that he could go to preschool. He would be sitting at the table with his pens and crayons.”

“Every time Staci came he got very excited,” Cung said.


Bright Beginnings

SNN Article on Bright Beginnings

Burma History Timeline

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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