Community partnerships, commitment to social equity drive Ypsi's new affordable child care center

Caroline Sanders recalls the difficulty of finding child care while she was a single mother pursuing a master's degree in liberal studies at Eastern Michigan University (EMU) in 2000. So it's only fitting that she's now part of a collective effort to offer accessible child care in Ypsilanti.


"Parents should not have to choose between quality child care and getting their education," says Sanders, who is EMU's assistant director of community relations. "It shouldn't have to be one or the other."


The Collaborative: Ypsilanti YMCA Child Development Center is set to open in early summer at the former site of Chapelle Elementary, 111 S. Wallace Blvd., as the result of a partnership between the Ann Arbor YMCA (the Y), EMU, Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS), and the Ypsilanti Housing Commission (YHC). The center aims to address a critical need for high-quality, affordable child care in eastern Washtenaw County by prioritizing families who are unable to bear the financial burden.


"It's semi-groundbreaking if you think about it," Sanders says. "You've got an internationally branded organization that is 150-plus years old partnering with a higher education institution and a low-income housing commission and the local public school district to meet the needs of parents who are in every way trying to improve the lives of their children and themselves."


Priority registration will be given to children of EMU students, children of YHC residents, and children who live within the YCS district. Registration for EMU students and YHC residents will open this spring, while YCS families will be able to enroll in the fall. EMU students can sign up for child care at the center when they register for classes.


Parents will pay for care at the Collaborative on a sliding scale. The founding organizations are pooling resources and funding so they're able to provide as much financial assistance as possible to families through need-based scholarships. They're trying to provide access to affordable high-quality child care regardless of a family's economic background.


Toni Kayumi, president and CEO of the Y, believes the sliding scale will allow parents to advance their financial success and their children's academic success at the same time.


"The four organizations together are managing to look at several issues that could be impacting those families, versus at the standalone (level), we might only be able to address one issue or two issues," she says. "But combined we're looking at the whole health of that family from a holistic perspective."


Building a collaborative


The Y approached EMU in summer 2016 about establishing a child care center on campus. Though the original plan didn't pan out, it planted a seed in Marquan Jackson's mind. As the director of EMU's Family Empowerment Program at YHC, he knows many low-income families in need of affordable child care. He's also familiar with YCS' underutilized buildings since he serves as the school district's homeless liaison. Jackson pitched Chapelle Elementary, where he manages the YCS Clothes Closet, as a potential site for the child care center and helped make connections between the four founding organizations.


"It will give families an option," Jackson says. "We’re starting to teach people to advocate and have agency in their children’s education at an earlier stage in life."


The Collaborative will initially enroll as many as 50 children between 18 months and 5 years old. They will be separated into three classrooms based on their age. The Toddler group ranges from 18 months to 2.5 years, the Early Pre-K group ranges from 2.5 to 3.5 years, and the Pre-K group ranges from 3.5 to 5 years. All of the children will have access to the building's outdoor playground and indoor gymnasium as well.


At the center, the Y will implement its early childhood development program, which promotes healthy eating and physical activity, as well as the Creative Curriculum, which emphasizes developmentally appropriate play experiences. The curriculum focuses on teaching literacy in preschool and includes the latest best practices to support children's language and vocabulary skills, like phonological awareness and knowledge of the alphabet, according to Jackson. The goal of the educational programming is to familiarize children with the skills they will need to succeed when they begin kindergarten.


The center will be open every week day from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. But the Y hopes the Collaborative will be so successful that it will eventually be able to expand past the three classrooms into additional empty spaces at Chapelle Elementary. Sanders would like the center to offer evening and weekend hours for students who need to attend night class or complete homework.


Equity in education


Beyond simply offering child care, Jackson believes the center can help address disparities between families who cannot afford to send children to preschool and those who can. Since the center is situated inside of a YCS building, families who use the Collaborative will become embedded in the school district and will hopefully choose to enroll their kindergarten-bound children in it.


"By providing a space where it's affordable for families, we're trying to reduce that deficit and reduce that gap in cognitive ability based on income, really," Jackson says. "This is a response to also be proactive so our students show up to YCS ready to learn and engage."


There are 22 child care facilities accredited by the National Association for the Education of the Young Child (NAEYC) in Ann Arbor. But there are only two in Ypsi: the EMU Children's Institute, 1055 Cornell Rd., and the Teddy Bear Day Care and Learning Center, 8535 Textile Rd. The Collaborative will be Ypsi's third NAEYC-accredited child care center.


"Diversity and inclusion is extremely important to the YMCA," Kayumi says. "We really want to address socioeconomic, racial, and academic achievement disparities that exist in our community. We feel that the Ypsilanti area deserves to have the same type of high-quality child care that Ann Arbor does."


Kayumi says the Y plans to continue working with like-minded community partners to find long-term solutions for the most prevalent problems in the Ypsi community. She believes it's important to get to the root of those problems so residents can improve their lives with help from the organizations, and then eventually move forward without assistance.


"What's most important to us is making a positive impact, letting the people of Ypsilanti know that we are here to stay, and that we care, and that we want to hear what they want and need," Kayumi says. "It's not so much that we want to be a community center. We want to be at the center of community and part of the community and give the community a voice."


An open house will be scheduled to give interested families the opportunity to tour the center and meet its staff. Parents are encouraged to share specific wants or needs for the community at the upcoming open house and at forthcoming forums.


Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.

All photos by Doug Coombe.