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Original article URL: http://bridgemi.com/2012/09/30000-children-lose-out-on-pre-k-classes/

Talent & education

Michigan’s forgotten 4-year-olds:

30,000 children lose out on pre-K classes

Landen Ford wants to go to preschool. The 4-year-old Flushing boy with a crew cut and a toothy grin thought he’d learn the alphabet and his sounds, and maybe make some friends, just like his big brother Logan did last year. But instead of learning to write his name, Landen is learning an early lesson in budgets and bureaucracy.

“The teacher called and said ‘I’m sorry, Landen didn’t get in,’” said Janelle Ford, mother of the two boys. “Logan learned so much – he loved it. Now there are no spots for Landen. It’s not fair.”

Almost 30,000 Michigan 4-year-olds who qualify for free preschool are not in classrooms, because of inadequate state funding, logistical hurdles and inconsistent coordination of services.

On average, those children will be less prepared than their peers for kindergarten. They’ll get lower test scores throughout school, be held back a grade more often and drop out at a higher rate. Once they leave school, they’ll earn less money in their careers.

Michigan taxpayers shoulder a hefty bill for those forgotten 4-year-olds, too, starting with higher costs for special education and repeated grades, and ending with higher long-term prison and welfare costs.

Once among the leaders in state-funded preschool, Michigan is getting lapped by states that believe high-quality preschool today means an economic boom in 20 years.

“If we’re serious about becoming a business-friendly state, we need to put our funds at the front end,” said Paula Cunningham, president and CEO of Capitol National Bank in Lansing and a former president of Lansing Community College. “It’s a huge investment. But research says it’s money well-spent.”

State didn’t know how many went unserved

Brothers Landen and Logan Ford have been treated quite differently by Michigan's public pre-K program. Logan was able to attend public classes, but his younger brother, Landen, was kept out this year due to Michigan's limited funding for pre-school. (courtesy photo)

Though Michigan has offered free half-day preschool for its neediest children for decades, the state had never fully calculated how many eligible children weren’t being served. An in-depth data analysis by Bridge Magazine revealed gaping holes in the taxpayer-funded system meant to provide an educational leg up for 4-year-olds in moderate- to low-income families. That analysis, plus dozens of interviews with state and national early childhood experts, economists, legislators, business and nonprofit leaders, superintendents, teachers and families uncovered sobering facts about Michigan’s preschool program:

* Two out of every five children (40 percent) who qualify for the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) are not enrolled in GSRP or any other state or federally funded preschool. In some counties, less than half are in classrooms.

* Long waiting lists for preschool exist in some school districts, while other districts don’t fully use the slots they’ve been given by the state.

* Disparities exist across the state, and sometimes within a school district, in whether the programs are full-day or half-day.

* Children who can’t attend preschool because transportation isn’t provided – even when buses carrying elementary school kids travel past their homes heading to the same school building.

* Communities where at-risk children can’t attend free preschool because their school district doesn’t offer the program.

* At-risk children are stuck on wait lists for the federally funded Head Start preschool, when they could attend similar GSRP classrooms.

“We all talk about early childhood, but we do nothing about it,” Michigan state schools Superintendent Mike Flanagan said bluntly. “We ought to blame the system first and foremost. This involves a system reform and stopping the yelling and screaming about who is stealing whose money.”

Research shows big impact for pre-K classes
Route to the number

There are approximately 120,000 4-year-olds in Michigan.

An estimated 45,000 of these 4-year-olds are from middle- and upper-income families (living in households with income greater than 300 percent of the federal poverty level). Most of those children are in private preschool programs paid for by parents.

That leaves 75,000 4-year-olds living in what Michigan currently considers to be “low-income” households below 300 percent of the federal poverty line. Two main public preschool programs are available for some of these 4-year-olds — the federally funded Head Start program and the state-funded Great Start (GSRP) program.

Head Start serves those from the lowest income families. These households are below the federal poverty line ($23,050 annual income or less for a family of four people). Head Start serves an estimated 19,500 4-year-olds across the state.

Special education and other specialized programs serve an estimated 3,200 4-year-olds in households below 300 percent of the federal poverty level.

