Having studied the Ypsi community for nearly 50 years, HighScope wants to give back

Many Ypsilanti residents regularly drive by the beautiful old Edwardian mansion on a wooded lot at the corner of Forest Avenue and River Street, but have no idea that it's the headquarters of HighScope, an early education educational research organization with an international reach.


"Somebody I was talking to said to me, 'What are you talking about? Oh, that house over there?' They were born and raised in Ypsilanti but had no idea what HighScope was," says Yen Azzaro, HighScope's creative director.


HighScope executive vice president Ben Edmondson has had similar experiences with area residents telling him they know the historic Hutchinson House is located on the site, but don't know what HighScope does. However, staff are hoping to change all that and heighten their awareness in the Ypsi community as HighScope prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2020, with plans for both physical and programming expansions over the next few years.


The Perry Preschool Project


Those who have heard of HighScope usually know about the landmark Perry Preschool Study started by psychologist David Weikart, in cooperation with Perry Elementary School principal Charles Eugene Beatty, in 1962. The study followed the progress of 123 black children born in poverty and at high risk of academic failure, with about half assigned to high-quality early childhood interventions that emphasized active learning, and the other half serving as a control group.


The longitudinal study followed the children into adulthood, following up at ages 19, 27, and 40. Results have shown that quality preschool programs with an emphasis on active learning have a lasting, positive impact on the participants' income, educational level, and rates of teen pregnancy and criminal activity, along with other important life outcomes.


The relationship with Ypsilanti's Perry School ended many years ago, but the research done in the '60s led to HighScope's establishment in 1970 and has informed early childhood curricula ever since. HighScope's research has been used in HeadStart and other early childhood programs around the United States, and HighScope now has 10 international institutes licensed to use its materials as well.


Building on the legacy


Since 1970, HighScope has continued to conduct early childhood development research, which is the basis for HighScope-branded teacher education materials and independent assessment tools. The research is also put into practice in a demonstration preschool class on HighScope's campus.


The organization's research most recently emphasized self-regulation and the importance of intervention in the critical period between birth and age 3, before children reach preschool.


HighScope research scientist Laura Scharphorn says the Perry Preschool Study demonstrated that high-quality early education interventions worked, but subsequent research has delved into exactly why the children who received the intervention did so much better than their peers. Scharphorn says the three components of self-regulation – attention, cognitive flexibility, and impulse control – seem to be key.


"These are the soft skills of learning, and children need to get these skills down before learning literacy, math, and science, and the other things teachers are trying to teach students about," she says.


High Scope recently partnered with Detroit Public Schools to train teachers and enhance preschool curriculum with the results of that research.


"Every five to eight years, we try to make sure we revise the curriculum and update it with any newer research that came out during those years," says Shannon Lockhart, HighScope's early childhood applied practice manager.


That latest self-regulation research has led to HighScope's mantra, used in the preschool classroom: "Plan, do, review." The idea is that preschool children can become active agents in their own learning experience by planning ahead, doing a task or project, and then reviewing what they've just done, even during activities that look like playtime.


"The main philosophy of HighScope is active learning. It's about children being actively engaged in their learning, events, people, and material in their environment," Lockhart says. "That has been consistent in the heart of our curriculum."


Marianne McDonnell, director of education services for HighScope, says another important piece is training the trainers.


"Based on our research, we've found that handing teachers the materials and telling them to just use the materials doesn't work," McDonnell says. "They actually need to train the teachers, invest in the teachers, and give them the tools they need to be in the classroom … with the children."


Making plans for the future


In coming years, HighScope staff have a number of goals, including expanding both programming and HighScope's physical footprint, creating more partnerships, and reaching out more consistently to the Ypsi community.


As researchers prepare to follow up with the original Perry Preschool Study subjects once more at age 50, HighScope is also making plans to add a program for infants and toddlers from birth to age 3 and to add two more classes of its demonstration preschool.


Purchasing the Forest Avenue Baptist Church building next door in late 2017 provided an opportunity for both expansion and consolidation, Edmondson says. Offices and various departments are scattered in various locations. Once a remodeling and build-out project is completed on the former church building, staff offices can be consolidated, and there will be room to expand those preschool classes.


As the former superintendent of Ypsilanti Community Schools, Edmondson says he recently recognized how "huge" the disconnect is between early childhood programs and K-12 schools. He would like to see that addressed as well.


"I was guilty as superintendent of thinking this was not in my wheelhouse," he says. "The work done at these early childhood programs and the assessments don't follow (the child into kindergarten)."


Edmondson says the governor's office and Michigan Department of Education have reached out to ask HighScope how to make progress on that issue.


"We need to make sure public schools are working with early childhood institutes and centers to make sure we're one team, because we're not one team now," he says. "We both have a passion for kids, but we're not working together, and I would like us to do that."


Lockhart says the plan to expand the demonstration preschool will require meeting with area parents to better understand their needs. Additionally, as the organization prepares to launch a capital campaign to finance renovations of the former Baptist church, HighScope will have to get the community on board.


Azzaro says she and other employees would love to open the HighScope campus up to the community in a bigger way than the organization has done in recent years.


"We're talking about having an ice cream social this summer," she says. "And the Hutchinson House has been on historic home tours in the past, and it'd be easy to do that again."


Edmondson says it's important to both invite the community in and for HighScope staff to get out into the community, serving on boards, collaborating with local colleges and universities, and attending community meetings.


"HighScope got its reputation from the research done on families in Ypsilanti," Edmondson says. "So, to me, HighScope needs to do a better job of serving the community of Ypsilanti. They faithfully let us do a research study on their children and families here that we're still doing. What we'd like to do is reach out to the community in a more informed and intentional manner."


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.


All photos by Doug Coombe.

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