Dreaming of the Northside Promise: Free, high-quality infant to Pre-K care and education

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Northside series.

When the Northside Preschool Collaborative launched in 2014, teachers and administrators from the three participating preschools, along with the 30 families involved, recognized it as one of a kind.

An outgrowth of nine parent focus groups that met in 2013 on the Northside and West Douglas neighborhoods, the preschool collaborative offers families free, high-quality education and transportation specifically for 3 year olds.

“Overwhelmingly, parents at the focus groups said they wanted a preschool that was high-quality, in the neighborhood, and preferably within walking distance of their home because many of them did not have transportation,” says Jim Green, Northside Preschools Director. 

Based on the information gathered, the group requested grant money from the Kalamazoo Community Foundation in 2015 and was awarded $279,000 to cover all tuition costs, classroom equipment, and supplies, research and student assessments, parent engagement services, recruitment, and transportation expenses. The grant also covered the purchase of a bus for transportation and the salaries of two Parent Educators who help support parents. 

Mrs. Karmin Armstrong-Andrews, Preschool Teacher, reads a book to the class at New Genesis Photo by Susan Andress In addition to financial support from KZCF, the program has received funding in part from the United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region and support through KC Ready 4s, which offers on-site teacher mentoring and speech pathology, in addition to serving as a the next step for the 3 year olds as they turn four.

Northside Preschools are housed in three separate Northside facilities with 10 children each, all using the same curriculum and achievement standards. These sites are at New Genesis Learning Center at Stones Church, the Jennings Development Interplex, and at Mt. Zion Baptist Church through their program called Students Equipped Educated and Determined to be Successful (SEEDS).

At the end of the 2015-2016 school year, according to the SEEDS web page, Northside Preschools students showed a 13 percent increase in language skills, a 15 percent increase in literacy, and a 14 percent increase in mathematics.

“We started from scratch and we went from there,” says Greene, “and the programs have been very successful and we have the data to prove it.”

Why 3 year olds? 

What families and the school district were discovering was that many 5 year olds who had only one year of preschool, at age 4, were still behind when they started kindergarten. With two years of preschool at ages 3 and 4, Greene says, they are seeing a marked improvement in school readiness.

According to data from KPS, 92 percent of Northside third graders are not reading at grade level, says Greene. “That is primarily because of the disparities that exist between the children who live on the Northside and their white peers who live in KPS who have the wherewithal to attend preschool.”

As Greene notes, most children on the Northside do not attend preschool, largely because they can’t afford it. Head Start is the only state-funded program for 3 year olds, and limited slots are available countywide.

Of course, there are a lot more than thirty 3 year olds living on the Northside, and consequently, there is always a waiting list, usually starting in August, says Pastor Ervin Armstrong of Stones Church, located on the corner of Douglas and Patterson. It's home to the New Genesis Learning Center, which also has a private preschool and afterschool program that draws children from around the county.

“The parents see the improvement in their children,” says Armstrong. “They see what they’re learning. Over 90 percent of our children are ready for kindergarten when they started with our program for 3 year olds. The 10 percent who aren’t haven’t participated in the two-year program.”

“The most rewarding thing is to see the progress that these kids make because so many times you hear 'they can’t learn. They don’t know what they’re doing.' The children are ignored. This way, it creates more positive self-image for the kids and it also helps them to be kindergarten ready,” says Greene, who hopes to see the program continue to grow. “This is the next generation, these kids, so we don’t want to lose them.”

Summer slide: Not just for school-aged children

While the 3-year-old preschoolers enrolled in the Northside Preschools are learning and advancing, they often lose some of what they learned before they return to preschool as 4 year olds in the fall, Greene says.

“We have seen that the kids have improved,” says Greene. ”The problem is that they start at a very lower level, and although they do improve during the year, and even though they are in the range of widely held expectations, when you compare them to their peers, they’re still behind.”

As a result, Greene says, they are trying to get funding for a summer program, too. “There is a summer loss, which is why KPS, has gone to year-round schools at two of the schools our students attend,” he says.

At the Jennings Development Interplex, Jill Hamilton, Director and Lead Teacher, hopes to lessen the achievement gap. Photo by Susan AndressTo help promote more home learning, Northside Preschools has implemented an innovative national model called Parents as Teachers. The program is designed to help parents be the child’s first teacher. Two Northside parents, Joda Grimes and Angela Johnson, are already fully certified. 

“They help families get connected to the resources that they need,” says Greene. “It’s not just a child we’re looking at, we’re looking at the whole family.”

The Kalamazoo Promise: Too late for some?

