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One woman marshals a pre-K army

Maybe she just didn’t have enough experience to know better. Maybe she had a financial incentive. Whatever the reason, Natalie Merryman succeeded where a lot of school districts failed.

As a first-year preschool teacher in the Great Start Readiness Program, Merryman was able to find the kind of at-risk 4-year-olds who are often forgotten in the state’s preschool program.

That program is supposed to provide free, high-quality preschool for the state’s 4-year-olds who live in low- and moderate-income households. (See who qualifies.) But two out of every five kids who meet the eligibility guidelines are not enrolled in Great Start or any other state or federally funded preschool program.

One reason is money – the state doesn’t provide enough cash for all children who qualify. But another reason is the difficulty of getting word about the program to low-income families.

Merryman picks up the story from there.

"I was hired (by Kenowa Hills Public Schools) in January (2012)," Merryman recalls. "I was told this was going to be a part-time position. I asked if I could find more students, could this be a full-time position? They said ‘Absolutely!’"

Merryman’s strategies were unorthodox, but effective. She placed a notice on Craigslist advertising free preschool. She made fliers and posted them in laundromats. She dragged her husband on weekends to mobile home parks, knocking on doors, looking for 4-year-olds.

"My poor husband ... we’d go door-to-door, and here I am with this little bag with fliers and candy canes," Merryman recalled.

"I went to Salvation Armies, (Women, Infants and Children) offices, churches, libraries, women’s clinics. I put ads in school newsletters, so siblings of current students would be made aware of it. We did it in English and Spanish, and we offered a $5 gift card to Meijer for referrals from current students.

"It was so lame," Merryman said, "but I just so wanted to help. I’m no stranger to hard work. My own kids went through these programs and they’re awesome."

In most school districts, transportation isn’t provided for GSRP students, putting another hurdle in the way of families hoping their children can attend preschool. When one family said they couldn’t drive their child to GSRP, Merryman served as chauffeur. When she made a home visit to another family and noticed they didn’t have a sofa, she helped them locate a good used one.

"I know that these kids need to be served," Merryman said.

"The data totally supports the fact that kids who have early intervention are going to succeed and do better in school," Merryman said. "Not to mention the fact that play is so important. The pure interaction is so important. There are single children who may not have playmates. A lot of that is lost when you have parents who are struggling to pay the bills."

Merryman didn’t find enough new students for a second class, but all the extra kids she did find were eventually placed in the existing classroom.

"Our efforts would have been better if it were over the summer," she said. "It’s about advertisement. And it’s got to be free and say ‘Free Preschool’ in really big letters. That’s what catches their eye."

Merryman isn't teaching GSRP this year. Instead, she took a job teaching kindergarten, because it pays more. She’d love to run a GSRP classroom again, if the state funded it at a level that would cover her bills.

"Those of us who choose this job, we’re here for a reason," Merryman said. "Honestly, to be able to help people help themselves is amazing."

Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011 after having won more than 40 national and state journalism awards since he joined the Detroit News in 1995. French has a long track record of uncovering emerging issues and changing the public policy debate through his work. In 2006, he foretold the coming crisis in the auto industry in a special report detailing how worker health-care costs threatened to bankrupt General Motors.

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