Loice Maru came to Michigan nine years ago from Kenya to get a better education, eventually settling in Ypsilanti, learning English and familiarizing herself with American customs and traditions.
But it hasn’t been as easy for her 4-year-old daughter, Pendo, and 3-year-old son, Pili.
Their first language is Swahili and Maru knew this could make learning more difficult in school.
Twenty miles away, in the city of Livonia, Tammy Arakelian faced a similar situation as a working mom with three boys.
Her oldest son, Grayson, 5, has dyslexia, a learning disability that makes it difficult for him to recognize numbers and words. Arakelian said she worried Grayson would struggle to keep pace with classmates.
Both Maru and Arakelian looked to their local Great Start program for help. The preschool program promotes school readiness of young children from low-income families.
Maru, a part-time nurse’s assistant, said she could see the difference between the kids who have gone to Great Start and the ones who haven’t, “especially their interaction with other kids.”
Pendo will enter kindergarten this fall after completing Great Start; Pili will begin Great Start in the fall. Maru marvels at the transformation in her normally shy daughter, who now interacts with other children, expresses herself more clearly and has even learned to tie her shoes.
Arakelian has witnessed a similar transformation, starting with her son Grayson learning how to spell his name.
“The next thing he did was started naming other things that start with G,” Arakelian said about her son who starts kindergarten in the fall. “This world just opened up of everything he could do.”
Their families have been the beneficiaries of the early childhood education reform advocated by the Center for Michigan, created in 2006. The organization gauges public opinion and presents its findings to policymakers.
“For years the early childhood advocacy community has laid the groundwork for this,” said John Bebow, president and CEO of the Center for Michigan. “We added a couple of key pieces to move the early childhood agenda in Michigan forward.”
Bebow applauded the work of the Early Child Investment Corporation, which has collaborated with the Michigan Department of Education, Office of Great Start and other child care advocates to identify and address gaps in the state’s early education system.
“Michigan has had for a quarter century a public preschool program, but it was traditionally underfunded and did not serve nearly all of the kids who were eligible,” Bebow said. “That’s where we come in.”
Reporters from the center’s Bridge Magazine produced a 17-part series in summer 2012, revealing that 30,000 kids were eligible for public preschool but could not enroll because the state had not invested the money. Bebow said reporters documented the value of access to early childhood education for children from low-income households or otherwise deemed at-risk.
By 2013, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder announced a plan to expand the state’s preschool programs with a $130 million investment over three years through Michigan’s Office of Great Start, which helps low-income families like Arakelian and Maru’s get access to early childhood education.
“The victory here is the nation’s largest expansion of preschool for children who really, really need it,” Bebow said.
Their success, Bebow said, is based on the center’s mission to “engage, inform and achieve.”
“Wrap those three things together, add in a spice of good timing, and that helps explain how this change was able to made,” he said.
The center’s engagement team conducted a poll on early childhood education in Michigan, hosting a series of community conversations –nonpartisan dialogue between residents from various communities throughout the state.
The findings were presented in a report, showing overwhelming support for early education reform. But efforts didn’t end here.
The center leveraged its advocacy group, the Children’s Leadership Council of Michigan, to elevate the issue. This coalition of business leaders campaigned around Michigan, educating residents and legislators about how the state’s economic future depended on improving preschool accessibility for vulnerable children.
Bebow said strong public opinion, investigative journalism and support from business leaders were new tools for advocacy groups to leverage and critical to helping lawmakers grasp the importance of the issue.
“What this says about the policy environment is that leaders are listening,” he said. “They listen to very well-researched information, they listen to well-documented public mandate.”
With the Center for Michigan’s groundwork established, more children like Pendo, Pili and Grayson will be prepared for kindergarten and beyond.
“Public preschool is a game changer for those kids in order for them to reach third-grade math and reading proficiency,” Bebow said. “Change comes slowly, it’s very difficult, and in this case, there is tremendous change on behalf of Michigan’s children.”
Maru is eager to see how her son will fare in Great Start.
“I’ll be really happy, because since I’ve seen my daughter’s progress, it has been really exciting,” she said. “It will be really exciting to see my son not struggling.”