STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Preschools are segregated. Is that a problem?

Dustin Dwyer

Preschools in this country are segregated. The segregation is based not on race, but on class.

No one sat down and made a plan for segregated preschools. It just kind of happened.

You can trace it back to 1965, with the launch of Head Start. It was created to help kids in poverty. Public dollars were set aside to make sure that these three and four year-olds could get an early education. For kids from the middle class and above, there was private preschool, paid for by parents.

Nearly 48 years after Head Start launched, that's the way it is today — separate preschools for separate income levels.

But there are some exceptions, like the preschool at the YWCA in Kalamazoo.  Some of the kids here come from families who spend as much as 400 dollars a month for full-time preschool.  Some come from families that are homeless.

Chéree Thomas directs the child care program here.  She says every kid is different, but there are some patterns:

"We notice that if the parent is college-educated, that kid typically comes in utilizing more words than a kid whose parent is not," Thomas says.

At the start of the year, many of the kids from the low-income homes were behind the other kids. Now, Thomas says, that’s changing:

"For the kids that are ... homeless or precariously housed — those kids are actually catching up to their peers," she says. "Which is exciting because it means we’re doing something right."

Thomas says even the kids who come from more affluent homes are getting something out of it:

"The benefit is recognizing that not everyone is alike," she says. "That there are people from many different backgrounds, cultures — and that for the most part, we can all play together and learn together and everything’s okay."

There isn’t a lot of research looking at the benefits of integrated preschools, in part because there aren’t many integrated preschools out there.

Kids from the lower income homes lost arguments over toys and were less likely to get the teacher's attention when they needed it.

A study in Connecticut in 2007 found some benefits in language development for kids in an integrated preschool. And a Georgia study found evidence that preschoolers learn more when they’re in a class with more advanced peers, which seems to suggest that segregated preschools may lead to segregated results.

Then there’s the study done by Jessi Streib, a graduate student at the University of Michigan.  For eight months, she sat in on a preschool class that had kids from different economic groups.

She saw what many other studies have shown:  kids from upper income homes were more verbal than kids from lower income homes.  That meant that the kids from the lower income homes lost arguments over toys and were less likely to get the teacher's attention when they needed it.

"So I was worried that they might be learning that school isn’t a place where they get their needs met as much as middle class children get their needs met," she says. 

Streib says the four year-olds were figuring out that there were differences between them, but the teachers tried to act as if there weren’t.

"I think a lot of people think that if we just don’t talk about class, it’s not there. Just like if we don’t talk about race it’s not there," she says. "But of course it is still there. We’re just not acknowledging it and then not doing anything about it."

Just integrating preschools may not be enough. The staff at the YWCA has regular training on both race and class issues, which may be why kids there do better. But that’s not the case at most preschools.

The reality is, we don’t really know what the impact is of segregating preschools based on parent’s income. We just do it because we always have.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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