Ready to learn

Kindergarten can be tough. It’s even harder for the 40 percent of local children who are unprepared to learn when they start school. But through innovative work funded by a competitive federal grant, United Way is making sure kids at partner facilities like Macomb Family Services are ready to thrive as soon as they enter the classroom.

Photos by Brian Craig; story by Dave Phillips

Editor’s note: The Social Innovation Fund is a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency that engages millions of Americans in service through its AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, Social Innovation Fund (SIF), and Volunteer Generation Fund programs, and leads the President’s national call to service initiative, United We Serve. For more information, visit NationalService.gov.


It’s a warm spring morning at Westview Elementary School in Warren. Preschoolers in a Play and Learn group greet each other with a smile, singing: “One, two, three! Hello to Julia! We’re so glad you came to class! One, two, three!” to the tune of “The Farmer in the Dell.”

Around the room, small stations are set up for children to create projects alongside their parents and caregivers. It’s a space that encourages experimentation and learning.

The group, operated by Macomb Family Services, was created to help children enter kindergarten ready to learn. It’s offered to parents free of charge, thanks in part to United Way for Southeastern Michigan.

“When you think of what it takes for a child to be successful in school, the early years before they even strap on a backpack are vital,” said Jeff Miles, Social Innovation Fund Manager at United Way for Southeastern Michigan.

That’s why at United Way, we’re committed to making sure parents and caregivers — children’s first teachers — are equipped to support the children in their lives so that they can reach their full potential.

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Painting is one of many activities offered during the Play and Learn Group at Macomb Family Services.

National Recognition

In 2011, we sought and won a competitive $6 million Social Innovation Fund grant to help improve the outcomes for children.

The grant required us and our partners like Macomb Family Services to match portions of the funding. For Southeastern Michigan, this first grant turned a $6-million community investment into nearly $18 million.

“This work is life-changing,” said Jeff Miles, Social Innovation Fund Manager at United Way for Southeastern Michigan.

Eleven community partners joined us in this work, including Macomb Family Services. More than 20,000 children and caregivers have been impacted. In the spring of 2016, United Way for Southeastern Michigan President and CEO Herman Gray was asked to speak about the impact of the Social Innovation Fund at the White House. In the same year, we won our second intermediary-level Social Innovation Fund grant — one of only a handful of organizations in the country to do so.

Macomb Family Services displays one of the common threads throughout all of our partner programs: parents and children learning together, opening the door for an exponential amount of similar learning experiences at home.

Gina Vatalaro and her daughter Cc began attending Play and Learn groups when Cc was 18 months old. Cc is in kindergarten now, but Gina loved the Play and Learn group so much that she took a job as an assistant for the program.

“She’s on top of her game in kindergarten,” Gina said of her daughter, who was working in a classroom just down the hallway. “She’s already reading short stories, and it’s definitely because we started early education. Play and Learn really is an opportunity for parents to open doorways into new worlds they might never have discovered.”

Play and Learn Instructor La Don Williams said socialization is essential to helping kids gain skills they will need when they begin kindergarten. Here, they’re able to interact with a diverse group of children, helping them overcome apprehensiveness about playing with others.

La Don Williams is the lead instructor of the Play and Learn Group at offered by Macomb Family Services.

She notices that many children — especially those who speak English as a second language — can be shy when they first start attending the group.

“A lot of times, when they’re getting ready to graduate out of the program, they begin to start talking a little more to me. I really see that as a success,” she said.

The program helps parents like Marzana Quayoum. On this day, she and son Zakaria Ahmed, 3, were using Play-Doh to make shapes at one of many play stations throughout the classroom.

Marzana said it can be difficult to find new activities that promote child engagement and can fit into a busy schedule. At Play and Learn, “Ms. La Don, she does all the work,” Marzana said. “I can just come here (for ideas). It’s always something different. The kids are learning things as they’re doing it, and they don’t even realize it.”

Julia Hernandez, 4, has been coming to Play and Learn for two years. She was focused on gluing paper triangles onto a circle, but when she was asked what her favorite activity was, she quickly flashed a smile and answered: Play-Doh.

“She’s learned how to interact with other children and take turns,” said her father, Brandon. “Her attention span has really improved.”

Gina Vatalaro (left) interacts with Marzana Quayoum and her son Zakaria Ahmed. Marzana loves learning new activities that she and Zakaria can use at home to continue the learning process.

Powering Solutions

The logic behind the Social Innovation Fund is that some of the best ideas come from people who don’t necessarily have the dollars to test, replicate and scale.

