Kindergarten Readiness: Vulnerable Grand Rapids Neighborhoods Targeted for Free Preschools

by Monica Scott

GRAND RAPIDS, MI — A tuition-free preschool will open this fall in the heart of the Roosevelt Park neighborhood to help ensure children in vulnerable neighborhoods are better prepared for kindergarten.

In a press conference Wednesday, the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative (ELNC) announced plans to open its sixth preschool in the former Grand Rapids schools Roosevelt Childhood Development Center, 641 Vries St. SW.

Nkechy Ezeh, chief executive of ELNC, said 83 percent of children enter Grand Rapids Public Schools unprepared for kindergarten, putting them at higher risk of long-term academic failure. She said economics and geography matter when it comes to having access to quality preschools because transportation and cost are barriers.

“The education crisis in our nation and in our state truly begins at the earliest years of a child’s life,” said Ezeh, who said eight out of 10 children are underserved in the inner-city neighborhoods they target. “If only two children only have access to quality preschool programs, no wonder 83 percent go to kindergarten not ready.”

“I am encouraged that through our community’s collaborative efforts, as exemplified by ELNC’s newest school in the Roosevelt neighborhood, we are taking one big step in reversing the tide.”

The new preschool will accommodate 128 3- and 4-year-olds, separating them into morning and afternoon classes of 64 each. Enrollment for the ELNC began Wednesday. Ezeh, who is also an associate professor in the School of Education at Aquinas College, said many of their certified teachers are bilingual.

ELNC is a community-based collaborative initiative, designed to support its partner organizations in the expansion of sustainable high quality, early care and education programs in vulnerable Grand Rapids neighborhoods.

More than 100 people attended the event, including Briona Hill and her 2-year-old daughter, Janiya, who she plans to enroll in the center next year.

“This is great for the neighborhood because there are a lot of kids around here,” said Hill, who lives two houses down from the center. “Preschool and daycare are really expensive.”

Last fall, the Grand Rapids school board approved a four-year building lease with ELNC.The agreement runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30 for $30,000 per year, with an annual Consumer Price Index adjustment for inflation after the first year.

Related: Grand Rapids board unanimously approves leasing Roosevelt School to nonprofit for a preschool

“Early learning can change the trajectory of a child’s academic future,” said Grand Rapids Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal.

Ezeh said a $350,000 interior renovation of the 6,200-square-feet Roosevelt center, vacant since 2009, is currently underway and supported, in part, by LINC Community Revitalization Inc.

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. The grant’s goal was to provide resources and technical assistance to increase existing or create new student capacity.

Related: W.K. Kellogg’s $5 million grant to help kids in some Grand Rapids neighborhoods

In January, the ELNC opened the first of five free “Little Schools or La Escuelitas” at South End Community Outreach Ministries, 1545 Buchanan Ave. SW, where it serves 32 children. Schools located at United Methodist Community House, 904 Sheldon St. SE, and the Hispanic Center of West Michigan at San Juan Diego, 1650 Godfrey Ave. SW, also serve 32 children.

The smallest little schools are at Living Stones Academy, 1250 Sigsbee St. SE, and Baxter Community Center, 935 Baxter St. SE, accommodating 10 and 20 children, respectively. ELNC added 126 new preschool slots this school year in neighborhoods.

Related: ELNC’s first ‘Little School’ opens to get vulnerable Grand Rapids’ kids kindergarten-ready

“Educational success is economic success for individuals and for an entire community,” said Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, who noted he was amazed at what the ELNC has done in just 18 months with the launching of six preschools.

“That first year of school is the beginning of a life time of learning, and if children aren’t ready for that very first year, then they are going to be behind for the remainder of their life.”

Julie Neimchick, president of the Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association, said the center that sat vacant for years will now become “a symbol of hope and dreams for the residents. She the center and neighborhood have much to offer one another.

Ezeh said the resources of W. K. Kellogg Foundation and the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation have been essential to ELNC designing and implementing the preschool system.

Families interested in enrolling their children in any ELNC preschool, including the new Roosevelt Early Learning Center, can call (616) 819-1407 or email

Original Article