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More funding means more playgroups, home visits, help for county families of young children

Photos by Dianne Carroll Burdick

Kent ISD — Services that provide a foundation for school readiness for Kent County families are benefiting from a new round of two-year funding through the Ready by Five Early Childhood Millage.

For Kent ISD, that means more than $1.5 million in millage funding going to Early Childhood programs it administers or oversees this year and in 2023: 

  • Bright Beginnings playgroups received $198,000, which will primarily go toward outreach to families and an additional staffer that will add 20 new playgroups to some 25 already available every month throughout the county in school buildings, public libraries and community centers. These one-hour sessions include motor and social skill development, literacy and nutrition, plus related materials.
  • Bright Beginnings home visiting received approximately $537,000, which will primarily enable the program to operate year-round in most areas of the county. The funds also cover the addition of a fourth staffer to meet with and provide materials to parents and children in their homes or virtually, and provide related outreach to potential families. Visits focus on coaching parents to develop skills as their child’s first teacher.
  •  Help Me Grow Kent received $827,000 to increase referral efforts and fund two additional staffers to assist families in finding community resources and basic needs, as well as provide ongoing developmental support. Help Me Grow Kent, which connects parents of young children (up to age 5) with local child development resources, is overseen by Great Start Collaborative, with support and coordination from Kent ISD. ASQ data screening tools that help staffers best connect families 

The new round of millage funding – first approved by Kent County voters in 2018 – means more families in Kent County will be able to receive services, said Ashley Karsten, Kent ISD Early Education director. 

“We know how important kindergarten readiness is, not just for kindergarten but for all the years beyond,” Karsten said. “This will help ensure that all children in Kent County will have what they need to be successful.”

Bright Beginnings Coordinator Karen Lezan said she participated in playgroups when her children were young, “and we formed great relationships. To be able to interact with others or have a one-on-one educator come into your home and walk alongside you through those vital years is an amazing opportunity.”

In all, more than $9 million is being distributed to 19 community-based organizations operating 28 programs during 2022. Funding begins with interested organizations submitting proposals. The Kent County Board of Commissioners approves and administers the millage funding, following recommendations from a community review board and First Steps Kent’s board. The millage is now in its third year.

“We continue to see a great need from families in Kent County. The number of proposals we received exceeded the amount we had to allocate, which shows that this millage is necessary and continues to make an impact,” said First Steps Kent President Annemarie Valdez in a press release. “We are grateful for the support of Kent County residents. This continues to be a vital investment in young children across our community and families need these resources now more than ever.”

More parents will be able to access Bright Beginnings home visiting with funding from the Early Childhood millage
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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Kent ISD, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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