The math is simple; the facts are concerning. About one-third of all students entering kindergarten in Midland County in the 2017-18 school year had either not attended preschool or had not attended what’s considered a quality preschool. About 85% of the human brain’s development has been completed by age 5, according to data compiled by the Rauch Foundation. Those factors are the driving forces in an effort to significantly increase the number of kids attending preschool.
That effort is called the “Ready for School” Preschool Scholarship Fund now open at the Midland Area Community Foundation (MACF). The goal is to have every child in Midland County receive at least one year of a quality preschool education before kindergarten.
“It’s human capital for our community,” says Micki Gibbs, the director of the Great Start Collaborative of the Midland County Educational Service Agency. Gibbs has served in that role for seven years and has worked in education for 28 years. “Parents of young children get so concerned about the knowledge and things they’re memorizing for kindergarten but actually we’re building the brain.”
The inspiration for ramping up preschool education came from a Harvard University professor and author, Robert Putnam, who spoke at the Council of Michigan Foundations conference in 2016 about his book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.” Sharon Mortensen, president and chief executive officer of MACF and two of the foundation’s board members, Duncan Stuart and Rod Coleman, attended that conference and heard Putnam talk about the widening gap in upward mobility for those who have economic resources and those who don’t.
An indoor tent is the hub of activity at Memorial Presbyterian Preschool.
Mortensen said they asked themselves, “What could we do to make a difference in the early years?” The foundation later formed a committee of community leaders to answer that question. One of those community leaders is Dick Dolinski.
“I’m interested in youth, learning, and development from a process and data-driven standpoint,” says Dolinski.
Dolinski served for several years on the Midland Public Schools Board of Education and the Delta College Board of Trustees. He also founded the Legacy Center for Community Success and Midland Kids First. One of the committee’s first initiatives was to conduct a survey of the parents of incoming kindergarteners about whether their child had attended a preschool, and, if so, what their experience was like.
In a program presented to the Midland Rotary Club in October, Dolinski cited a study from the Journal of Public Economics and a report from Purdue University that indicate there are many benefits to a quality preschool experience: better math, language, and social skills; more likely to graduate and complete a post-secondary education program; more likely to become employed; less likely to become incarcerated, and less likely to receive economic assistance from the government.
Early learning is key to the brain’s development — that’s what drives Dolinski.
“The brain is built by cognitive stimulation during the kid’s early childhood,” says Dolinski. “The links in the brain form connections, which are basic for all cognitive learning.” He stresses the importance of reading to a child, playing with a child, or doing things as simple as counting the different things a family sees outside the car when traveling on a trip.
A preschooler plays make believe with toy animals.
Dolinski recognizes there are different reasons why some parents don’t send their kids to preschool including finances, transportation, and personal. Some kids might go to a preschool overseen by family, friends, or neighbors but it might not have a specific curriculum so the quality can be uneven.
To offer a “Ready for School” scholarship, the preschool must receive at least three stars in a State of Michigan rating system.
“To get a three-star, you have to use a research evidence-based curriculum, provide family and parent support, and have an understanding of the social and emotional connections that preschoolers need,” says Gibbs from Great Start.
Parents can go to www.greatstarttoquality.org to see ratings of preschools that participate in the rating system. There are seven in Midland County that currently participate in the “Ready for School” program: Chippewa Nature Center, Greater Midland Family Center in Coleman, Kids Creek Preschool, Learning Tree Preschool, Memorial Presbyterian, Meridian Early Childhood Center, and the West Midland Family Center. Two others are considering applying for next year’s program.
“I don’t think people realize this,” says Gibbs, regarding the diverse preschool choices parents have in Midland County compared to other parts of the state. Parents who are eligible for the program will be able to choose which preschool to send their child to as long as that school qualifies and has chosen to participate.
These girls are bundled up for some outdoor play.
Great Start was already offering scholarships to attend preschool — funded by money from the state and from local donations — covering about 30 students per year. That state support can only be used for 3-year-olds. The long-term goal of the “Ready for School” program is to provide scholarships for 300 4-year-olds to see that these students get at least one year of quality preschool before entering kindergarten.
One of the benefits of the new program is the money can be blended with aid that Great Start already receives. If the scholarships could fully support 300 students per year, the estimated cost would be $750,000; that’s based on an average annual cost of $2,250 per student. The cost varies from private preschools to programs that are faith-based or supported by a church, for example.
A goal of the committee is to make the program sustainable. To do that, they didn’t have to look very far. The program is modeled after the college scholarship program offered by the MACF, which now awards over $750,000 in scholarships each year. A contribution can be made to the scholarship’s general fund, or individuals, families, or organizations can endow a scholarship. The Rotary Club of Midland Morning has set up a preschool scholarship.
The “Ready for School” fund is an endowment, so that means only 5% of the fund can be allocated each year. To achieve their goal, the program needs to raise at least $15 million. Close to $500,000 has been generated so far. Mortensen says, “It will take years to build.” Gibbs adds, “It will be sustainable.”
When asked what her dream scenario is, Gibbs says, “We don’t have to turn anybody away. There’s no waiting list for the scholarships.”
To learn more about the “Ready for School” program, contact the Midland Area Community Foundation at 989-839-9661 or go to www.midlandfoundation.org.