Column: Kids deserve early chance at success

Nkechy Ezeh

Although there has long been consensus among social scientists and education experts that early childhood learning is a critically important factor in the socio-emotional and educational development of children, the quality of pre-kindergarten educational offerings in Michigan still varies widely.

Nowhere is the quality disparity more apparent than with underserved communities. In recent years, there has been improvement in Michigan’s early childhood programs because of the state’s Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) for at-risk children, but quality early learning options can still be elusive for some families.

It matters because there is ample evidence that early childhood learning sets the stage for a child’s success throughout primary and secondary school and well into adulthood. For example, on fourth grade math and literacy tests, Michigan children who experienced high-quality early childhood learning opportunities received higher scores than their peers without pre-K educational exposure.

According to a 2012 evaluation of the Great Start Readiness Program, 58 percent of GSRP participants graduated from high school on time compared to 43 percent of non-participants. The high school graduation rate difference between GSRP participants and non-participants was even more stark among students of color – 60 percent versus 37 percent. And GSRP participants were 33 percent less likely to repeat a grade before secondary school than students who did not attend a high-quality pre-K program.

The personal and societal benefits of pre-K education stretch beyond high school graduation. A 24-year study of alumni of Chicago’s Child Parent Centers (CPC) pre-K program has found that, compared to peers who didn’t attend CPC, the program’s participants earn more degrees, earn higher salaries, and have fewer juvenile and adult criminal arrests.

A 2011 University of Minnesota analysis of the Chicago study predicted that over the span of a child’s lifetime, nearly $11 will return to society for every $1 invested in early childhood education programs.

Successful early childhood programs have high standards as a hallmark. For example, the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative (ELNC) in Grand Rapids has built a network of early learning programs that provide customized instruction based on individual student assessments. The teacher-student ratio is no more than 1-to-8 and bilingual instructors teach students for whom English is a second language.

Since a jarring 2010 study found that 80 percent of Grand Rapids children lacked access to early education, more than 1,400 children have been placed in programs over the last five years.

ELNC’s partnerships with neighborhood institutions such as community groups and churches have allowed the collaborative to have broad reach. Grand Rapids neighborhoods are also strengthened because ELNC partners have converted formerly blighted buildings into safe, attractive learning spaces and the collaborative’s programs provide critical social supports to families such as counseling to help them navigate issues like health challenges and trauma.

My dream is a Michigan where collaboratives like ELNC are the rule instead of the exception. Every child deserves access to the solid foundation that is early childhood education. Our collaborative is proof that anything is possible when neighborhoods are provided resources and empowered to create transformation within their own communities.

Dr. Nkechy Ezeh is an associate professor of education and director of the early childhood education program at Aquinas College. She directs the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative in Grand Rapids.