What Michigan can learn from Chicago about growing early childhood education

Not long ago, early childhood education meant glorified babysitting—a place to go when mom and dad worked. Infants, toddlers, and preschoolers would often go to grandma's, a church, or another facility not designed for the education or care of young children, staffed by non-credentialed carers who followed their own rules for raising children. 

Michigan, while slow to do so, is now recognizing the critical importance of early childhood education. By establishing the Office of Great Start within the Michigan Department of Education, stakeholders have committed to focusing resources on the needs of children from pre-birth through age eight, especially those classified as "at-risk."

This problem is particularly acute in urban centers with a demonstrated need for affordable early childhood education. That takes time, says Joe Neri, CEO of IFF, a Midwest-based nonprofit developer, consultant and lender. 
Joe Neri, CEO of IFF
"It won't go from zero to sixty in a short period of time, and it's difficult to predict," he says. "With time comes new policy and new research that impacts early childhood education. It's an important lens to understand when we talk about how to change the system in Detroit and other cities."

As an organization, IFF has worked with advocates, legislators, and other interested groups in Chicago since the late 1980s. Back then, according to Neri, the city looked like Detroit does today from an early childhood perspective—still moving away from dank church basements in disinvested communities toward best practices in programming and quality facilities. 

While Michigan's cities and populations have unique needs, actionable lessons can be taken from Chicago's progress.

The impact of policy

From the mid-1990s in Illinois, attention on early childhood education was fueled by welfare reform and the push to get parents into work and job training. This increased the need for reliable childcare. 

Federally funded Head Start, a decades-old program for three- to five-year old children, wasn't a solution because it provided only half-day care and didn't include infants and toddlers. To hold a job as a single parent and raise children of multiple ages without reliable child care is an incredible burden to carry—drop off a baby at one home, get preschoolers to a center, drop off older kids at school, get to work (hopefully on time), then pick everyone up at the end of the day. 

"Chicago and Illinois started looking at it and plans shifted to include a continuum of care that included infants and toddlers," says Neri. Facilities could then care for children from birth to five, and have after-school programs. "It's an example of how policy changes can affect the system. More dollars went into subsidized child care nationally."

At the time of this early childhood model shift, IFF's lent funds to nonprofits broadly to create early childhood education centers, helping agencies renovate and work toward ownership of facilities.

A new community model

From the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, Chicago's populations shifted. "There was significant depopulation in traditionally African American neighborhoods, and huge increases in Latinos in older suburban cities that had no early childhood education infrastructure," says Neri. "This is not unlike what's happening in inner-ring suburbs of Detroit. These areas need centers that can provide for the needs of the new populations."

Understanding that childcare facilities require large amounts of capital campaign funding and working with the State of Illinois, IFF committed $2 million toward a tax-exempt bond for the construction of child care centers in low-income communities in Chicago and other cities. 

Included in the bond-financing provision were quality improvement standards for administrators and managers, financial management, and infant/toddler curricula.

Built on observed best practices in the US and Europe, and addressing the needs of all members of the community, the family resource center model evolved. 

"This was directly addressing the challenges we were facing at the time," says Neri. "We built seven centers around the state at the best practice level at the time. All could accommodate infant and toddler programs, three- to five-year old programs and after school, as well as adult training services. All focused on full day/full year programming."

Toddlers at Erie Neighborhood House

As a family resource center in the working class West Town neighborhood of Chicago, Erie Neighborhood House provides early childhood education. But they also broadly support their entire community through mental health services, adult literacy and ESL instruction, workforce development, citizen and immigration support, and access to affordable housing. Founded as a settlement house in 1870, Erie's most recent history includes the 1985 expansion from two classrooms serving 40 children to 12 classrooms with the capacity to serve 180 two- to five-year olds. 

Important to the Erie program's success is highly educated teachers—all have degrees and state certification to teach early language learners, and 85 percent of staff are bilingual to better serve Erie's Ukrainian and Latino populations. "This is definitely important for communicating with parents," says Erie director of childcare Louis Falk. "Erie does a great job when people walk in the door. Our intake staff can speak their language." 

Federal funding through Head Start and Early Head Start combined with state dollars and community partnerships through Chicago Public Schools made it possible for Erie to hire quality staff, though recent state cuts mean fewer families qualify for funding. 

"This is a challenge for all of the early childhood education and child care communities in Chicago," Falk says.

Where do we stand in Michigan?
Alicia Guevara Warren, project director for Kids Count
Increasing access to early childhood education and care is now a priority for many voices in Michigan. In some important ways, we are on the right track, according to Alicia Guevara Warren, project director for Kids Count at the Michigan League for Public Policy. 

State investment in the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) for 4-year olds, Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Grants, and Great Start to Quality are positive measures already in place. Increased access to developmentally appropriate birth to three-year old programs, subsidy payments that make sense for the child care business model, and higher wages for early childhood teachers would potentially strengthen school readiness for children most in need.

More financial support for GSRP has helped some providers increase quality fairly quickly. In Wayne County this year, there are 14,200 GSRP slots—a state funding allocation based on a half-day of student instruction—serving 7,559 students in 448 licensed classrooms, with degreed teachers and Child Development Associate credentialed teachers, according to Lena Montgomery, manager of early childhood and English language services at Wayne Regional Education Service Agency (Wayne RESA). 

Because legislation mandates that 30 percent of GSRP slots must be allocated to community-based providers, Wayne RESA has helped bring funding, proven curriculum, and degreed teachers to 63 programs, up from just seven programs five years ago.

"That shows that growth is possible in a very short period of time," says Montgomery.

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.

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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