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Ridgway White: Invest in early education to change the trajectory of children, families

A new Michigan State University study should be a wake-up call for anyone concerned about the future of our children — and our state. It shows that Michigan ranked dead last among all 50 states for improvement in fourth-grade math and reading proficiency between 2003 and 2015.

This is a dire warning. We already knew Michigan ranked in the bottom third of states for proficiency on those measures.

And now we’ve learned we’re the worst at making things better.

How can we halt this seemingly inexorable decline and begin to bend the trend lines for student achievement into positive territory? I would argue that, even as we strive to improve our K–12 system, we must invest more in our children‘s education from birth.

In the wake of the Flint water crisis, our community identified access to full-day, full-year, high-quality early education as the most critical need for helping children cope with learning and developmental challenges caused by lead exposure. But this is something Flint needed before the water crisis, and it’s something all Michigan children should have.

Working with partners in and beyond Flint — and with government at every level — the Mott Foundation helped to renovate a shuttered school and build another. Cummings Great Expectations and Educare Flint opened their doors in October 2016 and December 2017, respectively, and now serve 362 students.

Working together as part of the Flint Early Childhood Collaborative, both schools seek to improve learning for students — not only by offering highly trained teachers and an engaging, age-appropriate curriculum — but also by providing a broad array of supports and services to help families succeed. The Collaborative also aims to share information and best practices to raise the quality of early childhood education and care provided throughout the city.

The level of programming provided at Cummings and Educare has positive effects. It lays the foundation for students to be better prepared — academically and socially — to enter kindergarten.

Children and families learn the importance of attending school all day, every day. And families that are supported with resources are not only more engaged in their children‘s education, but adults in the family are better able to work or pursue their own education.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer clearly understands the importance of early education for improving the trajectory of our children and families.

I’m encouraged that she’s pushing for universal preschool for all 4-year-olds in Michigan. It’s a laudable goal and a great step in the right direction.

But, especially for the most vulnerable children, it’s essential that we begin educating them at birth so they’re ready to succeed when they enter our K–12 system.

I hope the research and data currently being generated by Cummings and Educare Flint will help Gov.

Whitmer make the case for even more support from state and federal funding streams, especially for kids with the greatest ne. The Flint Early Childhood Collaborative would prioritize the following additional improvements.

Change the way Child Development and Care providers are paid. Currently, they’re reimbursed every two weeks based on students‘ attendance.

To attract and keep quality educators, and to assure adequate staffing on any given day, providers must be able to count on a consistent budget. That’s why they should be paid on a contract basis for the number of students they serve each year.

Increase the eligibility level at which families qualify for CDC funds from 130 percent of the federal poverty level to 150 percent or more. This would help more families enroll children in early education programs.

Focus on improving students‘ grade-level preparedness by providing professional development for educators that aligns the way they teach with the way students develop and learn from birth through third grade. This is especially important considering Michigan’s new third-grade reading law.

Beginning in the 2019-2020 school year, children could be held back if they’re more than one level behind in reading.

We must recognize that it’s not our students who are failing.

It’s our educational system that’s failing them. To change this, we must begin by investing more in our youngest learners.

If Michigan hopes to become a top 10 education state — one that attracts both families and businesses — we can do no less.

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