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Preschool programs preparing for ‘more staff, more classrooms, more building space’ 

State moves toward universal free preschool 

All Districts — Preschooler Richard, rosy-cheeked from recess at the Wyoming Early Childhood Center, was greeted with big hellos from his family and speech language pathologist Tara White as he walked into his classroom.

Chattering all the while, Richard joined his brother, Sebastian, 2, in playing with toys and building tiles. Parents Richard and Jenny Lane, there to talk about their son’s development, spoke with pride about his progress.

Young Richard, who enrolled in Wyoming Public Schools’ special education preschool program last year due to delayed speech, has since learned words, sentences and some sign language. He is now in a general education Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) class. He even teaches signs like “more” and “eat” to Sebastian.

“He talks all the time, which is great to see,” White said.

Along with what Richard is learning at school, mom Jenny Lane works diligently with him at home on worksheets and with other learning tools, practicing words and identifying pictures. Dad Richard Lane turns shopping trips into a learning game with his son, naming grocery items and repeating them as they go in the cart.

“He’s 4 going on 5, and I feel like he’s smarter than I am,” Jenny Lane said. “He definitely has humbled me a lot. I want to describe my gratitude for the program because it definitely helped me help him.” 

The school system … wants to help out, regardless of the size of your paycheck or the family structure you have.’

— Richard Lane, father to a preschooler

Reaching More Families with Preschool

Richard’s progress shows the impact preschool can have on early childhood development. There is momentum across the state to provide even more pre-kindergarten opportunities for families: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in July signed an education budget that moves closer to free preschool for all. With the current state budget allocating $254.6 million to expand free pre-K for up to 5,600 children, the goal is that by 2027, all 110,000 Michigan 4-year-olds will have the opportunity to attend pre-K regardless of income. 

“Some of our middle-class families who don’t qualify for free preschool because they make too much money to qualify still can’t make preschool work financially,” said Ashley Karsten, Kent ISD director of early childhood. “Getting children in school at 4 years old at no cost to families is huge.”

The increased funding allowed Kent ISD, which operates GSRP in Kent County, to add classrooms and spots this fall. There are still openings for children to enroll. 

Karsten expects a growing need for “more classrooms, more staff and more building space,” if momentum toward universal preschool continues. (Preschool will not be mandated, but will remain a parent’s choice, she said). She estimated universal preschool would require an additional 80 classrooms in the county.

According to the Great Start Readiness Program State Evaluation 2021-22 Annual Report, GSRP served 36,415 children statewide that year, only 954 children short of the pre-pandemic count of 37,369. About 91% were from low-income families, defined as families whose income is less than or equal to 250% of the federal poverty level; they represent diverse backgrounds both racially and ethnically. 

GSRP eligibility is based on family size and income, as well as other qualifying factors. Karsten said a family of four with an annual income of up to $90,000 per year can qualify for free preschool. 

In Kent County, the full-day Monday-Thursday program currently enrolls about 3,000 students in 225 classrooms, including 88 in local school districts. (Eight classrooms are piloting a five-day program.) The remainder of participating classrooms are in private childcare centers and community-based organizations, Karsten said. 

In total, nearly 5,000 children are being served in Kent ISD early childhood programs. 

In terms of staffing, Karsten said there are already consistently openings for GSRP teachers. Many half-day, part time and lunchtime positions are also available.

Efforts to increase the pipeline of preschool teachers include connecting individuals — including substitute teachers — who are interested in getting degrees with local universities and working with the state to provide flexibility concerning certification requirements. (Preschool teachers are required to have a teaching certificate with early childhood endorsements or a bachelor’s degree in early childhood.) 

Training for new and seasoned teachers is also ramping up, Karsten said. 

Kent ISD early childhood programs serving ages 0-5 
Great Start Readiness Program offers free four-day-a-week preschool for 4-year-olds
Bright Beginnings serves families from the prenatal stage to kindergarten-age with home visits and play groups using the Parents as Teachers curriculum
Early On supports parents and caregivers who have infants or toddlers who have a delay or disability in early learning or development.

Why It’s Important

In a GSRP classroom housed at Explorer Elementary School, in Kentwood Public Schools, associate teacher Andrea Mink worked on tracing and writing with twin sisters Elaina and Halleigh.

Mom of a kindergartner and first-grader at Explorer, Mink said the position, which she started in September, is perfect for being close to her children and having a schedule that aligns with theirs. Plus, she enjoys being with her 16 preschoolers.

“I love the 4-year-old age,” Mink said. “I love seeing all their personalities come out, the funny things they do.”

‘Getting children in school at 4 years old at no cost to families is huge.’

— Ashley Karsten, Kent ISD director of early childhood education

Mink said she can relate to the struggle of paying for tuition-based preschool, which her children attended. Medical bills made it difficult for their family. 

“I think it’s great for everyone to have the opportunity to go to preschool and not have their family worry about money,” she said. “It is such an important part of starting school before you go to kindergarten and having great success. I saw what it did for my sons.”

The benefits of early childhood education are many, Karsten said. Beyond early academics, students learn social skills and how to behave in the classroom. Post-COVID, she said gaps in those skills were evident when students who stayed home for preschool started kindergarten.

“It’s so important because 90% of a child’s brain develops by age 5 and so these early interventions are really important,” she said. “For GSRP, research shows children who attend high-quality preschool have significant positive developmental differences when compared to children from the same backgrounds who don’t attend high-quality preschool.”

The Lanes’ experience with Richard led them to enroll Sebastian in Early On. Dad Richard said they embraced the opportunity when they saw how much early intervention helped their oldest son.

Preschooler Halliegh practices tracing with Great Start Readiness Program teacher Andrea Mink

They credit structure, routine and relationships at Wyoming’s ECC for young Richard’s progress. His father said he now tells other parents about the value of early intervention and available options.

“The best advice I can give at the end of the day: just don’t be afraid to ask,” Richard Lane said. “The school system … wants to help out, regardless of the size of your paycheck or the family structure you have.”

Read more from Kent County: 
Kent, Ottawa, Muskegon ISDs join forces to recruit and retain teachers
Preschool enrollment gets a boost at Great Start Readiness

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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