This article, originally published on Second Wave Media, is part of Early Education Matters, a series about how Michigan parents, childcare providers, and early childhood educators are working together to implement Pre-K for All. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Photos by Doug Coombe.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer not only prioritizes fixing the damn roads, she also wants more of Michigan’s younger residents taking those roads to school. Her proposed PreK for All will bring early school readiness to all 4-year-olds across the state without restriction. PreK for All will expand upon the current Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) and Head Start Program in Michigan.
Across the state, early childhood education advocacy groups are holding listening sessions to get as many opinions as possible from those most likely to be affected by the roll out. The sessions are being co-facilitated by the Policy Equity Group. Two of these listening sessions took place in July in Ann Arbor and Detroit, hosted by the Child Care Network and Hope Starts Here, respectively.
“All different voices need to be a part of the process,” says Annette Sobocinski, executive director of the Child Care Network. “It can’t be a select few that don’t know what’s happening in real time in the trenches working with families, boots on the ground.”
People at the sessions included public and private childcare providers, childcare advocates, and parents. A common sentiment among session hosts was that parent voices need to be included more if the community response is going to be as thorough as necessary. There was consensus both on PreK for All’s great potential for positive change and the need for considering its impact on childcare and early childhood education for all children under age five.
“This has the potential to break the system in ways that would not be good for anybody,” Sobocinski says.
Educational access for those students who traditionally don’t have it is priceless. Early childhood experiences from birth to age 8 affect the development of the brain’s architecture, which provides the foundation for all future learning, behavior, and health. Governor Whitmer’s plan would bring many more of Michigan’s children into the fold of early childhood learning and create more success for those students, now and for the rest of their lives.
“By providing kids with high-quality, early-learning experiences, you’re preventing so much expense on the back end,” Sobocinski says. “We know that kids who have been exposed to high-quality early learning are more likely to graduate high school, more likely to continue on to secondary education, and more likely to stay out of the criminal justice system.”
Challenges to overcome
Despite the great benefits that PreK for All will provide Michigan’s children, potential problems exist. Childcare providers in attendance, including some working within GSRP, raised several concerns. First and foremost, was the impact that PreK for All would have on home-based and community-based early childhood providers. One attendee in Detroit commented that 4-year-olds are the “bread and butter” of her early childhood learning business, making up almost 60% of the kids she works with. Losing that clientele could be catastrophic to her business.
The second big concern was the feasibility of a five-day week for GSRP staff that count on Fridays for prep time.
“Childcare providers are already working hard and underpaid,” says Candy Sorensen, communications and program coordinator of the Child Care Network.
In Michigan, a preschool teacher makes about $16 an hour; a childcare provider makes about $12, making them some of the lowest paid workers in the state. Recruiting people to do a job that pays so little while the cost of living is on the rise is difficult. Even without universal pre-K, the early childhood sector is experiencing staffing shortages. Many worry that finding enough staff to fill the demand of pre-K programs five days a week will be impossible.
Listening sessions will inform PreK for All roll-out
However, as participants in the listening sessions pointed out, these are not problems without remedies, and these remedies are of the utmost importance.
“We have to work it out if [PreK for All] is really going to work at the end of the day,” says Denise Smith, implementation director of Hope Starts Here.
There is no getting around the benefit of a five-day pre-K week for parents who work five days a week. The current four-day GSRP week leaves parents needing to secure childcare for Fridays. Some attendees understood this and provided potential solutions.
“It’s about being creative and understanding really,” Smith says. “It is utilizing community partners and services to be able to come in and allow for that time to plan and even professional development.”
While implementing PreK for All across Michigan, Smith suggested bringing in community-based organizations to provide children with more robust education while giving teachers time to prepare. During the Detroit session, an attendee mentioned that her program has partnered with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to provide artistic educational sessions. Not only does this allow teachers their necessary preparatory time by taking their students out of the classroom for these sessions, but it also enriches the children’s education.
The negative impact on home-based, private and other community early childcare education providers is also an issue that must be remedied.
“It is important no matter however [PreK for All] is rolled out, it should not negatively impact Head Start slots that are critical to high need families” says Sobocinski.
Listening sessions an “important first step”
Every attendee at both sessions agreed that Michigan cannot afford to lose all of these different early childcare and early childhood education providers. PreK for All is not here to replace Head Start, and it is not here to put private providers out of business. All these providers must work together to accomplish what is best for Michigan’s children.
“It takes a variety of programs to meet the need,” Sorensen says. “The need is huge. We need as many people as we can get at the table providing these services, not to mention that Head Start does service some three-year-olds.”
From these first two listening sessions it is clear. PreK for All stands to do some great work for Michigan’s youngest students, but some real issues do need to be addressed before universal pre-k is rolled out to Michigan families. The goal of the ten in-person and four virtual listening sessions across the state is to inform the roll-out of PreK for All so that all Michigan children, parents, childcare providers, and early childhood educators thrive.
Sobocinski concludes, “These are an important first step.”