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All families now eligible for free state-funded preschool program

The Record-Eagle - 1/24/2021

Jan. 24—TRAVERSE CITY — The need is still there. So is the supply. But the demand has fallen sharply.

Enrollment in early childhood education programs decreased significantly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and as it continues to affect schooling throughout the state. Families are still in need of preschool programming and child care. However, some parents are choosing to homeschool, use family to look after their children or simply wait a year.

In an effort to increase enrollment, the Michigan Department of Education is expanding who is eligible for the Great Start Readiness Program, a free state-funded preschool offering that normally serves lower-income families. All families, regardless of income, can now receive a GSRP application.

Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District officials announced this week that there are still openings at GSRPs in the five-county region. Yvonne Donohoe McCool, the TBAISD director of early childhood education, said lower-income families will still receive priority and placement over higher-income families, but the MDE's decision is an important step in the current climate. The ISD will also open a fourth GSRP classroom this month.

Donohoe McCool said some programs at school districts were at capacity in August and September, but many more continue to struggle to fill all of the available slots. GSRPs at Traverse City Area Public Schools, Kalkaska, Forest Area and others have seats open. Blends of GSRP and the Head Start program at Elk Rapids, Mancelona and Benzie have openings, too.

A study out of the University of Chicago, published May 28, 2020, examined the long-term effects on education and employment outcomes of children involved in Head Start, the federally funded preschool program for families with lower income than Great Start. The results found that Head Start has "positive and statistically significant effects on years of education and wage income."

Early education continues to be a focus at TBAISD. The district received a grant of more than $400,000 in November to open up services for 3-year-olds in the region. That, combined with the news out of Lansing about GSRP only helps, Donohoe McCool said.

Concerns within the early childhood education community were high in early summer when TCAPS officials eliminated GSRP and with it the district's 112 slots. Acceptance to a Great Start program is usually at a premium in northern Michigan, and the region's largest provider cutting its offering sent some parents into a panic.

TCAPS partnered with TBAISD in August to bring back the program after receiving a $70,000 donation from the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation. Yet five months later, TCAPS is not operating at capacity.

Had a partnership not been reached, the state likely would have reclaimed the 112 unfilled slots and distributed them to other programs in Michigan. There is no danger of that this year despite the declining enrollment.

Donohoe McCool said the state will not reclaim any slots or funding that was allocated this year. The same amount will be given next year to ensure the program's infrastructure is protected.

"It is still our intent to make sure every eligible family has access to a high quality program," she said.

TCAPS Superintendent John VanWagoner is not sure if the MDE action will have much of an effect on enrollment in his district, but he said they will get the word out that the service is still there. He said the TCAPS kindergarten programs also saw decreased enrollment.

"A lot of people have already made their plans for the year," he said. "It might add a couple if we have room in the existing sections, but all of that is yet to be seen. We just got to a point where the pandemic controls that."

Others are still championing the MDE's decision to lift the cap on GSRP eligibility.

Missy Smith, parent liaison for the Great Start Collaborative in Traverse City, called it a "tremendous opportunity" for families that have not had access to a preschool program before. Providing early childhood education to as many families as possible and making it accessible to as many families as possible is a boon for the community, Smith said.

"People are struggling in some ways to find quality child care," Smith said. "If there is a way to remove those barriers to participation, that's sending a really big message that this is a priority. This is a critical time for kids and their learning."


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