That leaves an estimated 52,300 4-year-olds in households with income below 300 percent of the federal poverty level. These 4-year-olds are eligible for the state GSRP program. Just more than 23,000 were in GSRP in the 2011-12 school year. That leaves more than 29,000 who were eligible, but not enrolled.

The 23,000 Michigan children lucky enough to get seats in the state preschool program reap benefits for years. A recent study followed 500 kids from pre-K through high school and found that kids from similar economic backgrounds did better throughout their academic careers if they attended GSRP as 4-year-olds.

That study, conducted by HighScope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti and presented to the State Board of Education in June, found that children enrolled in GSRP across the state were more prepared for kindergarten. Four years after preschool, those kids were still doing better, scoring higher on MEAP tests. Significantly fewer were held back a grade during their academic careers (37 percent, compared to 49 percent of children with the same economic background who didn’t attend preschool). More graduated from high school on time than their non-preschool peers (57 percent to 43 percent).

For minorities, the graduation gap was even wider – 59 percent for pre-K participants compared to 37 percent for families with no formal early childhood education.

Another study conducted by HighScope found that the impact of high-quality preschool was still being felt 40 years later, with participants more likely to hold jobs, make more money in those jobs, and have committed fewer crimes.

Kelly Hart doesn’t need statistics to know the impact the states’ free preschool can have on children. Her daughter Kamrynn was born prematurely. She didn’t talk until she was 2 ½ years old. “She had trouble keeping up with her milestones,” Kelly recalls. “She was really far behind.”

After a year in a GSRP classroom in Flushing, Kamrynn was a different girl. “She can write her name,” Kelly boasted. “She knows her address and my cell phone number.

“Without the program, I would be scared about her going into kindergarten. Now I’m confident she’ll keep up.”

Teachers in Bay City Public Schools tell similar stories, after the district recently reinstated its GSRP classrooms. The district dropped its state-funded preschool about five years ago because the money the state provided for the program didn’t cover costs. “The math didn’t add up,” said district curriculum director Adair Aumock. “It wasn’t sustainable.” The district opened a GSRP classroom again in the fall of 2010 as an experiment. When students who’d enrolled in preschool entered kindergarten classes the following September, teachers were stunned.

“Not only were students more academically prepared and school-ready, but parent involvement has gone up,” Aumock said. “We’re engaging parents who may not have had a lot of success in education themselves.”

Just as important to the district, “we’ve seen a larger number of our kindergarten students choosing to stay at their home schools, even in this era of school of choice,” Aumock said.

Though the district is supplementing the cost of the program above the $3,400 per slot provided by the state, it’s turned out to be “good budget-wise for the district.”

Now Bay City has the opposite problem – running a popular program for which there are more deserving students than seats.

“This year, we’re funded for 88 slots,” Aumock said. “We had 150 qualifying applications. This is the hardest time, saying to parents ‘We’d love to help you, our heart goes out to you, but all we can do is put you on a waiting list.’”

Districts strain to deal with funding gaps

GSRP works. But it only works for those enrolled. And 40 percent of Michigan 4-year-olds deemed at-risk by current eligibility guidelines are not in classrooms of GSRP or any other state or federal program.

“Obviously, there’s unmet need,” said Washtenaw County ISD Superintendent Scott Menzel. “Too many children in need don’t have access to a quality preschool experience.”

But Michigan’s state-funded preschool enrollment fell considerably over the past decade. Michigan was one of only five states to record enrollment drops from 2002 to 2011, with 4,410 fewer 4-year-olds in classrooms, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER).

Michigan’s enrollment dropped even though the number of families living in poverty rose (51 percent of births in Michigan last year were covered by Medicaid); more should qualify for the program.

A big part of the drop in enrollment can be traced back to state funding.

Unlike K-12 funding, which pays schools based on how many students are enrolled, under GSRP the state basically tells school districts how many preschool students they can enroll in class, with the expectation that each student in a half-day class costs $3,400.

The allotment is lower than the cost of the program for most districts, so districts that choose to have a program must take money away from other programs to pay for it.

“The amount of money we get is absolutely ludicrous,” said Margie Murphy, who coordinates GSRP classes for school districts within the Van Buren County Intermediate School District in Southwest Michigan. “You have to hire a certified teacher with an extra certification in early childhood, and an assistant teacher who is supposed to have an associate’s degree. You have transportation and you have to make sure classroom supplies are adequate. It’s ridiculous. You can’t do it.”

