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After-school care is critical to Michigan’s future success, leaders say

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BY: JON KING 

As elected officials, policymakers and business leaders grapple with how best to increase workforce participation, one item that doesn’t always make the top of the list, but perhaps should, is childcare, most especially for kids once they get home from school.

That was the focus of a panel Thursday at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference in which the discussion centered on finding ways to expand and enhance quality after-school programs to benefit both families and employers.

Michelle Richard, the acting director of the Michigan Department of Lifelong Education, Advancement, and Potential (MiLEAP), noted that all the various issues discussed throughout the week on Mackinac, whether it was mental health, childhood obesity, academic readiness or career navigation, would be improved in some way by ensuring the availability of quality after school care.

“The opportunity to be able to have kids in high quality environments where adults care deeply about their academic success, their mental health, their social emotional skills, and are supporting them as a proxy for their teacher or for their parents in times when they are somewhere else? There’s incredible power in that,” said Richard. “It feels like we are in a moment where we’re trying to … align, accelerate [and] amplify the work that’s happening in schools, in communities, and make sure that we are giving our kids as much momentum as possible.”

The model for the type of program that could potentially help provide that momentum is Developing K.I.D.S. (Kingdoms In Different Stages), a Detroit-based non-profit that provides afterschool and summer programs and boasts a high school graduation rate of between 99 and 100% since its first group of high school seniors in 2012. 

Kimberly Johnson, president and chief executive officer of Developing K.I.D.S., recalled building the organization from the ground up, leaving her full-time job after receiving a $40,000 grant which she then leveraged into other opportunities.

“Leaving that really sparked the growth of Developing K.I.D.S because now I could dedicate more of my time to really building the organization at the level that I knew it could be, but it takes being introduced to people, having a network,” she said. “A lot of us have had opportunities where we’re sitting here today and we’re in the rooms with people who we couldn’t get meetings with, but how many organizations do not have the ability to come and be here today?”

Ridgway White, the president and chief executive officer of the CS Mott Foundation was asked whether the passion that grassroots programs like Developing K.I.D.S seemed to be built on was a better model than larger, national organizations like Junior Achievement. He said the size or scope of a program wasn’t as important as that it prioritized the needs of kids.

“They meet kids where they are, and that’s where the secret sauce is,” he said. “It’s as simple as giving a kid a baseball bat to play with and it can be going to coding or things like that. And you’ve got a lot of really passionate leaders or just the education providers themselves that are in it that are doing it as a part time job because they care.”

At that point, the panel’s youngest member, King Bethel, a student and Youth Voice from the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, noted that while funding was an important factor in providing opportunities to kids, the quality of youth programs had a lot to do with letting the kids themselves have a voice in what they wanted.

“There needs to be an actual connection between the leader and the student, and allow the student to create their own ideas,” said Bethel. “There’s a lot of times where we tell the student to read this book, we tell them to research this, and what we tell them is what they go by, right? And instead we should advise them to do their own research and advise them to think on their own.”

Bethel pointed out that his inclusion in the very conference they were participating in was giving him an opportunity to grow as an individual by networking and doing his own research about all those taking part. 

“So it’s just allowing those opportunities aside from the money, because if you say you had all the money, what’s next? How are you impacting your students? I feel like that’s the key,” he said.

Johnson wholeheartedly agreed with that point, but said money does make a difference.

“I love the comment about trust,” she said, noting that Developing K.I.D.S has been criticized precisely because it operates as a family with older students mentoring younger ones.

However, Johnson says the reality is that for some kids, if they’re not actively engaged in appropriate, supportive programs, they are left vulnerable to real-world problems.

“I know a gentleman who could not run his program because he didn’t have funding at the last minute,” she said. “And a young man who was very active, who was looking forward to participating, was killed that summer. And he took it very hard because he said, ‘If he would have been in my program, maybe that wouldn’t have happened,’ so the funding piece is real. I cannot feed 500 on two fish and five loaves of bread, but I can tell you I’ll feed 50 kids off of $30.”

