January 6, 2016; Detroit Free Press

For a $3.5 billion private national foundation with the goal of expanding opportunities in America’s cities, the launch of a $20 million initiative to support early childhood education might not be too surprising. The Kresge Foundation, however, has made this substantial commitment to Detroit, a city to which it has established a deep connection, in an innovative way that emphasizes underserved neighborhoods and collaboration with local and national partners as the foundation for the new program.

The Kresge Foundation has been a major force in helping to craft a recovery plan for the city of Detroit following the city’s 2013 bankruptcy. As a recently published piece from the winter 2015 edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly covered extensively, Kresge was one of the largest funders, committing $100 million to the $366 million “Grand Bargain,” and a lead player in planning and implementation of the “Detroit Future City Strategic Framework.” As part of its ongoing commitment to the city, Kresge’s Detroit Program also prioritizes the importance of a high-quality early childhood system.

Kresge has structured Kresge Early Years for Success—KEYS: Detroit—as a five-year initiative aimed to promote the healthy development of local children and the ongoing re-vitalization of the city through investment in five critical strategies:

  • Low-interest loans to improve early childhood development facilities and maternal healthcare facilities;
  • Grants to support neighborhood early childhood collaborations and early childhood practitioners;
  • Investments in the design and construction of comprehensive early childhood centers;
  • Investments that draw early childhood experience and expertise to Detroit; and
  • The formation of neighborhood alliances to form an early childhood action plan.

Emphasizing the importance of the initiative, Kresge Foundation President and CEO Rip Rapson said in a statement, “We will know Detroit is on the path to a full turnaround when there is evidence that its children are safe and healthy and when they are academically, emotionally, and developmentally ready to begin school.”

Rapson added, “With only 14 percent of Detroit children estimated to be kindergarten-ready and more than two-thirds living in poverty, we have a crisis that reverberates from generation to generation.”

The Kresge Foundation’s announcement last week included the release of its commissioned report, “The System We Need: A Neighborhood Snapshot of Early Childhood Education in Detroit,” by nonprofit investor IFF. A key finding is that in 2015, Detroit had high-quality childcare space to serve only 22 percent of the city’s population aged five and under that needed it. The study also reveals that 51 percent of the licensed provider slots needed (11,793 slots) are concentrated in 10 neighborhoods in the northeast and southwest of the city, highlighted in the study with a dazzling array of maps.

This level of detail is important because the availability of childcare is essential to the city’s future growth and also because neighborhood stabilization is a priority to many long-term residents. In his comprehensive assessment of the current state of Detroit, author Rick Cohen cited Timothy Thorland of Southwest Housing Solutions, who said, “Whether it’s the mayor, Dan Gilbert, or foundation executives, now is the time to invest in neighborhoods.”

The collaborative nature of KEYS: Detroit is also noteworthy. In a statement, Kresge Foundation President and CEO Rip Rapson acknowledged, “We can’t do this alone.” Rapson added, “The philanthropic sector is ready to bring all who care about the next generation of Detroiters to the table to create a shared vision and take collective action to change this trajectory.”

Already, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation, and the Skillman Foundation have signed on as supporters, with the Early Childhood Funders Collaborative and the Southeast Michigan Early Childhood Funders Collaborative providing additional resources. Given all that the city of Detroit has been through in the last few years, the prospect of it becoming a national model for early childhood education by 2020 is exciting and one more reason to keep eyes on the Motor City.—Anne Eigeman