Racial and economic disparities contribute to educational inequality. Of the 12,000 children in the Kalamazoo Public School Systems, almost 900 of them are homeless, points out Tim Ready, who has been researching poverty and racial equity in Kalamazoo for a long time through his work at the Lewis Walker Institute at Western Michigan University. 

“That doesn’t mean they’re living under a bridge, but they are couch surfing,” he says. ”Until we take hard, tangible action on things like that, we’ll be doing a lot of talking, and not much changing. Another 69.4 percent qualify for free or reduced lunches, including all of the families of the thirty 3 year olds attending the Northside Preschools Collaborative.

With daunting statistics about Kalamazoo poverty, especially regarding racial equity, close at hand, Ready sometimes sees his role in the community as the “skunk at the picnic,” he says. “As much as I appreciate the  (Kalamazoo) Promise, its effect is going to be somewhat limited unless we make progress on these other fronts,” says Ready. “If you don’t make improvements in economics and racial segregation, you aren’t going to see much gains in education. Those are much more important and related to academic progress than what goes on in schools.”

Aerin Caldwell, assistant teacher, works with students in the Northside Preschools, an innovative collaboration, which started in 2014. Photo by Susan Andress With that being said, Ready adds, the importance of attending to the social, emotional, and educational needs of the youngest in our society, infant to school-aged, is vital for later success in life.

“This isn’t unique to the Northside,” says Ready. “Kids growing up in poverty have big disadvantages from language development to the potentials of being exposed to different forms of trauma. 

“Kids have to get off to a good start. And if they don’t get off to a good start, there’s trouble further on. More and more really depressing studies are coming out that are showing that the disparities are baked in during early childhood,” says Ready.
“The problem is you can’t wait until high school to connect people to opportunities. There’s just too much stuff that has to be overcome and we’ll be playing catch-up.”

Pastor Armstrong has a dream

Imagine a building spacious enough to accommodate 16 rooms and a gymnasium. One half of the building is dedicated to free, high-quality childcare for infants and toddlers, and a preschool, the other half offers space for community services. He already has a location in mind.

This is the “big dream” Pastor Armstrong, along with some cohorts, has, and he’s working on making it a reality.

“When you hear stories about the Northside, it’s trouble, and shooting, and that kind of thing. I want to see something positive on the Northside,” says Armstrong with feeling. “If we have an early childhood, high-quality learning center, and it’s free, that’s going to raise the level of awareness of something good on the Northside, something we could take pride in. We’re working on that.”

“To help kids, you have to help their parents,” says Ready. “You have to help their families so kids can be starting off on an even keel. That’s what kids need. I don’t think anything less.”

Programs such as the KPS’ Lift up through Literacy, which regularly draws between 35 to 50 families at its Tuesday evening meetings at Stones Church alone, integrates families into the education process by providing extra resources and support.

Cathedrals aren’t built in a day, but five years ago, free preschools for Northside 3 year olds didn’t exist either. 

“What the Promise has done for Kalamazoo, this program could do for the Northside,” says Armstrong. “You might have families moving back to the Northside because of it. We would build community out of that.”

If you build it, they will come

On Cobb Street, arguably one of the nicest streets on the Northside, Stones Church owns a building and close to nine acres. The building, the former North Central Christian School, then a Head Start building, and for five years home to the KPS Alternative Middle School, was used by New Genesis to house a school program and community outreach center until 2013. Currently, it is empty and unusable due to age and disrepair, but the gym, remarkably, is still intact.

Preschoolers at the Jennings Development Interplex enjoy learning and playing. Photo by Susan Andress“We think the best is yet to come for our community, for Northside residents, and for Kalamazoo Public Schools,” Armstrong says, who sees what he dubs “the Northside Promise” as eventually becoming a model for other cities, much like the Kalamazoo Promise has become. “And it’s needed.”

Currently, planners are writing a large grant request for infant and toddler care. With the Northside Preschools Collaborative, Great Start, and Head Start, the childcare and preschool educational pieces are almost all in place. 

Armstrong envisions the community and learning center to be a “one-stop shopping” for Northside families, which coincidentally was the slogan for Meijer Thrifty Acres, the original building which currently houses Stones Church at the corner of Douglas and Patterson. 

Because of the large size of the church’s Cobb Street property, Armstrong would also like to see affordable housing near the proposed community and education center built specifically for single-parent families.

“To have all that at one site,” he says, “that would be a village.”

Read more articles by Theresa Coty O'Neil.

Theresa Coty O’Neil is a freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher with over two decades of covering people, places, and events in the Kalamazoo community. She is the Project Editor of On the Ground Kalamazoo.
Signup for Email Alerts