Early Education Community of Practice brings unified message to state focus on early childhood care

Early Education Matters is a series about how Michigan parents, childcare providers, and early childhood educators are working together to implement PreK for All. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

In the past year, a lot of discussion has focused on early childhood education due in part to Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s push toward a universal preschool program, PreK for All. To build upon that work, those leading the discussions recognized a need to provide a unified message to help guide policy priorities.

Acknowledging that need, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation helped to establish the Early Education Community of Practice, a collaboration of early education leaders that brings together leaders in the field with state partners to align around policy priorities and advocacy opportunities. 

Community of Practice (or CoP), first coined by cognitive anthropologist Jean Lave and educational theorist Etienne Wenger, is a term used to describe groups of people who share a common interest and who come together regularly in order to improve their skills and knowledge. Often used in professional communities, such as doctors or lawyers, CoPs have become a part of the fabric of childhood education. Several CoPs focus on early childhood in Michigan.
Chana Edmond-Verley.
“The community of practice is really looking at how do you create an early care and education system that creates opportunity for all, and I think that opportunity for all lens is how we come to the table,” says Chana Edmond-Verley, CEO for Vibrant Futures, a Grand Rapids-based non-profit that focuses on quality care for children and one of the organizations involved in the Early Education CoP.

Jennifer Headley-Nordman is president of First Steps Kent, a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit that works within early child care and is another member organization of the CoP. She states that the Early Education CoP has had positive momentum and energy with leaders in the field of early child care and education, who have been able to learn from each other and pool resources while looking at how to align local policy at the city or county level with what might be happening at the state or federal level. 

Michigan's Early Education CoP has had positive momentum and energy with leaders in the field of early child care and education.
Work support, economic development, and promoting school readiness

It is well documented that 80% of a child’s brain is formed by the age of 3. However, many child care experts say that when it comes to early child care and education, the discussion of education tends to focus on K-12. The 2020 COVID pandemic changed that as parents struggled to find quality child care so they could go to work.

During COVID, Michigan received about $1.4 billion for child care and education through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act. With all that was happening because of this funding, the need to bring together a collective of those in the early child care field to help advocate and provide solutions became apparent in assuring that funding from ARPA and CRRSAA supported early childhood opportunities that increase equitable access to quality learning for all children, according to Jeffrey Capizzano, president and founder of the Policy Equity Group

Recognized for its work to promote equity and support the well-being of children and their families by helping states, cities, and organizations design more effective systems, the Policy Equity Group was tapped to help build and facilitate the CoP.

The focus started within the Kellogg Foundation’s three main Michigan areas of focus: Detroit, Grand Rapids and Battle Creek. The CoP has since expanded across the state to more than 30 organizations. Capizzano notes that the CoP continues to expand, adding members from the early child care field along with community stakeholders.
Jeffrey Capizzano.
“We continue to show value to the state about how we can support the goals that we mutually agreed on and continue to try to educate policymakers on the importance of early childhood as a work support, as a driver of economic development, and as a means of promoting school readiness,” Capizzano says.

By coming together, the members have access to a variety of resources and experts and are able to provide solutions and mobilize quickly. These member organizations are able to come to the table as experts to support the process.

“It's hard to understate the value of having a group of individuals come together and share their experiences from a policy perspective, " Capizzano says. “I have learned an incredible amount every time we meet related to the sort of work that's going on in Michigan, what's happening on the ground, and how to better do my job. I just find a lot of value in participating and being a part of the community practice.” 

The CoP has expanded to more than 30 organizations across the state.
The value of the right name

The CoP’s impact is already being felt. In the beginning of March 2024, Michigan’s Lifelong Education, Advancement and Potential (MiLEAP) director of childcare and development Lisa Brewer-Walraven announced that the Child Development and Care Subsidy program would be renamed “Child Care Scholarships” to help destigmatize the term subsidy in an effort to encourage more eligible families to apply. Maryland made such a change as part of its policy reforms and saw an increase in its child care scholarships.

“With the subsidy piece, we are boldly looking at how we change that,” Edmond-Verley says. “We’ve got money in Michigan that, in the past, wasn't even getting fully drawn down. We were leaving money on the table and had families that don’t even know about it.”

According to the University of Michigan Poverty Solutions, about 10% of children aged 0 to 11 years in households with incomes below the new eligibility threshold receive subsidies. When focused on the child who typically needs full-time care, children between the ages 0 to 6, it rises to 12%.

“It was a barrier to access,” says Edmond-Verley of the application for the childcare scholarship. She adds that the process was so difficult because the state had a 60-age application for qualified families who are 200% or less of the poverty level. For a family of four, that would be an income of $62,400.

 “I think one of the things we did was open up access,” she says.

University of Michigan Poverty Solutions, in partnership with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, has developed an updated Michigan Childcare and Development Subsidy website to support child care providers in completing the steps to accept the scholarship.

Edmond-Verley notes that more work needs to be done as the organizations that collaborate in the CoP focus on finishing the pathway by connecting eligible residents to the resource through intermediary organizations such as Vibrant Futures.

Expanding licensing and eligibility

Headley-Nordman adds that another area the CoP has addressed is building more access to child care options by looking at who is eligible for licensing. One focus has been homeowner associations (HOA), which often impose rules that restrict or prohibit daycare operations. 
Jennifer Headley-Nordman.
“That's one way that we might be able to make some substantial change and open up a lot more opportunities within communities and neighborhoods for people to have in-home care that the neighbors would feel comfortable about and actually benefit from those additional childcare openings within those spaces,” Headley-Nordman says.

The CoP has also looked at the licensing process. During the PreK for All listening sessions hosted last year, discussions often centered on the challenges of getting a child care license. Headley-Nordman says the group has been looking at the licensing process and discussing what areas need to be updated and what may be causing barriers. 

The recently released PreK for All Roadmap states that a key to helping Michigan reach a 75% enrollment for pre-school for four year-olds is home-based providers. The Roadmap recommended a home-based provider early learning pilot that would create a new pathway for existing home-based providers to participate in the PreK for All program.

“Bottom line, we want to make sure that the environments are safe and that they're high quality. There may be some things that we can do differently and more creatively that aren't going to affect those things but would actually help in terms of capacity overall or help allow individuals who might have the expertise to support children maybe in a different way,” Headley-Nordman says.

She adds that the CoP also is looking at how the state historically has determined who is eligible for licensing and who should have certification to work in the early child care field.

“So those types of activities, I think, this community of practice has really helped bring that to the forefront of the conversation at the state,”  Headley-Nordman says. “We continue to be able to chip away at those things just because of our collective voice.” 

Joanne Bailey-Boorsma has 30-plus years of writing experience having served as a reporter and editor for several West Michigan publications, covering a variety of topics from local news to arts and entertainment. 

Photos by Stephen Smith.
Jeffrey Capizzano photo courtesy subject.
Jennifer Headley-Nordman photo courtesy First Steps Kent/Isabel Media Services
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.