The state gave public and private providers $3,300 per student for half-day GSRP classes in 2000; 12 years later, the state pays $3,400. When inflation is taken into account, that’s the equivalent of a 23 percent cut in funding.

The actual cost of a half-day program is between $4,200 and $5,200, according to estimates from the Michigan Department of Education and NIEER.

Some districts have dropped the program altogether, such as Flint Beecher. Many have dropped transportation and shrunk the number of weeks classes are offered, such as Grand Rapids. Others have lowered preschool teacher salaries, even though the state mandates higher academic credentials than those required for grade-school teachers. “The assistant teachers have to have an associate’s degree, and those people are hard to come by at $6, $7, $8 an hour,” the only salary districts can afford, says Murphy.

Because of the low state funding and caps on enrollment, school officials have little incentive to beat the bushes for more at-risk 4-year-olds.

“What do you do if you have this waiting list?” asks Joanne Elkin, at Macomb County Intermediate School District. “If you have 100 slots and you have 100 kids and 50 on a waiting list, you’re not going to go out and find the next 100.”

The result is a preschool program that pays large dividends to those fortunate to hear about it and snag a spot before classes are filled, but which also leaves almost 30,000 — the equivalent of the student body of Central Michigan University — in an academic hole that many will never dig out of.

The state spent $109 million this year on the Great Start program, with the goal of offering early childhood education to low-income families who may not otherwise be able to afford it. But spending would have to more than double to cover the cost of educating all 4-year-olds who qualify.

Menzel said funding priorities, such as Adequate Yearly Progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law, has “driven investment to higher (grades),” when a higher return can be found in the years before kindergarten when a child’s brain is developing rapidly.

In the meantime, Michigan spends almost $100 million per year for the 13,000-plus students who repeat kindergarten. Yet HighScope studies show that access to high-quality preschool increases kindergarten preparedness and lowers grade retention.

Though the business argument for preschool is well-established, “frankly, I don’t think we as a state have had a real commitment to it,” says Judy Samelson, CEO of the Early Childhood Investment Corp. “It’s incomprehensible we haven’t solved it.”

Business leaders in the state are beginning to look at early childhood education less as a social program and more as a long-term investment in the economic health of the state. Many have signed on to efforts to increase state funding for GSRP in next year’s budget, including Capitol National’s Cunningham. “We can’t get to where we want to go as a state without a greater investment in early childhood education,” says Cunningham. “It’s not just a moral issue – it’s an economic issue.”

Peas in a pod, but with different futures?

For now, the Ford family in Flushing is scraping together money to pay for a twice-weekly preschool program for Landen, a less-intensive and far more expensive program than was available for Logan last year.

When Logan comes home from kindergarten, he and Landen often dress up and play different characters from Batman. The brothers are best friends, with so much in common, but with one difference that could make one successful, and leave one struggling.

Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011, after winning more than 40 state and national journalism awards at The Detroit News. See more stories by him here.

13 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. Curtis Baker

    In the late-1960’s I started kindergarten when I was 5-3/4 years old as did a couple of my siblings, several of my friends No pre-school, no DK. We all turned out fine. Her son will be fine. Stop talking about fair and unfair. Some people’s kids have autism, learning disabilities, some are blind, or can’t hear. What’s fair about that?

    Do you want to give your son a good start in education….start reading to him, or keep reading to him if you have started and find some good on-line resources.

    Tons of home-schooled kids do very well each year. They have a network of on-line resources. Start there and be your own advocate and stop expecting the government to pay for everything. Perhaps that is one of the reasons the schools are running out of money – we are starting tens of thousands of kids into public schools a year earlier than in years past.

  2. B Jones

    My niece was told that she was accepted to a pre-K program the week before school started and then on the first day of school told that there had been a mistake made and that she would be placed on a waiting list due to their error. During a recent open house, she went by the classroom where she was initially enrolled and was so happy and surprised to see her name tag still on the classboard and the teacher gave her the biggest hug and said we are waiting for room to be made for you and will save your name tag! Sad, but true and so kind of the teacher. The teacher said it broke her heart because she saw how excited this 4-year old was about starting school – especially after also being let down last year when the age changed from 3 to 4 for the headstart program!!! Someone needs to look at the damage that is being done a little closer…but when it is not affecting their own families, it’s easy to not feel the pain of these children and families. So, instead of having her child start school, my sister has to come up with childcare funds that she really doesn’t have and shouldn’t need for a school aged child!

