Why Early Education Matters: A Q&A with the woman leading Detroit's charge to put children first

A native Detroiter, Denise Smith has traveled widely to learn the ways early education can impact the life of a child, a family, and a community. Rooted in the positive outcomes she's seen in places like Washington D.C., California, and Italy, she's spent the past 28 years helping to provide, design, and build quality early childcare and education options for children across Michigan, regardless of their zip code. 

In 2019, Smith was named the first Implementation Director for Hope Starts Here Detroit Early Childhood Partnership (HSH). In this role, she's responsible to carry out a framework developed with input from over 18,000 Detroit residents through a year-long community engagement process to identify priorities for the city’s early childhood development system. Supported by a $50 million investment from The Kresge Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and collaborating with many community partners, HSH prioritizes six imperatives from equitable access to health care for mothers to safe and inspiring environments for children to efficient navigation of resources for families. 

Smith applauds Governor Whitmer and her team and Michigan's legislature for increasing access for families to affordable, quality child care and education options. But, Michigan’s $1.4 billion investment to expand child care opportunities is just a first step, and more are needed, she says. In light of the challenges Southeast Michigan families and childcare providers are facing, we asked Smith about the larger ecosystem of early childcare and education, why it matters for families, and why this crisis happening across communities is an important issue for everyone.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.


Model D: What draws you to the work of early childhood education (ECE), and as a native Detroiter, how does it feel to be leading efforts toward the success of children here?

Denise Smith: 
Detroit is my home, and as a result, I have seen the disparity in services and resources.  I've seen the advantages other communities a few miles north, and elsewhere, have. I've traveled to amazing programs and facilities in places like California and thought, why don’t we have that? Because we’re in Detroit? That’s always plagued me. And now, knowing folks here trust me to be able to deliver on a promise to make Detroit a city that puts young children and families first—it means so much. I have the opportunity to work in my hometown, and in the field about which I’m truly passionate. I know this work is what I’ve been destined to do. It wasn’t what I intended while matriculating at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. My eyes were set on a TV broadcasting career. In hindsight, I can see how each step and path traveled has led to where I am now. I'm immensely grateful to knowingly step into that purpose.

Model D: When you think about early childcare and education, what does this entail?

DS: It's not narrow. It's much more complex, and for that reason, many people defer to an aspect of it, which is typically the education piece. They look at preschool as being it. But [early childcare and education] looks at the development of a human being from before they're born all the way to eight years old. The care of that baby in utero is equally critical to what happens after that baby is born. How that brain develops is going to determine what that child can take in once they're outside of their mom. So, if we're not thinking about the health, nutrition, and well-being of mom while she's pregnant, then we're already setting ourselves up for the challenges that mom, that family, and certainly that child are going to have.

Those early years are when children are being given the tools, and developing the skills they need to be able to apply them and be tested against them after eight years old. My specialization is infants and toddlers and their developmental stages because to me, that's the most dynamic period. Ninety percent of our brain architecture is determined by the time we're five. So the experiences that should be afforded to children in that very critical space need to be rich, including the words they hear, and the things they're able to see. They need to be given opportunities and not be limited. Early childhood is about building those foundational skills that human beings need to be successful in more formal school, and life. For me, the most appropriate approach to learning is Reggio Emilia because it lets the child lead.

Model D: You mentioned the Reggio Emilia Approach, which you were able to see in action during a trip to Italy, where it originated. What is it about this approach that compels you, and how might you see that playing out in Detroit?

DS: In Reggio Emilia, the education and general community appreciate and respect children and families. What I most took away from my experience was how every person in the community knew about or had engaged with the program – which is in line with its origins and history. Reggio was started at the end of World War II when the area was decimated by bombings. The community came together to talk about how to rebuild, and the men wanted to build entertainment houses because everyone was feeling sad and low. But the women said, we’re going to build schools so our future can have a chance, and they got their way. Community members helped build the structures. Parents were essentially the first educators. It was communal from its origin.

Reggio is one of my favorite approaches because it builds on every aspect of a child’s life—and also because it has demonstrated results. During my time there, when I visited third and fourth-grade classrooms, the children were doing the work of high schoolers, and they were clearly independent, critical thinkers. I have to attribute much of this to how their brains were allowed to develop. The best way I can explain it is with one of the examples I saw in Italy.