That’s all the more reason the practical needs of providing adequate space and resources for quality after-school programs remains a necessity, which MiLEAP’s Richard said is an issue that can no longer be effectively addressed only at the local level.

“I think we’re having a moment where we’re shifting the discussion from ‘That’s a family responsibility’ or ‘That’s a community only responsibility’ to saying, ‘Actually, this is infrastructure that matters intensely for the goals that we have as a state, for our talent goals,’” she said.

If the goal is to keep people in Michigan, or better yet, recruiting people to the state, Richard says making sure the infrastructure is in place is imperative, including facilities and spaces. More importantly, those facilities and spaces have to be available across the board, which requires a state-level investment.

Richard noted that part of that investment is already moving forward with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s plan for funding universal pre-K in next year’s budget, which helps solve one piece of the childcare puzzle that so many parents have to navigate in order to continue working.

“When we think about the goals of after school, safe places for kids to spend their time, we call that a lot of things. We call that childcare. We call that pre-K. I call that second grade for my family at 12:44 on a Thursday,” she said, pointing to her watch. 

While the universal pre-K plan is currently being negotiated between the Democratic-led House and Senate, in her interview with the Advance on Tuesday while on Mackinac, Whitmer reiterated that it remained a priority.

“It’s always a negotiation, but universal pre-K is something that the people of this state have been clamoring for for years. We know that that kind of investment sets the youngest Michiganders up for lifelong health and lifelong wealth,” Whitmer said. 

Richard said supporting effective childcare options may begin when kids are younger, but it has to continue forward for Michigan’s ability to foster a productive workforce.

“How many programs, when you think about the opportunities that are available in your community, are really targeted towards 10, 11, 12-year-olds? Not enough of them,” she said. “And yet, those are children that no one would say, ‘yes, let’s leave a 10-year-old home alone 50 hours a week because their parents are going to go kick butt and take names at their job, which is what we want them to be able to do. And so if this room can’t do it, no no one can. It’s an accident of luck, which is certainly not what we want for an infrastructure that’s so critical for the goals that we have as a state.”

Another issue that was brought up was transportation. Even if programs and services are available, they serve little use to those residents who can’t actually get to them in any meaningful way and still make sure they can themselves to and from work.

The panel’s moderator, Dave Egner, president and chief executive officer of the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, said that because Michigan as a state has poor public transit, the responsibility for getting young people into these programs either falls directly on the parents or on the nonprofit operating the program, and that’s an issue in and of itself.

“That adds cost that’s exorbitant, and liability that’s exorbitant,” he said. “So we could talk about this one for about another hour-and-a-half. I think we ought to just acknowledge it’s there and we’ve got to work on it.”

Also discussed by the panel is the inequity in the fundraising space for nonprofits led by people of color and women.

Because Johnson represents both, she spoke about addressing that very deficit by co-founding the Black Executive Director Alliance of Detroit (BEDAD), which serves Detroit nonprofits with Black leaders and requires only a nominal membership fee. 

When prompted to name a wish they’d like to see in Michigan addressing after-school programs, Richard was quick to answer.

“I want to clone Kim [Johnson],” she said to applause. “How do we create more space for leaders who are showing up every day for our kids? That’s the space that government can work in. How can we support what you’re doing? How can we continue to advocate for funding so that there are more kids supporting our kids?”

Johnson said she wanted to see increased funding for after school funding that would go to a trusted intermediary.

“And I mean very much increased,” she said. “Really working towards what that looks like, looking at the applications, and make sure that it’s equitable for all organizations to participate in.”

Bethel said he’d like to see more cooperation between nonprofit organizations so that the deficits of one program might just be able to be addressed by another, and vice versa.

“I wish there were more nonprofits thinking of each other as a unit instead of thinking of each other as competitors,” he said. 

As the moderator, Egner got the last word and reiterated that fixing the talent gap in Michigan and making sure employers are partnering with young people so as to expose them to career opportunities, was best addressed by supporting after school funding.

He then turned to Bethel and added, “Find a way to replicate this guy over and over and over again.”

This article is republished from the Michigan Advance under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.