  3. SBR

    I have a grandson who was born 3 months premature, under 2 lbs. By age 3 he knew the alphabet, could count to 20 and could spell his name. Why? Because his parents TAUGHT him, and READ to him….DAILY. I will be blunt: we as a state need to stop coddling lazy parents who only want their 3 and 4 year olds in school paid for by taxpayers, so they don’t have to pay child care. Yes, there are learning disabilities in some youngsters, and I am all for doing what we can to get them caught up the best we can. However, it seems that many parents are shirking their responsibilites and expecting government to make up for it.

    1. missilynn`

      I agree….Kindergarten isn;t even mandatory !…Parents need to Step to the plate and begin teaching their children at home!…..AND quit looking for free daycare out of the early pre k programs!

    2. Jennifer

      The only problem with that thought process is that you don’t realize that there are so many uneducated parents out there that have absolutely no idea how to teach their children those basic skills. They most likely come from very low income families that did not graduate from high school and had children at a very young age with little to no support. Do you really want those children to follow that same path? My opinion is no. Let’s get them the education and assistance that their parents didn’t have.

  4. Scott K

    If you cancel the program altogether then NO 4 year old will lose out. They will all begin kindergarten the next year on time. The public indoctrination of children into socialism, communism and islamic takeover will just have to wait another year.

  5. Becca

    My son is in a GSRP program in Leelanau County. I work, I go to school, and I pay taxes! I want the best education for my son. I agree, that education starts at home. However, social interaction is critical to learning and to the growth and development of children. Yes, there are lazy people out there, there are single moms (I am one), that holds both positions in the house (mother and father). My son doesn’t have his dad in his life at his fathers choice. I work two jobs, I am going to school, and I am raising my son. I am on state assistance and without that little extra help, I wouldn’t be able to work or go to school, because I wouldn’t be able to afford daycare. I work three days a week and go to school 3 days a week. I was paying $32.00 a day in daycare. So, times that by 5 days a week. Now, that my son is in the GSRP program, I can finally start paying off any back bill I have from daycare. I wouldn’t be getting back on my feet after my divorce if it wasn’t for the small assistance I get. I pay taxes therefore my son will get the best education my tax paying dollars can get. However, I do know some people who abuse the system–I’ve reported them. Nothing happened! I wish it wasn’t as easy as it is to get assistance, but those kids that are getting assistance, deserve a better life than sitting at home and their parents not paying attention to them. At school they can feel safe, happy, have food to eat, and be kids.

    I have a friend who is a teacher out in Baltimore. It breaks her heart at thankgiving break and Christmas break, because she has students that become extremely upset because they have to go home. As she put it, “they dont know when they will eat next.” I am glad Michigan has programs in place to assist kids that don’t have responsible parents or a stable environment. Would you rather have the kids suffer? Or grow up in foster care, eventually hating the world and becoming a criminal? I would rather they have an education and food, than complain about the system giving hand outs.

    I have watched parents on state assistance go to the store with their food stamps, spend it all on pop, go out to the parking lot, dump out the bottles, return them, and use the deposit money for booze and cigarettes! It makes me sick!

    As soon as I graduate or find a better job, I want off assistance. It’s embarrassing and an invasion of privacy, but it is a small price to pay to ensure my son gets the nutrition and education he needs to succeed. I never saw myself needing assistance, but life happens, things happen that people don’t have control over. Not everyone has the same situation. Some are lazy and some never thought it would get this way and are doing everything possible to change it.

    I wish I wasn’t where I am, but I’m taking the steps to change it. I hope and wish that other will do the same instead of “milking” the system…

  6. Jon Blakey

    Quality preschool programs are one of the most effective educational programs available fro impoverished children. As the article stated, we have 40 years+ of research demonstrating that they pay for themselves and more, over the long term. It would be nice if every child could grow up in a nice middle class home where the parents are attentive, not working two jobs, not dealing with the adverse psychological effects of poverty, have good educations, and have good parenting skills and instincts. That is not reality for thousands of children in Michigan. So, you can pay now or pay later, and you will pay later. There is no viable debate that can negate that. Oh, and there are positive outcomes for parents of enrolled preschoolers also. They become more engaged in their schools and learn more effective parenting skills.

