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In Grand Rapids, a tale of two kids

Like any mother, Grand Rapids resident Courtney Malone wants the best for her children.

That's why she worries about her 3-year-old son, Bryson, who is on a waiting list for the state's Great Start Readiness Program. She fears he could be losing ground by missing out on the all-day preschool.

"It's very disappointing," said Malone, 38.

"Great Start is just such a great program. When kids go to kindergarten, they have to know so much. They really need a program to prepare them for kindergarten."

Perhaps that's why another Grand Rapids resident, Zakia Cottle, feels so fortunate her daughter, Journey, 4, was admitted to the free preschool program for low- and moderate-income families. Lack of state funding means thousands of children like Bryson are not so lucky.

"I was so happy she got in," said Cottle, 40. "I think it does get them prepared. It starts that foundation. It's a good start."

But there is evidence beyond the instincts of two mothers that this program makes a difference in the lives of children.

A study released earlier this year by Michigan's Department of Education concluded the program helps students avoid repeating grades and graduate on time.

Conducted by the Highscope Educational Research Foundation, the study found that 57 percent of those enrolled in the program graduated from high school compared to 43 percent in a group not in the program.

It was based on a sample of 338 pre-schoolers enrolled in the program in 1995 and 258 students of the same age and background who did not attend the program.

These graduation rate differences were largely due to the preschool program's effect on grade retention, according to the study. By 12th grade, only 37 percent of those who attended the preschool program had repeated a grade while 49 percent of those who did not attend the program did.

Joanne Kelty, director of early childhood for Grand Rapids Public Schools, said scores of needy students are left on waiting lists for the program each year. She said the task of deciding which students get in – largely based on family income – is a difficult one for teachers.

"It's very tough. My teachers agonize over it. They know the kids need it," Kelty said.

Kelty said 548 students were admitted the fall to the program for either full- or half-time sessions. Another 48 are to be admitted after Oct. 1.

But Kelty said each year about 150 students are denied entry for lack of space, with the likelihood that many more needy and qualified families never apply.

"There are many more unserved that don't know about the program," she said.

That is certainly not the case for Courtney Malone, and her husband, Wendell, 42.

Their two older children, Kyla, 6, and Jonathan, 5, were admitted to the program. The Malones are convinced it launched them on the path to educational success.

"They were both completely prepared for kindergarten. When the kids go to kindergarten, they have to know so much more. They really need a program to prepare them," Courtney Malone said.

The Malones believe they were bumped from a potential slot for Bryson when Courtney went from part- to full-time hours in her job as a social worker. Wendell is a surveyor.

And so now they wait for a slot to open.

"I am still hopeful," Courtney Malone said.

For Zakia Cottle, the preschool program marks a beginning for Journey that she hopes leads to college. Cottle, a manicurist, has about a year-and-a-half of college, while her husband, Mark, 42, who works for Manpower, got as far as his junior year in college.

"I just think that college gives you a universal language. It's the start of a great adulthood. With a college degree you are able to compete."

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