Learning Spaces: IFF marks 1-year anniversary of program by scaling up to help more early education providers in Detroit July 6, 2017

High-quality early education providers in Detroit often struggle with pressing facilities challenges. Renovated classrooms, more efficient lighting, upgraded heating/cooling, better security, new playgrounds – these all contribute to high-quality facilities for young children to learn and grow. But tackling facility repairs and renovations can be overwhelming for smaller providers that have few staff, small budgets, and little time to request grant funding.

That’s why IFF teamed up with The Kresge Foundation to offer two innovative solutions to help early education providers: (1) subsidize facility assessments that work with providers to evaluate a broad range of facilities improvements, and (2) grant awards to help pay for identified repairs and upgrades and plan for future improvements.

The program is called Learning Spaces, and it launched one year ago this month. Since then, IFF has provided grants totaling $150,000 to 10 facilities serving a total of 631 children. With renewed funding from The Kresge Foundation, IFF is now scaling the program with larger grant awards for more providers – up to $20,000 in grant support for repairs and upgrades at high-quality early education centers in Detroit and larger grants for extensive improvements to center-based environments.

Potential grantees are invited to attend a Provider Engagement Meeting to learn more about facility quality and the collaborative efforts in Detroit to improve early child care and education. The next Provider Engagement Meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, July 25th, at Marygrove College. Details are posted to iff.org/programs/learningspaces.

Here’s a look back at some accomplishments from the first year of the program:

Greater Sonora Early Learning Prep: Cynthia Martin first applied to Learning Spaces to acquire some new playground equipment for the 25-year-old early childhood learning center she runs on the east side of Detroit. But after working with IFF to assess the center and discuss a variety of program needs, IFF and Martin decided to focus investment on indoor lighting.

According to IFF Director of Childhood Services Monica Duncan, indoor lighting is critical to creating a conducive learning environment. Indirect and incandescent lights are the best artificial option for creating spaces where kids feel comfortable playing, whereas harsh fluorescent lights can make classrooms feel like hospitals or offices. And dimmer switches allow lighting to be adjusted more gradually and naturally as children transition from play time to nap time.

These were among the upgrades installed at Early Learning Prep, and the parents noticed right away.
“The best part is the domino effect,” Martin says. “We made these improvements, which we hope leads to better scores and more families served. That, in turn, can lead to increased funding for other improvements – for example, I still want my playground!”

According to Duncan, one goal of Learning Spaces is to help providers prioritize facility improvements so they can achieve pressing upgrades as well as realize long-term objectives, such as the playground equipment.

Early Learning Prep already has a 4-star rating (out of a possible 5 stars) from Michigan’s Great Start to Quality Program. It is a year-round, extended-day facility serving approximately 50 children annually.

Blessed Beginnings Learning Center: This 5-star rated home-based provider serves Early Head Start children on Detroit’s east side. Owner/director LaShawn Bridges has been running this facility successfully for 18 years, but saving for big-ticket upgrades was difficult with a smaller-scale program of only six participants. Her request to Learning Spaces was straight-forward and, based on the follow-up assessment with IFF, spot-on: Blessed Beginnings wanted to make safety upgrades.

First, a new egress window was installed in the basement facility. Second, some carpeting was ripped and patched in many places, causing tripping hazards, so new high-impact flooring was installed. Finally, new lighting helped the facility meet some early education best practices.

“Our parents love the changes – they say the places seems not only brighter, but bigger,” Bridges says. “And because the grant paid for these safety changes, we were able to spend some of our savings on playground equipment. The neighborhood park is not always clean or safe, so having a secure place for the kids to play outdoors really means a lot to us.”

Michigan Technical Academy: This 4-star rated early childhood center leases space from a charter school in Detroit’s west side. The children share a spacious and well-equipped outdoor play area – with one major safety concern.

“The playground opens up into a large parking lot, and it causes a lot of stress for staff,” says Marion Edwards, the academy’s Pre-K Director. “These are very young children, and they will run after a ball without thinking. We always remain vigilant, but we knew a fence would go a long way toward keeping the kids safer.”

A grant from Learning Spaces funded the installation of new fencing – as well as a 9-foot radius of wood chips to replace the blacktop pavement. There are 54 pre-k children who use the playground, and up to 500 kids from the entire charter school use the space as well.

See iff.org/learningspaces for more information.