Guest commentary: In Detroit, put the value of early learning to work for all children

By Katherine Foran/Excellent Schools Detroit

“We are consumed by issues of remediation,” Dan Varner, CEO of Excellent Schools Detroit, observed. We struggle with costly “fixes,” targeting academic failure, high dropout rates, unemployment, low wages, higher substance abuse and incarceration rates, poorer health outcomes and diminished opportunities that too often spill over into subsequent generations, as well.

So what’s the solution?

Sometimes, it is better to show than tell.

That’s why Excellent Schools Detroit recently hosted a day-long educational field trip for local media and other partners interested in the educational success of all Detroit children. The group visited three early learning settings -- a private home in Brightmoor; Focus:HOPE’s community-based setting with its array of connected support services and a corporate-sponsored center serving Compuware and Quicken Loan employees.

There is growing public understanding of the clear benefits early learning provides to children, families and communities. It’s time for a deeper discussion about access and quality. For that, it’s important to know how early learning programs operate: “To be able to see, to touch, to smell, to hear how it is they are working with children,” as Denise Smith, Excellent Schools Detroit’s vice president for early childhood, said.

We know what the successful ingredients for quality early learning include qualified teachers, proven curriculum and best practices and parents and community involved as full partners.

An important first step is helping parents and community understand what quality and excellence look like and how these are measured in infant through pre-K settings.

Universal participation in the Great Start to Quality tiered rating system is a good place to start, giving parents and providers alike consistent measures of early learning quality. Just as we do for K-12 programs, we have to be able to assess and compare program offerings and outcomes.

Currently, fewer than 400 of Detroit’s 1,261 licensed centers participate in this state rating system, with only 154 reporting a four- or five-star rating. These numbers do not take into account the estimated majority of providers who are unlicensed or operating under the radar completely.

How can we move those providers toward greater quality and accountability without the participation and support of the licensed system? We have to continue to advocate for and provide affordable access to early childhood development training, credentialing and education for all staff that rewards participation through better salaries and resources to improve their centers.

As the early learning tour made its way through the west side from Brightmoor to Campus Martius, we saw clearly the staggering disparities in children’s experiences from day one. More than half of children in Detroit now live in poverty. And we know that quality learning in the critical first years of development can help mitigate those inequities.

Yet, as noted in “How are the Children?” a recently released report by the Great Start Collaborative Wayne County, “… in Wayne County, access to these quality learning opportunities still continue[s] to be compromised by cost, geographic location, availability/slots available, transportation, funding and budget cuts.”

Raising children who are ready to learn and thrive in school and in life requires an extensive investment and commitment that starts with community awareness and support.

The good news is that quality learning and nurturing can come in all sizes, whether in Mama Zina’s backyard and basement setting; in the Head Start classrooms at Focus:HOPE; or in the dazzling Compuware/Bright Horizons center overlooking Campus Martius, a benefit prized by employees who value the investment. When the conversation focuses on bad or good, rich or poor parenting, instead of the quality of children’s early experiences, we miss the bigger picture: How we care for ALL of our children determines the society we have.

“Other countries and other cities in this country have figured it out,” Varner said. “We can do it here in Detroit and in Michigan, too. We can be the model for setting our children on a trajectory for success in college, career and life, by giving them a good start with a quality early learning experience. Let’s be the ones to start this conversation.”

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission.

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