Ensuring equitable early childhood education in Battle Creek’s communities of color

Pastor Ivan Lee with Harvest Learning Center children in 2019.

Finding childcare hasn’t always been an easy task for Denisha Dillard. A Battle Creek, Mich. resident and single mom to five children, Denisha has, at times, struggled to find daycare for her youngest daughter while her older kids were in school and she was away at work. 

Denisha has not been alone in experiencing this challenge. In previous years, many parents throughout Battle Creek have experienced challenges in attempting to access to care in their neighborhoods. Luckily, local organizations working to improve access to quality early care and education programs have successfully worked to remove many barriers to care. 

In January 2016, the Harvest Learning Center opened with support from both the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Michigan’s Great Start Readiness Program, a state-funded preschool program for 4-year-old vulnerable children. Harvest Learning Center offers full-day preschool for 4-year-olds four days a week, with transportation and wraparound childcare services available for families who need them. Since opening, it has earned a 5-star rating from the state of Michigan. 

“Transportation can be a challenge for me, so I regularly take the bus,” said Denisha. “While I was on the bus, I heard of New Harvest from Mr. G, the bus driver. He suggested that I check out New Harvest if I needed childcare support. My daughter was enrolled shortly after. New Harvest has been a huge help.” 

Graduates of Harvest Learning Center.

In addition to childcare, Denisha also found that New Harvest took a well-rounded approach to early childhood education. Each child followed a daily routine that included lunch, naptime, and regular learning activities. The routine prepared young children for school even before they entered the classroom. It also reinforced stability. Families knew they could lean on New Harvest as a safe place where children could learn, play and grow. 

New Harvest and many local organizations collaborate to provide early learning resources and childcare for families throughout Battle Creek. When children have access to high-quality, early childhood education, it gives them the tools they need to grow academically, emotionally and socially. As a result, our communities are better positioned to succeed in the long run.

Families in Battle Creek began feeling barriers to accessing childcare in the 1970s as more women began entering the workforce, leaving families in need of full-time childcare. 

One of these mothers was Maude Perry, who realized she needed childcare after taking a secretarial job at a local attorney’s office. Not one to complain, Mrs. Perry quickly became an advocate for childcare in Battle Creek. In 1973, Perry opened Sugar & Spice Child Care Center—and it still operates today, serving its third generation of families. 

“My philosophy of providing the best quality care and safety for children as they grow and learn from early educational experiences has not changed in 50 years,” Mrs. Perry said. “The W.K. Kellogg Foundation has enriched my early learning program and others in the community, and for that we are grateful.”

Childcare centers have significantly impacted our community and the numbers reinforce this. In 2010, WKKF funded the Early Development Instrument (EDI) to gather data on five key domains of young children living in Battle Creek. The EDI data revealed that children in Battle Creek were not being served equitably. Neighborhoods with underserved residents and communities of color had minimal access to quality early childhood education, with some neighborhoods having no access to childcare or early childhood education options at all.

More recent EDI data shows that the efforts made by partners like Harvest Learning Center, Sugar & Spice Child Care Center and many others are having a positive impact on the community. In 2014, only 15.5% of Battle Creek’s children were ready for kindergarten. By 2021, more than 50% of Battle Creek children were prepared to start their first day of kindergarten. 

Parents like Denisha are also witnessing this impact firsthand. Denisha’s youngest daughter has always been bright, but since attending New Harvest, she’s more talkative and loves going to school. 

“She’s learning a lot there and likes everything but nap time,” Denisha said. “New Harvest’s learning techniques are great, and I recommend it to friends if they need help with childcare, too.” 

Pastor Ivan Lee, who co-directs New Harvest with his wife, recognized the challenges families faced in the community when it came to finding reliable childcare. 

A family at Harvest Learning Center’s graduation.

Celebrating Harvest Learning Center’s graduation.

“Our goal is to reach the unreachable,” Pastor Lee said. “Regardless of their economic status, parents want to make sure their children are loved and educated every day. We provide that here at New Harvest.” 

Results this dramatic don’t happen overnight. They happen after several years of collaboration focusing on families in Battle Creek. Organizations and partners who support Battle Creek families through early childhood education and care—such as Early Harvest Learning Center, BC Pulse, Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative and others—are essential to providing culturally competent care, often in the languages young children speak at home with their families.

“There are a lot of single mothers out there—I know I’m not alone when it comes to these challenges,” said Denisha. “Some don’t have proper daycare, others need household items, such as furniture or cooking utensils. New Harvest helps whoever needs it.”


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