How Learning Spaces Expansion to Grand Rapids Addresses Inequity and Shapes Children’s Futures May 5, 2021

by Ashanti J. Bryant, MSW, MEd
IFF Director of Early Childhood Services

IFF has long recognized that evoking sustainable and transformative change requires confronting inequities caused by systemic racism. We understand that education can be a panacea for these social ills, and early childhood education is the first crucial phase that establishes a foundation for healthy growth and development. We work to expand access to quality early childhood education because it places more children on paths to success, impacting families, neighborhoods, communities and cities.

Our goal to increase access to quality early childhood education is not random; it’s a response to a need realized after years of research and community engagement.

Our goal to increase access to quality early childhood education is not random; it’s a response to a need realized after years of research and community engagement. It’s a response to the reality that thousands of children in underserved communities lack access to that essential foundation for growth and development.

In our 2018 Grand Rapids study, we found a severe lack of access to early childhood education slots for infants and toddlers, with just 16 percent of children aged birth to two having access to licensed and registered providers. A 2020 analysis showed increased access in some communities but affirmed that there is still a significant need in key neighborhoods in Grand Rapids. This is the city where I live, where my own children are being raised and educated, and where over 4,000 children in 2016 went without quality early childhood education services. That means more than 4,000 children were forever impacted and their lives were potentially rerouted because they lacked a vital opportunity. This is the reality in my beloved Grand Rapids—it’s the reality in many cities, but it’s a reality we can no longer idly accept.

IFF’s Learning Spaces program addresses children’s lack of access to high-quality early childhood education by reducing the service gap: the difference between the amount of children in need and the amount of available slots. Learning Spaces accomplishes this by collaborating directly with childcare providers to deliver grant funding and technical assistance, as well as transform facilities into positive, safe and inspiring learning environments. Improving facilities enhances provider capacity, children’s access to care and education, and parents’ ability to work and provide for their families. Furthermore, it helps ensure that the design and quality of early childhood education facilities reflect the dignity all children and their families deserve.

Since the 2016 launch of Learning Spaces in Detroit, we have invested more than $3.5 million, serving more than 3,200 Detroit children. The ongoing success of Detroit’s Learning Spaces program has enabled the expansion of our work to Grand Rapids to address the service gap that particularly affects Southeast neighborhoods—where half of children in 2016 were at or below the poverty line. Learning Spaces’ Grand Rapids launch, supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, will increase access to high-quality early childhood education, creating positive outcomes for children and ultimately shaping a brighter reality. This is the transformational power of quality care and education. This is why Learning Spaces matters.

To further ensure children in Grand Rapids are set on paths to successful futures, IFF is building a 12,000 square-foot early childhood education center in southeast Grand Rapids that breaks ground this Fall. Not only will this center deliver high-quality programming, but it will also provide health services and holistic support for children and families, as well as serve as a resource hub for education providers. As a parent, resident and leader who has dedicated my entire professional life to utilizing education as a tool to remedy poverty, injustice and inequity, I’m honored to serve on the IFF team and advance a mission that continues to invest in and create pathways of opportunity for our children.