In 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson took the podium to deliver the nation’s annual State of the Union Address, he came with an agenda: to root out poverty and cure the nation of the negative effects associated with it. As a former teacher, Johnson believed education — especially early education — was integral to achieving that goal and by
the fall of the following year federal grants were awarded to communities in need for that very purpose.
Over the next few years the program that arose out of Johnson’s call to action — originally called Project Head Start, today known simply as Head Start — was quickly expanded in scope and size. Success with a short summer version of the program in 1965 led to congressional approval for a nine-month long, full school year version in early 1966. It wasn’t good news for every community though. In those early years Head Start was intended to fill a gap in communities that were considered exceptionally at risk and, much to the disappointment of local leaders, Mt. Pleasant didn’t qualify.
That’s when the Isabella Child Development Center was born. If the federal government didn’t think the children of Isabella County deserved education their families couldn’t afford on their own, the community decided it would provide it itself.
Classmates play at the lego station in the ICDC classroom on May 16, 2019.
On the second of February, 1969 ICDC welcomed its first students. This past weekend it celebrated fifty years of tuition-free preschool, and the early education of an estimated 1200 three and four-year olds in that time.
Head teacher at the school, Joyce Neyer, says the center’s success and longevity is a testament to the community around it and the resourcefulness of the people who founded the program. While ICDC now receives grant funds to cover most of the costs of its four-year old program, for many years the center was funded entirely from the profit of a volunteer-run thrift shop that opened in 1970. Today, the proceeds of that shop — the Isabella Child Development Thrift Shop — still make the center’s three-year old program possible, and additional revenue is used to supplement the state grants that support the four-year old class.
Teachers at ICDC leverage educational opportunities during play-based activities
This year, the center is serving fifteen three-year olds and sixteen four-year olds and their families. The older classes attend three hours per day, four days per week, while the younger kids attend two and a half hours per day twice a week. All are taught through a play-based curriculum that incorporates educational content into the interests and activities kids initiate themselves.
“Where kids are playing and already interested, that’s where we look for an opportunity to introduce learning,” says Neyer, “If they’re in the kitchen area and pretending to make a birthday cake, we’ll go in and talk about how many eggs they need, what goes into a cake. We practice the life skills.”
Neyer says those life skills and the social and emotional learning (SEL) that support them are an integral component of ICDC’s approach to early childhood development. It also places the center among a small, but rapidly growing group of schools and educational institutions implementing the nation’s most rigorous and current research in education and development. Mt. Pleasant’s Renaissance Academy is another.
Stations throughout the ICDC classroom encourage imagination-based play and learning.
“[SEL] is our very first and primary focus,” says Neyer, “Teaching them social and emotional skills - how do I enter play? How do I invite another kid to play? What do I do when play isn’t going my way? Self-regulation is a big part of it. Every group of kids is different. This year, we have a group with more emotions so we focus on it more.”
Neyer says another key part of the center’s success is parent involvement. She tries to keep parents engaged with the program both in and outside of the classroom. She solicits parent opinions on how the program can best serve their children, holds special event nights to bring families into the center, arranges both parent-teacher conferences and home visits, and reserves one or two seats on the board of directors for parents of current students each year.
A student builds and plays with a lego structure at ICDC on May 16, 2019.
Combined, ICDC’s science-backed approach to learning, focus on the foundational aspects of education, robust parent-engagement strategy, education level of its staff — Neyer holds a Master’s Degree — and workplace policies that support on-going professional development and work-life balance for its teachers have earned the center the state’s highest rating for independently run daycares and preschools: five stars.
To learn more about ICDC or to apply for student placement for the 2019-2020 school year, visit the ICDC website. To support the school Neyer says anyone can shop at and donate to the center’s affiliated thrift shop. The shop will re-open later this week at it’s new location at 1012 W. High Street next to Gilroy’s.