Big and small: sharing early education wisdom from rural to urban communities

At community playgroup in his rural Michigan town, four-year-old Hunter Woods is building necessary skills for school readiness.

"Hunter is learning sharing, using words—rather than fists or crying—empathy, and kindness," says his grandmother Beth Woods. "He's gained confidence and independence. … I think playgroup has really helped Hunter [become] ready to start preschool."

For the past two years, Hunter would not have had playgroup if not for the efforts of concerned community members who made it possible. Yet he's no different from his city-dwelling peers. Urban or rural, many communities don't have sufficient early childhood education programs for every child.

In light of mounting research on the value of early stimulation and social-emotional readiness, and the growing emphasis on third grade reading mastery, there has never been a greater need for a comprehensive approach to facilities and programming to ensure access to quality early learning experiences for all.

"It's so important to identify the commonality of needs in every community and find ways to make it work for children across Michigan, not just in a particular community," says Kirby Burkholder, eastern region vice president and executive director for IFF, a nonprofit early childhood care and education developer-consultant. "The big power of our work is looking for common threads and exchanging ideas."

Onsite childcare and neighborhood centers

Kids enrolled in Central Lake Early Experiences and Opportunities for Children and Families

In the absence of comprehensive policy, stakeholders are taking bold steps to create early educational experiences. Some are building facilities; others are leveraging existing spaces.

A childcare needs analysis by Great Start Collaborative Traverse Bay uncovered a service gap of 541 seats in a population of 1,200 children.

"If they aren't in licensed care, where are they? What is the impact of the lack of childcare on young families trying to make their way?" says Great Start coordinator Mary Manner. "Using that data, we developed a childcare policy agenda to encourage our elected officials to be thinking more seriously about the need for quality care for infants and toddlers."

Manner and her colleagues are encouraging local businesses to explore onsite or sponsored childcare centers based on evidence that investment in family-forward practices has a positive effect on a company's bottom line.

"As more and more middle and upper management are having their own children, they are realizing that somebody might have to stay home," Manner says. "More and more are dual-income, and they can't find care they trust and are confident in for their children. Grandma is still 50-something, so she's likely working. And nothing against grandma, but is she the best choice for childcare?"

The Great Start Collaborative also explored immediate action to help families prepare children for success in school and beyond.

Surveyed families said they wanted neighborhood centers with meaningful programming. The result is 5toOne, a model established in 2014 to support best practices and research-based programs and serve every family in Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Benzie, Kalkaska, and Antrim Counties.

"As 5toONE, we bring infrastructure to offer playgroups and other programs to parents," Manner says. Seven centers have been established, with three more in the pipeline.

The pilot center, an existing facility at Lake Ann United Methodist Church, launched a twice-monthly parent/child group for Lake Ann, a village of 268 residents. It's the playgroup Hunter and Beth Woods attend.

"We have 25 children who come each time with their parents," says program liaison Barbara Keelan. "We have family night gatherings, and back-to-school programs with free haircuts and dental screenings. School readiness is a big deal to us."

Snacktime picnic at Lake Ann United Methodist Church

Facility quality was important for this group. "It's huge to have it be bright and cheery and as welcoming as we can make it," says Keelan.

Each month, Keelan shares data with church administration that demonstrates the playgroup has attracted renewed community interest in the church, an unintended, yet welcome result. "We didn't know where this would lead, but it had to be a good thing. It's quite lovely," she says. "We are all winners, when it comes right down to it."

Together, Lake Ann community members are planning a 10,000-square foot all-age appropriate outdoor naturescape on the church grounds. A music wall, mud kitchen, worm hotel, hammocks, and dramatic play area will surround a pergola with log seats for gathering.

Grants, donations, and fundraisers will pay for the project, which will open in summer, 2019.

Meeting needs in small towns

Map of the small Michigan towns Thompsonville, Lake Ann, and Central Lake

Thompsonville is a remote village in Benzie County with no laundry or grocery—and no licensed childcare. A small library, a 5toONE Neighborhood Center within the elementary school, and the local WIC clinic at the village fire hall are the only educational and cultural resources for families here.

But residents desperately want a community center, and Thompsonville citizens are making it happen.

"A community center," says Manner, "represents access to health and wellness resources, social services, continuing education, licensed childcare, and year-round cultural and recreation opportunities for this rural, underserved population."

Parents formed a leadership team and received a $10,000 seed grant from Traverse City Rotary Charities to help pay for an IFF feasibility study.
"The community center will serve 11 townships and villages that are clustered around Thompsonville," says Manner.

This marks IFF's first opportunity to work on this type of rural community project. "We're excited and honored to be part of IFF's learning opportunity, and to help this community work toward its goal," Manner says.

Even the smallest of towns want access to childcare facilities. Central Lake is a waterfront community in Antrim County with a kindergarten class of 26 this year. The village averages just 10 births annually.

"It's very rural, with high levels of poverty, and transportation challenges," says Alison Metiva, director of community relations with Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation. "There is a strong sense of community in Central Lake, with families who care for and support one another and their kids."

With one licensed childcare center in town, most of Central Lake's infants and toddlers don't have access to high quality early education—until now.

Through a $14 million permanent endowment made in 2013 to the Grand Traverse Community Foundation, the community is augmenting an existing 10-year preschool program with opportunities for younger children and their families.

Funding for the initiatives and the endowment came from Cleo M. Purdy, a former Central Lake resident and teacher.
A child at a CLEO playgroup
Based on proven early childhood program models, and input from parents and stakeholders, the Foundation established Central Lake Early Experiences and Opportunities for Children and Families, or CLEO.

With the goal of reaching every family, CLEO will focus on the wellbeing of young children in Central Lake through aligned educational and support services, professional development, and data use for quality improvement, according to Purdy's instructions.

Measurable, comprehensive early programming improvement is one achievement since CLEO's inception.

"In years past, the programming experience followed the funder," says Metiva. Federal, state and private funding meant three disparate programs. "Now we have an opportunity to say there is a better way to do this. Leaders sit around the table once a month, and teachers have common professional development opportunities, not separated by funder. It's more cohesive and student outcomes are better, with a drastic increase in students prepared for kindergarten."

CLEO's outside perspective has unearthed basic questions that separately funded programs were unable to see independently.

"With Head Start or [Great Start Readiness Program], those funders say 'Meet these requirements,' but we don't have that behind us," says Metiva. "All we have is this donor who entrusted a major gift. It's our privilege and a responsibility to step back out of the fray and ask how is it best for kids and families?"

Michigan cities may look different, but faced with the same challenges, they're all working toward change.

"Facilities quality, workforce development, making ends meet—these issues lift up in different places with different themes," says IFF's Burkholder. "This reveals that it's a statewide issue, not just a Detroit or rural issue. This understanding allows for innovation and tweaking, but if we don't share it, we won't benefit."

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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