By Ron French/Bridge Magazine
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.”
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.