by Monica Scott
GRAND RAPIDS, MI – The Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative today opened the first in an expected series of free “Little Schools or La Escuelitas” focused on getting preschoolers from vulnerable neighborhoods kindergarten-ready.
“Two out of 10 children in the vulnerable neighborhoods of Grand Rapids do not have access to high-quality preschools,” said Nkechy Ezeh, CEO of ELNC, at the opening of the preschool classroom at South End Community Outreach Ministries (SECOM), 1545 Buchanan Ave. SW, the first of three to open this year targeting 4-year-olds and some 3-year-olds.
“We are providing place-based programming that is culturally relevant in their neighborhoods that is accessible. If children are not ready for kindergarten, they are not ready for life.”
A ribbon-cutting was held on Monday, Jan. 7 with ELNC partners, parents and community member in attendance.
ELNC, a nonprofit organization, has designed and is currently implementing an intentional preschool service system aimed at providing, expanding and sustaining the capacity of high-quality early care and education programs to low-income children living in predominately black and Hispanic communities.
In 2011, ELNC received a $5 million, four-year grant, from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to increase the number of children ready for kindergarten living within targeted neighborhoods, by providing resources and technical assistance to its neighborhood partners that would enable them to increase existing or create new capacity.
ELNC is currently providing financial resources for 110 children to attend quality pre-school programs. Ezeh, who is also associate professor of education & director of Early Childhood Education Faculty of Education at Aquinas College, said resources coming into Kent County too often are not reaching children and families most in need.
She said the Little Schools will provide more individualized attention to students because the classes are small – 16 from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 16 from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m.
The students are instructed by two bilingual certified teachers.
“This is definitely a program that I was looking for,” said Kendra Bitner, who said she lives in walking distance to the preschool program her sons, Xavier, 4 and Zaiden, 3, attend the preschool class in the SECOM building.
“They were going to attend a paid program over on 44th Street, but I would have had to get them up very early to catch the bus there. I am glad the class is small so that each child’s needs get attended to.
Angela Velasquez said she is hopeful the program is good for her 4-year-old, Amber, and others attending from the neighborhood.
“We want them to learn, so that they can be ready for school,” she said.
Teachers Lynnelle Mulder and Araceli Ojeda today was just trying to get the students used to being in a structured learning environment and learning the daily routing. After a breakfast of cereal, the students gathered on the carpet as Mulder read the book, “The Kissing Hand” to them. The story features Chester the raccoon, who is starting school and has some fears.
Most parents, like Bitner and Velasquez, stayed in the classroom, which has everything written in English and Spanish, for 10 or more minutes after dropping off their children.
“The children are not used to being in school, so we are getting to know them today and teaching them to raising their hands, to listen and follow instructions, and helping them get used to the routine,” said Ojeda.
In addition to the SECOM site, the other ELNC programs slated to open in the coming weeks with its partners are at Wellspring Church of Grand Rapids, 811 Wealthy St. SE, and the Hispanic Center of Grand Rapids. The preschool classroom will be at San Juan Diego Academy, 1650 Godfrey Ave. SW.
“We are trying to get as many schools as possible going because of the need in these communities,” said Ezeh, who said rehab work was required to create the preschool classes. “If the program needs to run through the summer to get children, we are prepared for that.”
Shawnte’ Williams, ELNC project/compliance director, said the organization is moving with a “sense of urgency” to address the access issue in inner-city neighborhoods. She said their parents face financial, transportation and other challenges to getting their children in structured learning environments.
In September, ELNC plans to open a preschool that would allow them to serve 84 children. The Grand Rapids school board approved a lease for four years at $30,000 per year for ELNC to operate the school in its old Roosevelt Child Development Center, 644 Cordelia St. SE. The school was initially planned to open this month but rehab work on the building, vacant for three years, is still underway.
Ezeh said without the Kellogg resources and those of the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation, it could not fulfill its mission. She said ELNC coordinates preschool services for the foundation’s Believe 2 Become’s Baby Scholars program, which serves parents of children ages 5 months to 5 years with free educational support to help their child be ready for kindergarten.
More than 80 percent of Grand Rapids schools students enter kindergarten unprepared. There are a few efforts targeting that problem, including First Steps, Grand Rapids Public Schools, and the Great Start Collaborative opening Early Learning Communities hubs.
“We want to these schools to become a part of the fabric of these neighborhoods,” said Nadia Brigham, program officer for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. “We are trying to provide access to preschools across the city, so that these kids have the same access to a quality education as those in middle and upper income families.”
Ezeh said her group will measure their success, not just by children being prepared for kindergarten, but by parents in the neighborhoods they target becoming more engaged, understanding and embracing the importance of early childhood education.