One especially innovative component of the pre-k curriculum at New Genesis Learning Center is ABCDance, which teaches reading skills through movement and dance.

The challenge: Break the cycle of intergenerational poverty — created largely by systemic racism — in Kalamazoo’s Northside and Douglas neighborhoods. The goal: Influence the development of children so they are ready for kindergarten. The method: Remove barriers, like affordability and transportation, to quality pre-kindergarten for three-year-olds.

Joda Grimes and Angela Johnson are breaking down barriers that get in the way of parents helping their youngsters prepare for kindergarten. They serve as part-time parent educators and family advocates in an innovative and dynamic program that is now in its second year: the Northside Preschools program.

Certified as parent educators from the National Parents as Teachers Program, Grimes and Johnson meet with parents to teach them what they need to know to help their young children succeed in school.

The work being done by Johnson and Grimes today emerged out of a question posed back in 2014. How do you design a multi-year project to provide a free, high-quality, pre-kindergarten experience to three-year-olds — and make sure it improves their intellectual, social-emotional and physical development?

Designing the experience

Northside and Douglas neighborhood families originally helped to answer this question during a series of nine parent focus groups organized by the Northside Committee. Using feedback from those meetings, the Northside Preschools program was launched in September 2014.

Participating families encouraged committee members to locate these preschools in their neighborhoods so transportation would not be an issue. Northside Preschools are now located at the Jennings Development Interplex, New Genesis Learning Center at Christian Life Center and Mt. Zion Baptist Church. Together, they are serving 28 families that do not qualify for free pre-kindergarten through Head Start and are not able to afford high-quality pre-K on their own.

A 2015 grant of $279,000 from the Community Foundation for this program covers all tuition costs, as well as classroom equipment and supplies, the salaries and expenses for Grimes and Johnson, research and student assessments, parent engagement services, and recruitment and transportation expenses. The preschools are also benefiting from on-site teacher mentoring and speech pathology support provided by KC Ready 4s.

Providing stability

"In addition to early education, Northside Preschools are getting families the help they need," says Jim Greene, a former chair of the Northside Committee who continues working on this project. According to Greene, from the beginning of the school year through the end of 2015, Northside Preschools made 89 referrals to other agencies to provide additional help to families. "There is more than just learning that goes into preparing a child for kindergarten," says Greene. "We have families in the program who are homeless. You can imagine the impact that has on learning. This program gives stability to these children."

Says the Community Foundation’s Sandy Barry-Loken, "The Northside Preschools program is one of the strongest collective efforts we’ve witnessed in the community. Its leaders know what stands in the way of children accessing a quality pre-K experience and they’re working together to break down and remove those barriers."

Greene tells the story of a single father whose child was struggling when he started the program, but began to blossom and became truly engaged in the learning process. "We hope the joy these youngsters experience with their first year of school will carry them through each successive educational milestone," he says. "A quality pre-K education is essential to success in school and life."

In reflecting on her experience with Northside Preschools, Joda Grimes says, "We’re building relationships with families. We let them know they have the support they need. What we like are the connections," she notes. "No families feel left out."

Says Angela Johnson, "We’re in this together!"