    This lack of funding is another instance of politicians saying one thing and doing the opposite (de-funding the program through attrition). In fact, they have even passed off administration of the program to regional intermediate school districts who can charge up to 10% in administrative charges to districts and charter schools. That will mean even fewer children attending preschool programs. I find that to be a deplorable decision on the part of this administration. The non-rational world is alive and well in Michigan.

  7. Kelli Paquet

    As a an owner of a private preschool; I agree that more money needs to be put into preschool, but it needs to be all or nothing. I feel all facilities should be required to carry Great Start Readiness Programs, if not, it will create an even greater gap in the issues schools currently have in diversity. This will also create more spots for students in the preschools. It moreover lessens the number of students being put on a waiting list and all children no matter if they come from a wealthy background, middle class or lower class will have a chance to a good start in school. Preschools offer early learning and the start of basic skills, such as; getting along in a group situation, sharing, learning about other cultures and communities, and the feeling of belonging. Children will become a productive member of society, if given the chance. Parents need to be educated and involved in their child’s education. Providing information will help parents be able to help their child succeed in life. I agree that all children need preschool weather it is private or state funded. The more money we can put into early childhood programs will help in generations to come.

  8. Jeffrey L Salisbury

    I’m still trying to figure out who and what is REALLY behind all this Pre-K push.
    Is there a disparity in the quality and even existence of such programs from school district to school district …wealthy to poor, from community to community…?
    Yes, just as there is for any number of other academic, co-curricular and extra-curricular and even community education programming.
    But…
    There’s no evidence to show any long-term academic benefits – on the contrary, studies show the opposite.
    There’s no evidence to show there’s any legislative support to provide additional funds for such programs.
    There’s no evidence to show local parents or local or even state-wide parent groups are clamoring for such programs.
    There’s no evidence to show a surplus of qualified early-childhood educators available for such programs.
    There’s no evidence to show any experienced classroom educators or educational researchers with actual classroom experience demanding such programs.
    In “All The President’s Men” – the author’s then-anonymous news source advised, “Follow the money…” and I am thinking that may be good advice when it comes to the drumbeat clamoring for Pre-Kindergarten programming in Michigan.

    1. Ron French

      Hi Jeffrey, thanks for this comment, which you’ve posted on six stories. Let me try to answer your concerns.
      – there’s no evidence of long-term benefits. Actually, if you read this story and numerous other stories in this package, you’ll see links to two studies that indicate academic benefits that last throughout K-12 and in to careers. I recommend anyone wondering about the impact of state dollars on preschool read those studies, and then make their own decision.
      – there’s no evidence of legislative support. Actually, Sen. Roger Kahn has proposed adding $140 million to next year’s budget for more preschool, and the governor is a big proponent. While it’s anyone’s guess whether this money will survive the budget process, it would be inaccurate to say there isn’t momentum gathering for preschool.
      – there’s no evidence that local parents or statewide parent groups are clamoring for such programs. The Center for Michigan has been holding community conversations across the state this year to engage the public in education, and preschool is one of the top efforts supported by those in attendance. have I seen statewide polls? No, that would be a good idea.
      – there’s no evidence to show a surplus of qualified early childhood educators available for such programs. I don’t have figures for what you refer to as early childhood educators, but I do know Michigan produces a surplus of teachers, many of whom now leave the state for jobs or are forced to take positions not in their field of study. Great Start teachers must have a teaching certification and an additional early childhood endorsement. I’d suggest a shortage of teachers would not be a problem, nor should that be the point: i’m not sure i see the downside of more college-degree, middle-class jobs.
      – no evidence of experienced classroom educators or eductational researchers with actual classroom experience demanding such a program. Now here Jeffrey I am confused. People of the kind you reference are quoted in almost all of the stories in this package, from teachers to principals to school administrators.
      And finally, you suggest that there’s some nefarious reason behind Bridge writing stories about early childhood. Michigan invests less than a number of other states in preschool; Michigan has a lower percentage of its low and moderate-income kids in preschool; Studies show kids in preschool do better throughout their academic careers. We think that means pretty clearly that Michigan is likely to pay a price for its disinvestment in preschool.
      The argument to be made is that Michigan is choosing to invest its money in other ways that some will argue will pay off more in the end. You can make a pitch that the return on investment isn’t worth it. You can argue that paying for preschool for at-risk children is a step too far (even though we already pay for preschool for more than 23,000). That’s a debate worth having. But it doesn’t serve a worthwhile conversation on how best to move our state forward to label ideas we disagree with as somehow tainted by some unknown source of money.

