Community Action Agency: Putting the early in early childhood education

For some children regular Head Start is not enough. For them, Community Action Agency offers Early Head Start. 
Behind the need for Early Head Start there is the stressful, there is the heart-warming, and there is the objective hard-nosed reality.

The Community Action Agency of South Central Michigan has provided Early Head Start services for around 15 years. Thanks to a W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant in August 2014, they've been able to expand hours and services to vulnerable families and children ages 0-3. It's been a big help, and more is needed, says Deb Cole, assistant director of education and children services for Community Action.

"Now, your wife is pregnant...." Cole tells me this, a purely hypothetical statement, but just hearing those words triggers instant stress.

Cole oversees the EHS services. The "Early" here means early, as in pre-natal, the first chance a child can get to get a good start at an education and life in general. Through EHS, Community Action is able to provide education and services to expectant mothers and families, and, if needed, to refer them to outside help.

"If we're setting up the family to be more successful, that baby is going to be more apt to be successful," Cole says. One of Cole's favorite sayings is, "When we have our babies, there is no instruction book that comes with it."

Their families live in shaky situations, steeped in the stress of few jobs, low incomes, and unsafe neighborhoods. "They're so into survival that they don't necessarily have the time or the energy to think of all these things you or I take for granted," she says.

Regular Head Start is not enough of a head-start for a child's education, she feels. "It's really not, because that learning begins before that baby is even born, while that momma is still carrying that baby."

After birth, EHS focuses on the babies. Community Action has facilities in Three Rivers and Hastings, but the hub of its EHS program is the Munger Center at 493 Michigan Ave. W., Battle Creek.  At Munger there are three classrooms, for ages 0-1, 1-2 and 2-3, which serve eight children each.

Each room has two primary caregivers who focus on four infants or toddlers each. They start with the newborns, and stick with them to the next year's room, and the next.

By staying with the same children, "you begin that relationship, that bonding, everything that's so important for infants to be feeling safe. Then if they feel safe, and all their needs are met, then they begin to learn," Cole says. The caregivers also form relationships with the families.

The "continuity of care... that's huge," she says. "They need that constant person that they can believe in, trust in."

If extra loving hands are needed, they have their volunteer "grannies," Cole says.

"Grandma Bev," retired pediatric nurse Beverly Hinman, took a break from the 0-1 room to explain why she's been giving her time to the program for the past year.

"It's fun! It's babies all day! I love it," she says.

"This is really, really a lot of fun.... I really like watching them grow from almost-newborn to being able to walk, watching when they discover that there's somebody else in the room besides them that's the same size as they are. It's very interesting how they react to each other."

Rooms are officially termed "classrooms" -- one might picture babies propped up at desks trying to focus on teacher's lectures, but that's not the case.  

"They're everywhere!" Hinman says, laughing. "They're walking and climbing and into stuff. Pulling each other's hair and feeling each other's faces, looking out the windows and playing with everything they can get their little hands on. Exploring, trying to figure out what's going on in this world."

Socialization begins when "they're old enough to realize there's another child in the room, somebody who is about the same size they are, makes the same noises and wants the same things."

They are learning through interaction with both adults and peers, and are treated to age-appropriate lessons, guided experience-building moments -- for example, "where they can play with sand, or snow," Hinman says.

"The children probably get experiences they never would have," she says. "These babies will have a better start" before their times for preschool and kindergarten arrive.

Parents can also choose home visits. Other help can include referrals to other forms of support, from finding medical help to simple items like a stroller Cole recently provided to parents with a child who had difficulty walking.

In Battle Creek, there has long been a waiting list for their services. They only have room for 24 children at Munger, and enough staff to do home visits for 12 families.

"We have quite a wait list, so we have to come up with some kind of criteria so that we could really support and focus on the families that need us the most." If you're a teen mom, if there are problems in the home, have low income -- the points add up. Employment and education add points, also. "We like our families to be working or going to school, because they're really the folks who need that support."

The need for the service ebbs and flows with the area's economy. Recently Community Action shifted resources from Hastings and Delton sites, where demand dropped, to Three Rivers, "where economics are really bad," Cole says.

Political support also comes and goes, she says. Community Action gets most of its funding from federal tax dollars. Before the Kellogg grant, they could only keep children on-site for six hours a day. Now at nine hours a day, parents have more chances for employment or education.

There is an argument for increasing the public and private sector support for EHS that doesn't rely on the feel-good angle of helping families and babies. The cold, objective facts point out that every dollar spent on programs like this save society many more dollars spent on future unemployed or incarcerated citizens. Money could actually flow back into the system as more babies grow up to be taxpayers.

In a 2013 interview with the Washington Post Nobel-winning economist James Heckman, who has studied and advocated early childhood education, argued for more funding for programs like Head Start. They are "an investment, like an airport or a dam," he told the Post.

Heckman points to studies including the Perry preschool experiment, a randomized control trial where at-risk preschool children in 1960s Ypsilanti were followed for 40 years. It showed that children who had preschool were more likely to be more successful than similar peers in a control group.

Dollars going into early childhood education lead to "reduced crime, reduced healthcare costs, lesser burden on educational systems, even in elementary school -- you see payoffs coming all along the way," Heckman told the Post.

Heckman's ideas went into President Obama's 2013-2014 push for early childhood education. Preschool "starts a virtuous cycle, not a vicious one," Obama said in a December, 2013, speech.

Cole agrees. "Any dollar amount we front-load with pays off in the long run, and you save money, effort and heartache -- all kinds of things. It's like if you hired someone... the more training you give them, the better off they are to be successful," she says.

Altruistic, pragmatic or both -- it doesn't matter to Cole how one analyzes Early Head Start. "We need more of this type of thing in today's world. Young families, poor families that are struggling, need all the help they can get."

For more information on enrolling in Early Head Start or other services in Battle Creek, Hastings, Delton, or Three Rivers, call Community Action Agency of South Central Michigan at 877-422-2726 or go to

Mark Wedel is a freelance writer living in Kalamazoo.

This story is part of a series of solutions-focused stories and profiles about the programs and people that are positively impacting the lives of Michigan kids. The series is produced by Michigan Nightlight and is made possible with funding from the 
W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read other stories in this series here.