A former early childhood education teacher, Nkechy Ezeh was determined to improve access to early childhood education for vulnerable children in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“I noticed that they were coming to preschool not ready, and I noticed there was not enough opportunity for them in the City of Grand Rapids” said Ezeh, an education professor at Aquinas College who also serves as director of Aquinas’ Early Childhood Education Program. “I noticed there wasn’t anyone really making an effort to service these children.”
With support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Ezeh began her research, collecting data that proved her hypothesis: 83 percent of students in communities without access to quality preschool were not prepared for kindergarten.
By 2011, Ezeh led the creation of the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative (ELNC), a coalition of community organizations dedicated to providing children in underserved communities with high-quality early education systems. ELNC mapped Grand Rapids’ neighborhoods without preschools and began working to reverse the trend, finding and renovating area facilities to serve as schools. In 2014, Ezeh was also named a fellow as part of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Community Leadership Network.
“Parents wanted a preschool in their neighborhood and they didn’t want to have their child going 45 minutes out their way to another preschool,” said Ezeh, now ELNC’s CEO.
There are now 423 students like Arlesia Pinson registered at ELNC’s seven preschools.
Arlesia’s parents, Charles and Lisa Pinson, of Grand Rapids, said it was important to find a preschool with a diverse staff and student body after Arlesia was called racial slurs by classmates at her previous school.
“This school was more diverse and well-rounded,” Charles Pinson said about ELNC’s Early Learning Center. “I liked how they made each child feel special.”
Lisa Pinson said Arelsia, now in kindergarten, learned numbers, how to spell and even a little bit of Spanish at school.
“Sometimes, I hear her say a word, and I go ‘where did you learn that from?’” she said. “It’s amazing.”
Ezeh said the staff at each preschool is reflective of the diverse student population, which includes African-American, Latino and white children.
“Our preschools are unique,” said Ezeh, who has a master’s degree in early early childhood education. “We try to make sure that the staffing matches the neighborhood. We make sure it’s culturally relevant and it’s place-based.”
K'Sandra Earle, ELNC’s Early Childhood Education director, said the group assesses students’ progress three times a year to determine if the 4-year-olds are kindergarten ready. She said the majority of students in last year’s class graduated ready for kindergarten.
“At the first point of assessment 49 percent of our children were ready for kindergarten,” Earle said. “At our second checkpoint 66 percent of our children were prepared to enter kindergarten. At our final assessment 85 percent of our children will enter kindergarten next week ready to engage and interact.”
Lisa Pinson said she also learned from ELNC after attending its Parent Leadership Training Institute, designed to help parents become more engaged in their child’s education and community through cross cultural learning, community building, group dynamics and civic engagement.
“They taught us how to advocate for our children,” she said, calling the instruction insightful. “They taught us about public speaking and what to look out for in our child’s development.”
ELNC staff regularly canvasses targeted neighborhoods, using social media and local media to engage parents about early childhood education and gain parents’ trust.
“We have to earn their trust because it’s not automatically given when you bring services to them,” said Ezeh.