Black and brown children are being forgotten when it comes to early childhood education said Dr. Nkechy Ezeh, a professor of early childhood education for 23 years.
“When children are not developmentally ready, they are so behind in every aspect,” Ezeh said. “I wish the world would hold still so our Black and brown children can catch up, but it doesn’t work that way.”
Communities of color have a harder time gaining access to a quality early childhood education, often having to rely on a family member instead of a licensed program for childcare.
Vivian Washington, an early childhood education educator with Michigan State University’s extension program, said early childhood education significantly effects the lifelong development of the child. Children left without this step in their education will still develop, Washington said, but learning may be stagnant.
“Families in survival mode with limited resources have scant access to educational materials and guidance to teach their children at home,” Washington said. “Any economic setback or family emergency can propel them even farther away from engaging in their child’s early development.”
A program dedicated to improving the spaces of early childhood learning providers is working to give those disadvantaged children access to a better early childhood education.
Learning Spaces is an initiative from IFF, an organization which helps finance nonprofit and service organizations.
It distributes grant funding for early childhood education providers to improve their facilities, professional development and technical assistance.
“The work and the investment comes into strengthening the space so that the children are inspired and have a healthy and safe learning environment to receive their care and their education,” Ashanti Bryant, IFF Director of Early Childhood Services, said.
Room temperature, air quality, vibrant color, natural daylight, an outdoor play area and a reduced noise level are small changes to the overall quality of a certified program that can dramatically impact a young students learning experience.
The program began in Detroit in 2016.
Since then, Bryant said Learning Spaces has been able to impact 80 plus providers in the city who have received a total of over $4 million of investment into their facilities, with approximately over 2,000 children impacted.
Learning Spaces recently expanded to Southeast Grand Rapids with the help of local community partners and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a grantmaking organization with focus areas of Grand Rapids, Detroit and Battle Creek. For the last five months, the program has reached seven providers and served 100 plus children.
“The research is very clear about the role of getting children the best start possible early on,” Yazeed Moore, program officer for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, said. “Knowing that if kids are provided with a quality early childhood experience early on, it increases their indicators across education, income, health, wellness.”
Bryant specified that the program mainly works with black and brown women-owned licensed care providers.
“This level of investment into a childcare provider can be transformational for her space where she cares for and educates her children and her team,” Bryant said.
One of these women, Lashawn Bridges, is director and owner of Blessed Beginnings Learning Center in Detroit. Bridges said her program offers social and emotional support along with cultural awareness to promote a positive self-image for young students of color.
“When we read stories to our children they will see children who look like them, they see communities where the children may come from,” Bridges said. “We try to reflect on our children’s experience no matter how vast or wide or different it might be from our experience.”
Early childhood education teaches children from 0-5 years old how to share, make friends and think critically in order for them to develop socially, emotionally, cognitively and physically before they reach preschool or kindergarten.
Data from Great Start to Quality, Michigan’s quality rating and improvement system that supports early childhood programs and providers, reports that there are 3,751 child care and preschool centers open across Michigan as of May 2021.
“We engage with community-based providers who elevated alongside the need for developing high-quality early childhood facilities in Detroit to serve more children because the gap was so significant,” Bryant said.
Improving access to a good early childhood education could change that.
“We need quality early childhood education in every neighborhood so children can have access to it, especially children of color preparing for kindergarten,” Ezeh said. “Once you’re prepared for kindergarten, you’ll be prepared for school. And once you’re prepared for school, you’ll be prepared for life.”
Ezeh said that it’s crucial to a child’s development for them to be learning within their own surroundings, but in her Southeast Grand Rapids neighborhood, it’s hard to find adequate buildings for childhood learning spaces and home-based learning only provides services for up to six children.
“We don’t need to put our children in a yellow bus and take them to another community for 30 minutes on the bus, what message is this sending to our children?” Ezeh said. “It’s sending the message that my community is not good enough for me to be educated.”
She added that she’s excited for the work Learning Spaces is doing because enhancement of a home-based program’s learning environment means more available slots for children right in their own areas.
“In a center you can have up to 30 or 40 or 50 (children), but where we don’t have safe buildings for early childhood learning centers, then we can work with families to have learning spaces in their homes,” Ezeh said.
In a 2018 Grand Rapids study, IFF found a 72 percent service gap between the number of children aged 0-5 years old in need of care and the amount of slots available for them with licensed and registered providers.
“This is just chipping away at that block,” Bryant added.