Millage Update for Calendar Year 2020
From January through December 2020, thousands of young children across Kent County benefited from the Ready by Five Early Childhood Millage, despite the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. Kent County staff, First Steps Kent, and service providers worked collaboratively and creatively to ensure the continuation of programming that supports the health, school readiness, and well-being of young children. Ready by Five service providers walked alongside families to help them address needs that arose or were exacerbated by the pandemic.
The Ready by Five Early Childhood Millage:
- Supports new parents so they can ensure their children are healthy and ready for kindergarten;
- Increases access to high-quality early learning experiences that build a strong social, emotional, and intellectual foundation; and
- Supports early identification of speech and hearing impairments, autism, or delays and disabilities so kids get the treatment they need.
Since voters approved the millage in November 2018, $13 million has been allocated to 21 community-based organizations and agencies. The categories of services funded by Ready by Five include parenting education, early learning, and healthy development. The millage also supports outreach and navigation services to help families know what resources and programs are available and how they can access them.
Much of 2019 was focused on establishing procedures and processes to plan and successfully implement allocation of millage funding. After the Kent County Board of Commissioners selected First Steps Kent to administer and oversee Ready by Five in May 2019, we:
- Established a Ready by Five Resident Proposal Review Board;
- Laid the groundwork for a system of performance-based contracts that focuses on evidence and outcomes, promotes measurement, and rewards organizations that successfully “move the needle” in community priorities; and
- Awarded the first round of funding, focusing exclusively on outreach and navigation services.
Through 2020, First Steps Kent:
- Awarded two rounds of funding and executed data sharing agreements with 16 agencies. The agreements allow child-specific data to be sent from all funded service providers to the Kent County Health Department and deidentified data to be shared with First Steps Kent.
- Executed 23 new contracts with 16 agencies. Contracts went into effect March 1, 2020.
- Completed the first annual assessment for all funded service providers.
- Completed the allocation for a third round of funding with an additional 12 contracts beginning January 1, 2021. Translation and interpretation services were added to ensure language is not a barrier for children and families to engage in early childhood programming.
At the start of 2020, our emphasis was on increasing the capacity of quality early childhood services so more children and families could participate. In January, the Kent County Board of Commissioners approved $7.6 million in grants to expand home visiting, play and learn groups, developmental screenings, and other research-based programs. Service agreements began March 1 – just weeks before the pandemic brought much of Michigan to a halt.
Most Ready by Five services are based upon an in-person, face-to-face delivery model, which was not possible during the Stay-at-Home orders issued by the state. Physical distancing requirements that remained in place through 2020 continued to limit in-person services.
Maintaining these vital services required flexibility and new ways of doing things from First Steps Kent, the County, and the organizations that receive funding. We agreed millage payments to grantees would continue and allowable expenses would be temporarily expanded to include virtual programming, purchases of technology, distribution of early education materials for clients to use at home, and other modified services to support families.
Despite the unusual circumstances of 2020, thousands of children and expectant parents received Ready by Five services. That includes 2,116 who engaged in Outreach and Navigation services, which then connected them to primary care offices, parenting education and/or early learning programs and community resources that help them provide a safe and nurturing environment for their child(ren). Most families served live in the core cities of Grand Rapids, Walker, Wyoming, Kentwood, and Grandville, but the Ready by Five reach extended to hundreds of families in suburban and rural communities throughout the county.
Most services remained virtual throughout 2020. A limited number of agencies phased in face-to-face programming during the milder seasons that allowed programming to happen outdoors, if it could be done safely and the families receiving services felt comfortable with it.
To ensure programs were continuing to serve and connect with families, Service Providers were authorized to provide additional specific outreach services during the pandemic. These included family support outreach, professional development, and early development activity deliveries to ensure families had information and materials to support continued learning at home.
In addition to further developing a provider network, we have also worked to establish a robust data and evaluation system to measure the impact of Ready by Five, both for the children and families served and the broader community. We are taking a multi-faceted approach to collecting and assessing data that includes:
- An external evaluation of Ready by Five. (We are solicitating proposals for evaluation services in 2021). The evaluation will assess how millage investments are impacting contributors to kindergarten success, including:
- Parents having increased access to resources and information,
- Improvement in mothers’ health and wellbeing,
- Increase in children developmentally on track, and
- Increase in children who are healthy.
- Analysis of program-level data for Ready by Five service providers, including numbers and demographics of those served and program outcomes.
- A community needs assessment completed every two years.
Each funded partner has a data-sharing agreement in place with the Kent County Health Department and submits demographic, service, and referral information about each child and expectant mother reached by the program. The Kent County Health Department houses all data collected by Ready by Five funded partners. The Kent County Health Department shares de-identified data sets with First Steps Kent to allow monitoring of program delivery and plan for future funding allocations.
In 2020, First Steps Kent raised $52,329 in philanthropic funding to underwrite the costs of administering the Ready by Five Early Childhood Millage as the cost of the work exceeds the 5.7% allocation we receive. The additional costs are used for necessary staff time to support the development and implementation of all Ready by Five millage components including data collection, allocation, and contract oversight.
While the events of 2020 were unexpected, our community was better able to meet the challenges of the last year because of the programming that has been established with Ready by Five. Families received ongoing and consistent support and had help navigating the pandemic’s uncertainty. We expect to significantly increase the number of families engaging in services in 2021, as we anticipate more typical in-person programming to resume. We will carry forward the lessons learned from the last year and integrate into Ready by Five the most effective elements of the modified programming, recognizing the pandemic provided an opportunity to serve and support families in new, meaningful ways.