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Michigan Radio's Grading Michigan Schools is a multi-part series that takes an in-depth look at education in Michigan. We hear why one college student feels let down by the public school system in the state. We find out about "unschooling," an education philosophy that abandons textbooks and a curriculum. We also look at how the public school system is serving at-risk students through education for the very young and early intervention for kids with special education needs.Support for Grading Michigan Schools comes from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, a founder of the Grand Rapids Education Reform Initiative, and The Skillman Foundation, a voice for Detroit children since 1960.

Learning Must Start From Birth

Nov. 13, 2007
Low-income children from disadvantaged families usually do worse in school than other children. The No Child Left Behind Act says eliminating that achievement gap is a primary goal. One preschool in Ann Arbor prepares poor children for school as early as age 2.Low-income children from disadvantaged families usually do worse in school than other children. The No Child Left Behind Act says eliminating that achievement gap is a primary goal.

But many educators say the Act has missed the boat by focusing on K through 12 education. They say the seeds of school success are planted between the ages of 0 and 5.

One preschool in Ann Arbor prepares poor children for school as early as age 2.

Today, a Perry Nursery School teacher is burning off some of her toddlers' excess energy. The children race in circles, first in one direction, then another. The children are also getting practice following directions.

Ready, set, go! Go , go, go! Go Maria, go Jonathan!

Perry Nursery School in Ann Arbor opened in 1934 as a WPA project to care for poor children during the Depression. Director Sandy Hilton says the school then cared for children of women factory workers during the war --

"So we were serving Rosie the Riveter kind of people and it's evolved from there."

Today, many parents are single, low-income minority mothers.

What hasn't changed is the school's conviction that children in poor families need high quality preschool to succeed. That means four things: highly educated teachers, a warm and positive environment, activities that set the stage for later reading and math, and social skills.

Perry Nursery School was doing all that before research showed it worked. One landmark study (Highscope) showed better grades, lower dropout rates, higher college attendance, and a fifty percent reduction in lifetime crime rates. All from just one year in a high quality preschool.

Then came studies showing that the human brain is almost fully developed by age 6.

"Now we feel a little vindicated -- yes! people are starting to listen! -- but if you do the right thing between 0 and 5, you won't have those problems at 15 and now we have proof of that!"

Perry also teaches parents. Hilton says many of the parents don't know that children need to be talked to and read to, to be ready for school. Parents at Perry must take at least 2 of the school's 12 annual seminars on topics like conflict management or controlling a child's asthma.

"We joke about it sometimes but we do say we are raising the parent with the child!"

Carol Johnson is a single working mother of seven children. After her divorce, she went back to work and enrolled her two preschool children in Perry. She says before preschool, her youngest cried constantly and was too shy to talk to anyone. Now she's friendly and well-behaved. Her next youngest is now in kindergarten.

"The teacher has to give him more challenging work because he's ahead of the classroom and that came from Perry."

The school also changed things at home. Johnson says she used to give the kids time-outs and spankings. But she learned to teach her children to solve disputes verbally after watching the Perry teachers do it.

Johnson thinks all low-income kids could use a Perry. But there aren't enough of these schools to meet the need.

And the current system for low-income preschoolers is highly fragmented. There's Early Head Start, regular Head Start, Michigan School Readiness, Michigan Early On, and a host of others. It's hard for parents to navigate the system.

Perry Nursery School is part of a new initiative in Washtenaw County called Success By Six. The goal: one unified system for families and one county website. Sian Owen-Cruise directs the initiative.

"The ten year plan is to see this achievement gap reduced because the children get what they need early on."

Owen-Cruise says one obvious problem will have to be addressed. Most low-income kids don't go to preschool, let alone a high-quality preschool. There's just not enough government funding. Most disadvantaged preschoolers are taken cared for by relatives or home day care providers. There's no training required. Providers may not know it's important to turn off the t.v. and read to kids.

The county plans to teach the basics with home visits and workshops. Owen-Cruise says people who care for other people's children need to understand what important work they are doing.

"They don't think of themselves as providers, this is not what they do for their profession, they're simply taking care of their grandchildren or their sister's kids, but they are providing the base of what this child will have in going to school."

Similar initiatives are underway in other Michigan counties with an eventual plan for a statewide 0 to 6 system. But the state's chronic fiscal crisis is a stumbling block.

And educators say the federal government isn't helping the way it should. The No Child Left Behind Act promised to eliminate achievement gaps between disadvantaged and well-off children. But early childhood educators say the Act focuses most of its attention on Kindergarten through 12th grade. And that's just too late.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Radio. She began her career at Michigan Radio as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.