There was a group of four children. One of them was taking gymnastics, and so she started doing somersaults. The other kids imitated and wanted to learn more. The teacher saw this as an invitation to learn, and introduced a new medium—clay—asking them, how do we share what you’re learning about gymnastics with our classmates? So the children started by creating these 3D figures, but they quickly realized this was only showing the end of the somersault. So the kids themselves began to work collaboratively to solve this problem – they said, well, we could mark out the stages of the somersault by drawing them and numbering them. So now you're introducing numeracy in this whole thing. They presented all this to their classmates – not the teachers – classmates, and then schoolmates, and the children gave them feedback.

Now the whole school is thinking about acrobatics, and they go into the community to study at the library because the community is all a part of learning too, which is equally fascinating. And eventually, they have a whole circus of characters – but nowhere to put them. So they ask their parents to build a stage, which they did. Now you've got everybody engaged in learning that could have ended in a day, but in fact, took weeks, and kept everyone engaged. There are so many possibilities, and it can be so less burdensome if we think about including everybody in the learning, and just building off the curiosity of children. They're always curious.

Model D: Michigan's childcare and early education systems are experiencing hardships that are exacerbated by COVID-19 but largely a result of long-term disinvestment. In Detroit, 22,000 children, you said, are still waiting for a spot for quality education and care, down from 44,000 at the height of the pandemic. Advocates say the recent historical investments the industry has received only begin to address the needs. How do you think we got here?

DS: Early childhood – early childhood educators, specifically—have historically been undervalued which has resulted in underinvestment. Legislators believe the responsibility of care is that of the family, the mom, especially. Parents are very instrumental at this time, because children are within that nucleus of a family, and of community, which is the approach we've taken to this work, to make sure we're thinking about that family holistically because that's where a child is in that ecosystem. But, legislators haven't taking into account that the average household requires two incomes to manage well.

Secondly, the early childhood field is comprised largely of women, and women of color, and so, it hasn’t been viewed as a critical field to our economy. But they are a critical employer too, and the folks working there need to be paid a living wage so they can contribute to the economy, and support their families, as well. The wages for most early childhood educators, especially during the return to work out of COVID-19, were less than what folks were making at Home Depot and other places. We lost a ton of talent so people could merely survive.

Model D: So at a time when there are heightened challenges in early childcare and education, what's encouraging you in your work?

DS: If I had to mark success at this point, it would be that people are working together in a way they've not done before. We're building an ecosystem that is truly responsive to the needs of families, but it's also very much more coordinated than we've ever been. There are still miles to go, but I have to applaud, and honestly be very pleased, that we're now coming together without feeling as competitive as I think, historically, folks have been. When I talk about collaboration, one of the more exciting elements for me is around health and early education, because these two systems have been separate, and running alongside each other, bumping into each other occasionally, but not working in a way that's that is necessary for the family. 

I was on the stewardship board here before this role, and I've always been excited about how we are building out this vision to make sure Detroit is a city that puts young children and families first. I come to this work to lead with all humility, but also with a passion that is stoked by seeing the needs of our children, and knowing that regardless of their zip code of birth, they can be as brilliant as any others. This framework, because of its comprehensive structure, allows us to truly look at all that early childhood education and care entails. 

Model D: In order to become a more sustainable, holistic, and responsive system, how should communities, and our elected officials and candidates in Michigan, be thinking differently about early childcare and education? 
 
ECE is foundational to future learning, opportunities, and one’s ability to meaningfully contribute to our society and economy. The real-life impact that a quality early childhood education has on every aspect of all our lives – even if we’re not parents or grandparents becomes apparent when you compare children who’ve been afforded high-quality early experiences and those who have not. The adults who end up working in every aspect of our society—their early starts shape how they show up in those roles. This is a current reality for some corporations who can’t find employees to do the work they need—either because those employees didn’t have good starts themselves, or because they have children of their own and can’t find reliable, high-quality care for those kids. This makes a huge difference in the very fabric of our lives. Everybody needs it. It is the first best step and most sound investment in our collective future.


This entry is part of our Early Education Matters series, exploring the state of early education and childhood care in our region. Through the generous support of the Southeast Michigan Early Childhood Funders Collaborative (SEMI ECFC), we'll be reporting on what parents and providers are experiencing right now, what’s working and what’s not, and who is uncovering solutions.

Read more articles by Sarah Williams.

Sarah Williams is a freelance writer and photojournalist based in metro Detroit. Her work focuses on individuals and nonprofit organizations investing in their communities through arts and culture, holistic healthcare, education and neighborhood revitalization. Follow her on Instagram @sarahwilliamstoryteller