How a Michigan community is benefiting from preschool expansion

Elizabeth Lamb can sing her ABCs and can write her name. The 4-year-old can complete a 100-piece jigsaw puzzle, whereas a few months ago she was still playing with 8-piece puzzles and large blocks.

Elizabeth spends her days in a classroom with other 4-year-olds at Indian Lake Elementary in Vicksburg, a few miles south of Kalamazoo. It’s a classroom that would be empty without a major increase in Michigan’s state-funded preschool program.

Its supporters expect this preschool expansion — the largest in the nation — to pay big dividends for these children and others in the decades to come, with higher high school and college graduation rates.

Elizabeth’s mother, Nicole Craig, doesn’t have to wait that long to see the benefits.

“Oh my God, it made such a difference,” Craig said. “She can stay there with her friends and eat three meals. And it’s more (of a benefit) than day care. This seriously prepares them for kindergarten.

Preparing children to learn for kindergarten is the goal of Great Start Readiness Program classrooms across the state. A $130 million influx for the state-funded preschool program for low- and middle-income families allowed the program to expand across the state. There are 14,000 more children in the program this school year than before the expansion began, and a growing share of them are taking full-day programs, rather than the half-day program which was the standard before the expansion. (This is in addition to the 7,000 added last year).

Here at Vicksburg Community Schools, where one in three students gets a free or reduced price lunch, it’s easy to see the difference the expansion has made. Two years ago, there was a GSRP class in one of the school district’s three elementary schools. This classroom had preschoolers for a half-day program in the morning and another group of 4-year-olds in the afternoon.

Vicksburg grew from 32 children in half-day programs four days a week to 48 children in full-day programs five days a week.

“We had to take risks and assume we could fill the classrooms,” Vicksburg Superintendent Charles Glaes said. It turned out that the district had the opposite problem – not enough seats. “We could have filled another class,” Glaes said.

Full-day classes provide “a deeper, richer experience” for preschoolers, said Tonya Nash, GSRP supervisor for the district.

“Going there, there were a lot of parents who were a little hesitant to all of a sudden enroll their babies in a full-day program,” Nash said. “We were also worried. But so far we haven’t received any complaints. It was a great opportunity for families and 4 year olds.

“I really believe these little ones will be ready (for kindergarten),” Nash said.

Vicksburg has also expanded its schedule from four days a week to five days. “If you think about it, I went from teaching 12 hours a week to 30 hours,” said Alyssa Thompson, GSRP lead teacher at Indian Lake Elementary, as students transitioned from half-day schedules to a full day.

“They adapt more quickly to a structured schedule. The parents are very enthusiastic. »

Parents are already making reservations for fall 2015.

“It’s clearly paying dividends to the state,” said Superintendent Glaes of Vicksburg. “You have to step back and take a long-term perspective, but it’s the job of the legislature and the governor to do just that.”

And Elizabeth? Besides the extra learning time, she also has access to an on-site speech therapist who helps her work on enunciation.

“I had a son who didn’t know his ABCs until he was 6, and Elizabeth knows him at 4,” his mother said. “She’s learning to speak better, which is great. There are so many wonderful things in this program.