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The positive signs, and challenges ahead, for early education in Detroit and Michigan

Kids at Matrix Head Start

Laneshia Talley with kids at Matrix Head Start

A child at Matrix Head Start

Kids at Matrix Head Start

Kids at Matrix Head Start

Across Michigan, experts say quality options for early childhood education are sparse. In Detroit, 28,000 children who need early childhood care go without because of lack of available facilities, according to research by IFF
 
Where facilities do exist, the quality of programming can vary greatly. Of the 8,417 providers statewide, fewer than 2 percent have earned the state's top quality rating of five stars. 
 
The numbers seem bleak, but early childhood education is poised for a turnaround. Efforts are underway from child development experts, policy advocates, philanthropists, and community organizations to boost quality and access to early childhood education.
 
Creating a blueprint for success

Sack race at Matrix Head Start

An important step in that turnaround may be the unprecedented commitment and partnership from two of major foundations. 

Through a five year, $20 million commitment to establish a comprehensive early learning strategy in Detroit, The Kresge Foundation and W. K. Kellogg Foundation created Hope Starts Here, which will work to bind health, human services, and early education for children from birth to age eight. 
 
With the help of hundreds of Detroit stakeholders, Hope Starts Here is crafting a strategic action plan based on recommendations from a variety of sectors that will be unveiled this summer, according to Khalilah Burt Gaston, program officer at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. 
 
"We know we need to increase access, create more centers and more seats, and develop highly-skilled teachers, which is also the case nationally," Gaston says. "There will be recommendations around facilities. How do we leverage resources for centers to be equipped to help welcome children into their spaces? How do we co-locate more family services in schools so they become more like community hubs? How do we identify more spaces and places for children to be welcome in the city?" 
 
Lessons learned through a 2006 Grand Rapids initiative can be applied to boost early education in Detroit, in Flint, and in other Michigan cities. 
 
"In Grand Rapids, there were a lot of similarities to what Detroit is trying to address now," says Wendy Jackson, managing director for the Detroit Program at The Kresge Foundation. "Like how to get fundamental things in place, how to make sure we have the right data systems, how to fund a comprehensive approach.  … It's interesting to see, across the state, an increasing emphasis in investing early and investing now."

This will be crucial to counteract neglect at the state level for early education.

Matt Gillard, president and CEO of Michigan's Children"Michigan, at least over the last decade has disinvested in the childcare system," says Matt Gillard, president and CEO of Michigan's Children. Subsidy, reimbursement, and eligibility rates are among the lowest in the country.
 
Stakeholders pushing for increased childcare subsidy investment are hopeful, but acknowledge the long road ahead. "Rate increases are being proposed, and we are hopeful in the final budget passed by legislature is a step in the right direction," says Gillard. "But we have not addressed eligibility in any meaningful way."
 
Michigan's initial income eligibility limit for childcare subsidy support is the "lowest in the nation in dollar terms," according to a 2016 report prepared for the Michigan Department of Education's Office of Great Start. The document recommends that Michigan should set eligibility based on annually-adjusted poverty level or state median income figures.
 
Providers are beginning to benefit from increased access to grants and loans to improve programming and facility quality, with organizations such as First Children's Finance and IFF helping providers invest in their businesses. 
 
"Discussions are happening now about how do you buy down the interest on the loan so it's accessible to more providers, including home-based programs," says Denise Smith, vice president for early learning, Excellent Schools Detroit. "This is promising."
 
Talent and workforce

Childcare provider Laneshia Talley with kids at Matrix Head Start

 
Creative efforts are also underway to improve status and pay for childcare workers, historically among the lowest-paid workers in Michigan's economy. Scholarships, available through T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood, of the Michigan Association for the Education of Young Children, boost the number of highly qualified educators.
 
According to director Kelsey Laird, T.E.A.C.H. has supported 7,951 early childhood educators pursuing a Child Development Associate credential (CDA), associate, or bachelor's degree in early childhood education since the program's inception in 2001. Over 1,200 of those scholarship recipients were awarded in fiscal year 2016 alone.
 
Innovative programs would allow students who want to pursue a career in early childhood education to enroll in community college while still in high school. "This could allow a student to earn CDA by the time they graduate from high school," says Smith. 
 
As a member of the Hope Starts Here stewardship board, Smith has recommended blending available state and federal dollars to equalize pay for early childhood teachers. 
 
In line with improved Head Start performance standards, a recent $1.5 million Head Start Innovation Fund grant was awarded to nine Detroit-area Head Start grantees specifically to support teacher recruitment, retention, and parent engagement. The first comprehensive revision since the federal program began in 1975 focuses on data-driven performance, and could potentially boost quality across the childcare spectrum.
 
"The Head Start performance standards are more stringent, focusing on the best quality and the highest standards," says Matrix Human Services Early Head Start/CCP director Kathleen Coakley. "What's really nice is that it's a good way to model your whole childcare center. We will start seeing some spillover to the rest in how they are operating."
 
Holistic approach
 
But no matter how good an early childhood center is, quality learning also needs to take place in the home.

To support the idea of the parent as a child's first teacher, county-based Great Start Collaboratives builds clear, simple systems to direct parents to existing programs. Great Start Collaborative-Wayne supports county libraries in offering vetted, consistent resources, some in multiple languages, to help parents recognize what children need during their first year.
 
"Literacy with young children is not rocket science, it is simple science," says Kathleen Alessandro, executive director for Everybody Ready, the administrative and fiscal infrastructure for Great Start Collaborative-Wayne. She is referring to the 30 million word gap in disadvantaged toddlers, a disparity that can be overcome, according to research.
 
"[Children] don't need Baby Einstein or digital platforms," says Alessandro. "They need adults to look into their eyes to talk and sing and read, and do them no harm." 
 
Great Start Wayne tells parents about the Great Start to Quality system, and provides sharable content to faith leaders, media, police, and everyone outside the early childhood education community so people will understand the value of nurturing the growing child, and share what they've learned during everyday interactions. 
 
"We have a calendar of everything you can do with a child in Wayne County for little or no cost," Alessandro says. "We level the field and democratize the information." 
Wendy Lewis Jackson, managing director for the Detroit program at The Kresge Foundation
As efforts mount and optimism grows, advocates share best-case scenarios. 

"I put it this way: what is our country's next moonshot? How will we be bold and audacious as a nation when it comes to families with young children?" says Jackson. 
 
Early investment is critical to keep Detroit moving forward, agrees Gaston. 
 
"Research shows 95 percent of brain development takes place by five years old," she says. "Invest heavily in children when their brains are developing at the highest rate so we have talent now and in the future."

This article is part the series "Early Education Matters" on the importance of facilities and programming in early childhood education. It is made possible with funding from IFF. Read more articles in the series here

All photos, except of Matt Gillard and Wendy Jackson, by Sean Work

Read more articles by Claire Charlton.

Claire Charlton is a Metro Detroit freelance writer. Connect with her on FacebookInstagram, or Twitter.
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