Meet the woman looking to build a national model for early childhood education—starting in Flint

FLINT, MI – Relentlessly driven by faith and family, Denise Smith leads the charge to build a new early childhood education system for the youngest of Flint’s kids.

And, maybe, if all goes right, the entire United States—but one step at a time.

Smith, 55, is the executive director of the Flint Early Childhood Collaborative and Educare-Flint. She comes to Flint with more than 20 years of experience in early childhood education and is determined to make a difference.

She sees Flint for the city it is. A city that has faced monumental disaster. A city filled with diversity. A city made strong by people who join together to create solutions. “It is one of the reasons that I’m excited about being here. I came here because I knew it was an opportunity to change practice. 

“Not only can we create this very high standard of what quality is and should be—and therefore call for that investment in it—we can prove that every child, regardless of circumstances, can be so successful.”

Smith’s road to Flint started in 2006, when she attended the National Head Start Association Conference. She previously had worked as an in-home provider, then with centers, and eventually as an administrator with Head Start programs. She was frustrated, uncertain where she should take her career.

Then, she had an epiphany one day while showering. 

“Literally, I’m in the shower and I was like, ‘Father, why am I here?’ I heard, as clear as you and I talking right now, ‘Because I need you to save as many of my children as possible.’”

To this day, 11 years later, that moment resonates with her. “I can feel it at the same intensity now as I did then. And that is my driver. Every day I get up is about the children. How do I help make a difference in their lives?”

She commutes to Flint from Detroit every day knowing that the responsibility and opportunity to lead the new Educare Center in Flint is the fulfillment of her purpose. 

On Dec. 4, 2017, the Educare Center in Flint will open its doors to provide year-round, top-tier education and care to 220 infant, toddlers, children and expecting parents. Located on the Durant-Tuuri-Mott Elementary School campus, this school is designed to be a hub for the children and their parents—providing nutritional support, health care at an in-house clinic, even parent education. 

Her goal is to prove to Lansing—and then the nation—that the value and importance of quality early childhood education. Early childhood education is the key to opening the door to opportunity, she said. She believes Flint can prove to the world that we must as a country invest in early childhood education. 

Her faith gives her confidence and her life experience gives her certainty. 

Before coming to Flint, Smith served a variety of early childhood roles including vice president at Excellent Schools Detroit Initiative for five years, director of great start for the Early Childhood Investment Corporation in Lansing, and program and project manager for the Detroit nonprofit Development Centers Inc. 

A mother to twin daughters and a son, Smith took guardianship in 2010 of her 2-month-old great-niece Aaliyah. Aaliyah came into her life as her son headed off to college. Child protective services had taken custody of the infant girl and Smith soon realized she was the only member of the family who was willing and able to care for her. “It was a very challenging decision for me, but one that was a no-brainer at the same time,” Smith says.

At the same time, Smith was in the process of earning her master’s degree in human development with a specialty in infants and toddlers from Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena, Calif. As a mother, Smith had always rejected the “be seen and not heard” mentality that prevailed when she was a child—preferring open communication and exploration with children. Still, she noticed a difference with Aaliyah. 

“I think my education made me more aware of what I was doing, so that I can do it with intention. It also helped me to slow down and listen—to really listen,” Smith says. “It’s a dance that you’re having with the baby. Responding to the things that they do and then giving them something else to build on that, to scaffold it. The dance is really the dynamic that all teachers should have with their students.”

She has a daily reminder of the potential and opportunity to change the lives of children that have been born into less-than-ideal situations. Aaliyah is her daily motivator, her daily drive. “I know that children are amazing and resilient and she is my shining example. Given the right supports, they all can thrive.”

That knowledge combined with her faith makes Smith a determined, perhaps even relentless force in her work. She sees the proof that early childhood education works. Now she just has to convince the rest of the state and country. 

“(Faith) keeps me grounded. It keeps the drive alive for me. It lets me know that I can overcome this obstacle, because I have before. Because I have faith. Because I know that I’ll be supported,” she says. “I think that faith allows you to see things that other people don’t. To know that those possibilities exist and with the effort you put into it, that they can be realized.” 

Smith is surrounded by family photos at her desk. She shuffles a few papers around and tends to her email, a hard hat sitting on the top shelf of her desk. She will spend almost three hours commuting to and from her job today. She sacrifices time with her 7-year-old niece to bring the same nurturing care to the children of Flint, to do as she was commanded, and to save as many children as possible. 

“Our work is far from over, it’s just starting. Even with these facilities, even with the collaborative work we’re starting, we have a long way to go. … I’ve been doing this for a long time, and this is like a dream.”
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