Closing the achievement gap: There's a new early-childhood program in Southeast Fort Wayne

Initiating a new program from the ground up can be challenging in the best of circumstances. Add to that task a pandemic and a recession, and you can see what Kelli Packnett has dealt with since April when she was hired by Bridge of Grace Compassionate Ministries Center to lead its foray into early-childhood programming.

For the last eight years, the center’s focus on academics has included programming for students in grades 1-12. Now it is expanding to include early childhood, reaching children ages 0-5 as a way of helping to close the achievement gap in a child’s early years.

With nearly five years as a teacher and instructional coach with Fort Wayne Community Schools and several more years as a teacher in Oklahoma, Packnett has seen firsthand how difficult it is for children to achieve success when they start school at a tremendous deficit.

“K-12 educators are struggling to meet the needs of our children in this country, and they will not be able to address this gap on their own,” Packnett says. “It starts in early childhood (0-5), and high-quality early education is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty and closing the achievement gap.”

The center’s early-childhood approach will be holistic, says Packnett. The initiative will focus on partnerships, research advocacy, parent education, and learning opportunities for adult students seeking to become early-education professionals. This will eventually lead to Bridge of Grace building a high-quality early-care and learning center.

Javier Mondragon, the founder and CEO of Bridge of Grace, says he hopes to build the early-care center within the next two to three years.
“This is one of the most exciting initiatives I’ve been involved in,” he adds.

Exciting, but unnerving times

The coronavirus and economic recession have caused problems with providers Packnett has reached out to since April, she says.

“I talked with one provider who normally has 12 students, and they’re down to four,” she says. “Another usually has 20, and she’s down to 10. It’s a worrisome time with so many parents working out of the home or having lost a job.”

Packnett’s advocacy is providing resources and writing grants for child-care providers, who she says are already overtaxed professionally and personally. Sometimes her job is as basic as assisting a provider find cleaning supplies—hot commodities during the pandemic’s initial surge.
Supply shortages could happen again as the upcoming flu season collides with the pandemic.

Not a desert, but help needed

Analysis from the Center for American Progress shows there is a troubling lack of adequate early-child-care capacity in urban communities, particularly for people of color. The trend was distressing to parents and advocates pre-COVID-19, and given the current state of the economy, the fear is that things will only get worse.

Fort Wayne’s Southeast side has not followed that trend. Early Learning Indiana’s database shows that several of the Southeast’s census tracts are rated either as “hub” or “moderate capacity”—good signs.

“Most of the Southeast side of Fort Wayne is actually not considered a child-care desert, even with FWCS closed,” writes Ashley Pino, director of marketing and communications for United Way of Allen County, in an email exchange. “There is a large number of home providers in that area that families can enroll their child in, along with several ministries and centers, as well.”

United Way is investing in “quality early-childhood education” as a crucial step toward children entering kindergarten ready to learn. Pino points to Focus on 5, Allen County’s early-childhood coalition, as a resource for parents and providers.

“Their Facebook page (www.facebook.com/allencountyfocuson5) is a great place for families to get information about the different resources available and tips on parenting, child health and development, and many other things related to early childhood,” Pino writes.

The Child Care Resource Network is another new Child Care Resource and Referral Agency (CCR&R) for Allen County. It can be accessed at https://www.thechildcareresourcenetwork.org/

This story originally ran in Fort Wayne Ink Spot 
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