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

Families flock to expanded preschool program, but demand still outstrips supply

Four-year-olds across Michigan are settling into their pre-school routine, with many programs starting up this week.

Some 16,000 of these kids might not have been able to find spots in a high-quality program if it weren’t for a major expansion, paid for by taxpayers.

At Golightly Education Center in Detroit, Principal Sherrell Hobbs, dressed in an ivory suit and matching four-inch high heels, was on her hands and knees, taping a “red carpet” to the tile floor.

It was the first day of pre-school, and she wanted the four-year-olds lined up in the vestibule to feel welcome.

“We have some of our most wonderful VIP students I your midst, and they are none other than our pre-K students,” she said. “Let’s give them a round of applause!”

Golightly’s pre-K program grew by 50% this year, adding two new classrooms, thanks to the expansion of the Great Start Readiness Program.

That’s a tuition-free pre-school program for kids from families below 250% of the poverty line. For a family of four, that’s about $59,000 a year.

Summer scramble

Governor Snyder last year pushed for a $65 million expansion of the program. And state lawmakers went along.

“That was the largest expansion of pre-K in the nation,” said Deputy State Schools Susan Broman. She oversees the Great Start program. 

The extra $65 million paid for 16,000 more kids to get into the program this year, bringing the total to about 48,000. But there wasn’t a whole lot of time to get everything in place. Governor Snyder signed the budget in mid-June.  That left about three months to hire teachers, get classrooms ready, and recruit students. “Nobody rested this summer,” said Broman.

Supply and demand

And there’s still an unmet need for pre-school. Broman says the 16,000 slots filled right up, and school districts asked the state for 4,500 more than there was money for. “So that tells us there are additional kids we could also serve,” she said.

The governor plans to push for another expansion for the next school year – basically doubling the program in two years. It’s estimated that would make room for all the kids whose families are eligible for the program.

Broman says the expansion is also helping communities cope with cuts to the Head Start program. That’s a federally funded early education program for families at or under the poverty line.

“We lost 2,000 slots for Head Start kids with sequestration. If nothing changes we’ll continue to lose more with each year that this goes on,” she said.

At the same time the sequester is hitting Head Start, President Obama has been calling for more money for pre-school. He wants to boost funding by $75 billion over ten years, and pay for it by nearly doubling taxes on cigarettes.

It’s not clear Congress will go for the plan. But paying for preschool is proving to be a pretty bipartisan issue, with politicians from both sides of the aisle agreeing that it’s a good investment to get kids ready for kindergarten.

Learning how to go to school

At Golightly Education Center, 13 four-year-olds are getting the hang of the morning routine in Laura Watt’s classroom. After breakfast (graham crackers, an apple, yogurt, and milk), Watt leads her new students over to a brightly colored rug with different shapes around the border. She asks each child to pick a shape, and asks them to look at an easel that lists the day’s activities.

“The routine is all the different parts of the day, and it shows you what we’re going to be doing, and when,” Watt says, before launching into the day’s next activity: large group time.

A big part of preschool is learning how to go to school. And the four-year-olds in Watt’s class, including Danielle Lansanah, are taking to this new routine like fish to water.

Lansanah has been in her new classroom less than an hour and she looks happy and comfortable.

Her mom’s the one who looks anxious.

Danielle is Triva Allen’s only child, and she’s been at home up until now. But Allen she wants her daughter to learn some independence, “and also, because she’s an only child, I’m hoping that she develops some social skills with the other children.”

Allen says she wouldn’t have been able to afford the tuition at a private preschool – which can cost thousands of dollars a year. So for kids like hers, the expansion of the Great Start program means the difference between preschool and no preschool.