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Talent & education

Michigan’s forgotten 4-year-olds:

Why the lights never come on in some preschool classrooms

Gobles is a small, rural, almost exclusively white community on the west side of the state.

Beecher is an old blue-collar suburb of Flint, racially mixed and overwhelmingly poor.

But the children of Gobles and Beecher do share a characteristic — one that neither wants: They can’t attend free, state-funded preschool.

Across the state, there are 118 school districts (20 percent of Michigan’s districts) that don’t offer public pre-K classes. The state doesn’t require school districts to take part in its Great Start Readiness Program. In fact, in the short term at least, some have decided it’s economically smart not to.

Many schools claim they lose money on GSRP for each 4-year-old enrolled because the state grant doesn’t cover full costs. And with so many mandatory expenses in K-12, it’s tempting to cut a voluntary program such as GSRP.

The result: Last year, local school districts returned $2.1 million in GSRP funding to the state – enough to fund 615 half-day pre-K slots.

Some districts shut down their programs, and others contracted. Some transitioned their programs into full-day classes, serving half as many students as they did when they operated two half-day classes in the same room – a move that can save districts cash.

But where does that leave the almost 30,000 4-year-olds who qualify for free preschool, but aren’t in classrooms?

Lights turned off at Beecher

Beecher Community School District shuttered its GSRP classrooms this fall. The majority of children, however, qualify for the federally funded Head Start program, which offers preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, along with additional social services, explains Annette Scott, Beecher’s early childhood director.

Still, Scott admits that the GSRP classrooms might still be open if there was more money.

“After you pay salaries, there’s not a lot left over for setting up the classroom,” Scott said. “I end up supplementing (the program).”

The district has had as many as 66 children in Great Start. Last year, it was 34.

“We do foot recruitment, we go out on foot, and knock on doors, leave fliers,” Scott said. “We’ve done radio advertisements, we do bulk mailings. But we have a very transient population. We’ll find someone moving in a month later and doesn’t know about the program.

“A lot of people don’t understand that early childhood is a big deal,” Scott added. “They don’t realize that early childhood is available to them. I’m not quite sure how to get that message out. I’m not sure what else we could do.”

Turned away in Gobles

Gobles has the opposite problem – the district has families knocking on its door asking for the preschool program. But because Gobles didn’t have a program in the past, it was shut out of funding this year.

“We have had a Head Start program here, we rent them a room here,” said Gobles Elementary Principal Terry Breen. “Last year, they decided to go to full day, so instead of 36 students for a half day, they had 18. So we had parents say, ‘Boy, it’s hard to find day care.’ There definitely is a need in the area as the economy has gotten worse and it’s gotten harder to find day care, let alone quality preschool.”

It’s painfully obvious which kindergarteners were enrolled in preschool and which weren’t: “You can tell they’ve had exposure to academic stuff, the routine of going to school, getting along with peers, compared to other students,” Breen said.

“We still have some who come to us who the parent or guardian say have never interacted with other kids. It takes a while until those kids adjust.”

What happens to the kids in Gobles who wanted to go to preschool this year?

Breen replied, “I think they’re just stuck.”

Ron French was a reporter at The Detroit News for 15 years before helping launch Bridge in 2011. He can be reached at . See more stories by him here.

4 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. Joe

    It’s not money. It’s priorities. The majority of residents would rather spend money on prosecuting marijuana users and unnecessary wars than focus on preschool development. Money could be the issue in a poor African country, but not in the US where our bloated military and law enforcement budgets supported by selfish and fearful residents produces more of the same.

  2. 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.
    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.

  3. 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.

    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 link/article has this one mostly correct.

  4. Alexis C.

    Anyone who doesn’t think preschool is a benefit clearly doesn’t have small children. I’m a stay-at-home mom with one in developmental kindergarten (young 5s) and one in preschool — both programs we pay for ourselves, because they aren’t offered free here. My sons LOVE going to school. My younger son just started last month but asks every day if he gets to go to school — he was in tears this weekend when I told him school was closed! My oldest is benefiting tremendously from the social interaction and the routine.

    I don’t believe in pushing academics at an inappropriately early age, but preschool is about way more than academics. I’m grateful that we can afford to send our kids so they’ll be more prepared socially and emotionally for school, and I feel bad for children who will start out behind because they didn’t have that opportunity.

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