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How one Michigan community is benefiting from preschool expansion

Elizabeth Lamb can sing her ABC’s and can write her name. The 4-year-old can complete a 100-piece puzzle when, a few months ago, she was still playing with 8-piece, big block puzzles.

Elizabeth spends her days in a classroom with other 4-year-olds at Indian Lake Elementary in Vicksburg, a few miles south of Kalamazoo. It’s a classroom that would be empty if not for a major increase in Michigan’s state-funded preschool program.

That preschool expansion – the nation’s largest - is expected by its proponents to pay big dividends for these children and others in decades to come, in higher high school and college graduation rates.

Elizabeth’s mother, Nicole Craig, doesn’t have to wait that long to see the benefits.

“Oh my gosh, it’s made so much difference,” Craig said. “She gets to stay there with her friends and eat three meals. And it’s way more (of a benefit) than day care. It gets them seriously ready for kindergarten.”

Getting children ready to learn for kindergarten is the goal in Great Start Readiness Program classrooms across the state. An influx of $130 million for the state-funded preschool program for low- and moderate-income families has allowed the program to expand across the state. There is an additional 14,000 kids are in the program this school year than before the expansion began, and a growing share of them are in full-day – programs, rather than the half-day program that was the standard before the expansion. (That’s in addition to an added 7,000 last year).

Here in Vicksburg Community Schools, where one-in-three students is eligible for a free or reduced-priced lunch, it’s easy to see the difference expansion has made. Two years ago, there was one GSRP classroom in one of the school district’s three elementary schools. That classroom hosted preschoolers for a half-day program in the morning and another set of 4-year-olds in the afternoon.

Vicksburg went from 32 children in half-day programs four days a week, to 48 children in full-day programs five days a week.

“We had to go out on a limb and assume we could fill the classrooms,” said Vicksburg Superintendent Charles Glaes. It turned out that the district had the opposite problem – not enough seats. “We could have filled another class,” Glaes said.

The full-day classes offer “a deeper, richer experience” for the preschoolers, said Tonya Nash, GSRP supervisor for the district.

“Going into this, there were many parents who were a little hesitant to all of a sudden have their babies go into a full-day program,” Nash said. “We were apprehensive as well. But so far, we’ve not had any complaints. It has been a really great opportunity for the families and the 4-year-olds.

“I truly believe these little ones will be ready (for kindergarten),” Nash said.

Vicksburg also expanded its program from four days a week to five days. “If you think about it, I’ve gone from 12 hours a week of instruction time to 30 hours,” said Alyssa Thompson, GSRP lead teacher at Indian Lake Elementary, as students transitioned from half to full day schedules.

“They’re adjusting to a structured schedule faster. The parents are very enthused.”

Parents are already making reservations for the fall of 2015.

“It’s clear it pays dividends for the state,” said Vicksburg Superintendent Glaes. “You have to step back and take a long-range perspective, but that is the job of the legislature and the governor to do just that.”

And Elizabeth? Besides the extra learning time, she also has access to an on-site speech therapist helping her work on enunciation.

“I had a son who didn’t know his ABCs till he was 6, and Elizabeth knows them at 4,” said her mother. “She’s learning how to speak better, which is awesome. There are so many wonderful things about this program.”

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