“United Way is that perfect intermediary organization,” said Jeff Miles.

When we dove into this work, we knew that there were children entering school who were developmentally behind, but we didn’t know the scale of the problem or the necessary tool to measure progress. The ultimate goal was to impact children’s lives for the better by finding and evaluating programs that work and making them work for more people. But the way we initially measured that success — six different evaluations being conducted by six different organizations — was flawed.

“While we can see positive results from this work, we underestimated the difficulty in implementing a single assessment within different types of programs,” Jeff said. Social Innovation Fund programs funded by United Way include those based in homes, schools, Head Starts and community centers, all with varying needs and different ways of recording progress.

“That significantly impacted our ability to detail our collective progress,” he said. “We had to abandon that approach, but fortunately we have great evaluation partners who were able to devise a unique solution. We can’t compare apples to oranges, so what this technique does is make everything pears, allowing us to better understand our impact at the community level.”

Jeff asserts that experimentation is a big part of the Social Innovation Fund. Learning from successes is great, but it’s important to learn from the failures too.

Through that evaluation difficulty, a better system for measuring success has emerged. For the next round of Social Innovation Fund programs, a single evaluation will be conducted by United Way using a third-party evaluator. This assessment pulls in several pieces of information and assessments that are more easily captured, and will allow us and our partners to understand their impact and make needed changes to programming on the fly.

These lessons and others are captured in a series of books that we’ve published over the course of the grant. These books describe our SIF programs in detail and allow other organizations to implement this work.

SIF programming allows parents and children to learn together, making it easier to continue the learning process outside of the classroom.

Partners who make the difference

All of this work took place in resource-limited communities, but their learnings can be applied nationally.

Living Arts’ Detroit Wolf Trap program uses the performance arts to teach literacy, math, science and social-emotional development. KinderCamps — launched by the Macomb Intermediate School District and soon available throughout Macomb County — are four-week programs that help children who aren’t quite ready to start kindergarten.

The National Kidney Foundation employs superhero Regie the Veggie to teach children about the importance of nutrition — with 82 percent of children increasing their consumption of fruits and/or vegetables after completing Regie’s adventure.

Our partner ACCESS, which offers community services and resources to immigrants, launched ACCESS to School — a program where parents and children can learn English together. It also offers literacy classes, a parenting curriculum and case management.

Thoraya Alhaggam said ACCESS to School gave her family a sense of community they had struggled to find since emigrating from rural Yemen. Her son, 4-year-old Ra’ed, loves the program.

“We come and we study,” she said. “We learn. And there’s fun, too, yes. But we know it’s to study first. We learn a lot by doing this. Numbers. Colors. Shapes. Letters.”

Jeff Miles attributes much of the success to our partners. United Way operates the network, manages the grant work and offers advice and guidance when partners need it.

“We realized the importance of partnering with organizations that are deeply rooted in these communities and offer a wealth of expertise in this field,” he said. “We’ve invested the time and the resources into these relationships. The strength of this whole project comes from the partners.”

A final evaluation will be presented to the federal government in December, but we already know SIF 2011 helped more than half of the children who participated: 58 percent of them made significant progress on kindergarten readiness indicators, and between 50 and 60 percent of them saw gains in the categories of communication, social-emotional, language and health. All evaluation findings are preliminary and pending review by the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Various play stations at Play and Learn groups give children plenty of room to be creative.

For the next round of SIF, United Way will once again partner with ACCESS and Leaps & Bounds Family Services and will add CARE of Southeastern Michigan and Oakland Family Services to the fold. Those four organizations will launch a pilot phase of programming this fall before launching fully in April 2018.

We’ll build off the previous learnings to help families meet their goals by providing access to high-quality Child Development programs while making sure participants don’t have to overcome obstacles like a lack of transportation. Improving access to child development programs has made a difference in families’ lives. But if families don’t have access to other basic needs like food and health care, those programs can only do so much.

“Middle- and upper-class families often have easy access to high-quality programs because of resources like insurance and transportation,” Jeff said. “While these resources exist for limited-income families, they’re not always easy to access. If we create this coordinated system, we can improve a family’s ability to overcome daily obstacles and meet their goals. This should allow families to focus on their children more, which will increase their children’s developmental readiness, which will allow kids to enter kindergarten ready to learn and allow them to thrive and flourish in school through work done at home.”

And that means more songs and smiles — and achievement —for children across southeastern Michigan.