  9. Jeff Salisbury

    REALLY want to know what’s behind this Pre-K drumbeat? Just might reveal there’s a not-so-silent point of view to Bridge magazine too.

    This may help. http://www.hoover.org/publications/defining-ideas/article/5499

    In large urban and suburban areas, large employers are the biggest proponents of universal PreK; not for the Education, but for the child care. Productivity is lost when employees are off the job or distracted because of child care issues. Some days, ironically kids are absent because the usual child care arrangement fell through, and older sibling has to stay home to babysit.

    And yes actually there is a clamoring for it from (mostly) mothers who are working low wage jobs, raising children with low wage fathers or no fathers at all. Covering the cost of daycare is a major concern. If you listen you hear it every election cycle as we’re in just now.

    Obviously there are other issues playing into this problem, but the clamor for PreK all comes down to babysitting, not educating.

    The campaigns for universal PreK push the Education aspect, but this is all about daycare.

    The author of the above article has this one mostly correct.

  10. Sharon Quinlan

    As a former Head Start Teacher and Education Coordinator, I advanced through the ladder of success provided by the Head Start Performance Standards. I began as a parent volunteer while my preschool children were enrolled in Head Start. My potential was recognized. I was first hired as a Recruiter, encouraging parents to enroll their children in a highly successful Preschool Education Program. I be…came a Home Visitor and a Classroom Assistant, while participating in college level courses; benefiting from observation, feedback, and goal setting; and improving my skills as an Early Childhood Educator. I attained a Child Development Associate Credential, which, at that time, qualified me to become an Early Childhood Teacher. Head Start recognized Parents as the First and Best Educators of young children. Parents, who were motivated to becoming involved, were offered support and educational opportunities to provide a path to success for themselves and their children. My colleagues, former Head Start parents, were so focused and motivated to provide high-quality preschool education. We shared our ideas and methods to provide an exceptional educational experience for the children and families we served. We were invested in our careers and performance.

    When the Michigan Department of Education School Readiness Program, (now named as the Great Start Readiness Program), was funded by the State to provide preschool education for all eligible 4-year-olds, Head Start teachers were immediately disqualified, unless ‘grandfathered’ in. The Michigan Education Association (MEA) lobbied for teachers with certification to be the only qualified Early Childhood Education teachers. Certified teachers in the State were experiencing a high rate of unemployment at that time. The cost of providing preschool education immediately increased, as these ‘certified teachers’ expected a much higher rate of pay than the CDA qualified teachers.

    As Education Coordinator for the Baraga-Houghton-Keweenaw Child Development Board, I was involved in the hiring and training these MEA represented teachers. Let me tell you, I interviewed the most unqualified and dispassionate teachers. We were forced to hire the ‘best of the worst.” I was the trainer and educator of these teachers. They had no knowledge of Early Childhood Development, they vehemently questioned the benefit of Parent Involvement, and they did not understand developmentally appropriate hands-on learning. Eventually, with intense ongoing training, observation, feedback, and goal-setting, some of these teachers became excellent preschool educators. I take professional and personal credit for educating them in Developmentally Appropriate Practices.

    I am posting this in response to the news release of 30,000 children not being included in the MI Dept of Ed Preschool Programs. The State needs to look at the cost of hiring certified teachers who are by and large unqualified to teach in preschool programs. The State needs to look at the results of high-quality preschool education programs that include parents as necessary partners and even educators to promote children’s success. Head Start and programs that implement High/Scope standards and training of teachers are documented as successful. There are other successful Early Childhood curriculums that include hands-on learning, one-on-one support, and parent involvement. These venues are very availabe as excellent examples of success.

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