By Catherine Ferland
Holt Journal Staff Reporter
For Neal Cronkite — a teacher in Holt — and his wife, sending their two sons to Midway Early Learning Center was a carefully calculated, but well-made choice.
“After touring the centers, we made a spreadsheet and color-coded it with pros and cons — yes, we are those people,” he said with a smile. After comparing costs, scheduling, education level of the teachers and other factors, they made their choice.
“He is learning to solve problems with other kids, that he has to wait his turn, and to share,” Cronkite said, while discussing the increased socialization that he’s seen in his three-year-old son, Ian. “He also works everyday to learn new things like colors, shapes, letters, and the weather. Ian knows and talks with teachers that he’s never had because all of the staff gets to know all of the kids. This sense of community is huge for us.”
According to the Perry Preschool Study, a longitudinal study that followed 123 impoverished, high-risk preschoolers over the course of 40 years, children who attend early childhood learning centers are more likely hold a job, commit fewer crimes, and are more likely to have graduated from high school than adults who did not have preschool.
But how do those numbers add up today? Do underprivileged preschoolers have the same access to these beneficial programs?
The short answer? Yes.
Heather Crandall, the director of the Midway Early Learning Center said that about 50 percent of the students at Midway are part of the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP), a state-funded program that provides financial aid to families who qualify.
“In this area, with this building, I think we’re doing our part,” Crandall said. “As a whole, I’m not sure. I would love to see more districts do this because the benefits for children and their families is huge, so I would love to see more districts come on.”
Midway Early Learning Center costs around $2,510 monthly for five days of curriculum based preschool for a four-year-old . For a year, that amounts to almost $30,000. Midway also has a lot of other programming options for half-days or childcare services without the formal curriculum, all which have different costs.
In order to qualify for the GSRP, families must fall under one of the risk factors and provide proper documentation to support the claim. The risk factors include financial need or falling below the poverty line, a diagnosed disability of the child or a sibling, severe or challenging behavior, having a primary language other than English, low education attainment of the parent, abuse or neglect, or an environmental risk.
Environmental risks include parent loss, having a teen parent, sibling issues, homelessness, living in a high-risk neighborhood or prenatal or postnatal exposure to a toxic substance.
Colleen Yax-Grabow is the GSRP teacher at Midway, who also handles all of the GSRP applications for the facility. She said that while 90 percent of the GSRP students must be below 250 percent of the federal poverty level, the other 10 percent are made up of students with special needs that have an Individualized Education Program (IEP), a program set up for students that have special needs, regardless of family income.
“I can only speak for how I feel about that, but yes I believe that we do service the children,” she said. “We provide them opportunities to prepare them for kindergarten and give them the resources that they need to help them be successful and life-long learners.”
“I think that’s where the state is showing that they value it,” Crandall said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re low income or high with these GSRP programs, because it is geared toward children who may not have the opportunities to do that.”
Holt resident Carmen Quinn sent her son Carson to Midway last year. Although the family has two incomes, GSRP still proved to be a great help in getting Carson high-quality preschool.
“Yes I would have been able to send him to Midway, however the preschool without GSRP was tuition based,” Quinn said. “I don’t recall the cost. It was a bit pricey, but we could have managed.”
Quinn said that she found the application online and found it be relatively simple, but there was a lot of paperwork to hand in after acceptance. But that was a small price to pay for their experience at Midway.
“I noticed it was a lot more focused on his learning his letters a lot quicker and a lot more math type stuff,” Quinn said. “His teacher was awesome, he had one of the only male teachers, and he really did well with the kids. He was able to get them to learn through legos for the math stuff and he would come home with a lot of new rhymes.”
Quinn said that she felt that Carson was a lot more prepared for kindergarten than other students who did not attend a center like Midway.
“If they don’t do a preschool program and learn those things ahead of time it puts them that far behind,” she said.
Early childhood education most recently came to the table of national conversation in 2013 when President Obama addressed the need for more funding in his State of the Union address. Since then, the state and federal governments have been doing more to increase access and funding to all young learners, through grants and the encouragement of state and local investments.
Jennifer McCaffrey is an early childhood consultant who works with several GSRP preschools around Ingham County to coach GSRP teachers. While there are around 72 GSRP preschools around Ingham County, McCaffrey is only in charge of a portion of them.
The GSRP of Ingham County is currently serving 1,500 eligible students. But over 3,000 parents applied for the funding last year.
“I think that in this area we probably could use a little bit more [funding],” McCaffrey said. “We definitely could use plenty towards our three-year-olds because if they’re not Head Start ready, they aren’t serviced.”
Head Start is another government funded program that brings economically disadvantaged children into preschool and early childhood care programs.
Some states have public preschool which allow students to attend for free, in the same way that they would kindergarten or any other grade.
McCaffrey said that she would love to see a program like that in Michigan.
“We’re working to have them in the actual elementary schools so they will be part of that K-12 system,” she said, talking about the strides that Ingham county has already taken to move towards that. “I think it’s doable.”
But until greater strides can be made to provide early childhood education for all children in Ingham county, McCaffrey encourages more parents to try applying.
“I just think it’s a really great program and I think there are a lot of kids who are taking advantage of it and there are a lot of parents who probably don’t realize that they might qualify,” she said. “Because it is a pretty generous scale on how much you can make and parents who are two income families that are still struggling to pay their bills often will qualify and they don’t realize that they would. I think it’s helping a lot of people in a lot of places.
“Midway itself is thriving,” said David Hornak, the superintendent of the Holt School District. “It’s sought after. We have waiting lists at certain levels over there. If we could we would be opening additional infant rooms.”
Hornak said that having early childhood education, on top of the other opportunities throughout a student’s time at the Holt School district, like college classes, provides the district the unique opportunity to see the individual and collective growth of the students.
“It is our hope that if we have a child that enrolls in our programming at six weeks old, we’re having a positive influence on that preparation, so when they enter kindergarten they’re well prepared for the rest of the school career,” he said.