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Denise Smith's picture

As educators, advocates and organizers, we know it’s not easy to unite, and much less execute effectively, as a collective. Nonetheless, we must continue to diligently pursue these collective conversations and actions to achieve a thriving ecosystem for young children.

To me there’s undoubtedly an interconnectedness between mental health, physical health, food sovereignty, education and more with respect to young children’s well-being and the struggles our communities are facing on a daily basis. One of the underlying themes that continues to shine through each sector’s respective work is a desire to see our communities, specific to my work our youngest learners and their families, achieve greater self-reliance and self-sufficiency.  

I’ve worked within the early education and care landscape for more than 20 years in one aspect or another from providing in-home care to director of Great Start to Quality, MI tiered quality rating and improvement system to my current post as Vice President of Early Learning, Excellent Schools Detroit. Excellent Schools Detroit was established in 2011 with the superlative goal of driving conditions to ensure that every Detroit student, cradle to career, receives and excellent education.  

In this complex city of Detroit that is undergoing a broad number of reforms from the economic fall-out of our most recent bankruptcy to the legislative response to saving our community school district to restructuring demographics and infrastructure, we know that there are thousands of families struggling to find enough high-quality early care and education in order to be able to work and to educate their children. We also know these early childhood education programs are struggling to find enough high-quality talent, facilities or even the professional development necessary to improve outcomes for the children who are able to access their programs. Additionally, we are also aware that what little funding is available is stretched too thin for innovation, and silos in the early space prevent collaboration.

At the close of 2016, the early learning team at Excellent Schools Detroit highlighted these inefficiencies in a policy brief, “Readiness Detroit: A Local Policy Roadmap for Birth to Eight Success”1 with the intention of providing a guide for policymakers to ensure a 3rd grade reading bill passed by Michigan’s legislators actually leads to more children who are considered ready for kindergarten, and reading proficiently by third grade.

The stakes are very high as we know students who fail to receive quality early care and education are more than likely to experience delays in achievement later in life -- delays that on average cost our community $96,000 over a lifetime2 in support for every child who does not arrive to kindergarten on time.  The reality is that too many of our children from birth to eight are not prepared to learn let alone read on grade level, and why is that?

  • In the classroom, we know our students are offered insufficient remediation services and intervention services when they fall behind. By the time a child reaches five, we know if they’ve been underserved they’re likely to be at least 2 years behind in their readiness and development.
  • Outside of the classroom, we know our families are failing to connect with accessible and adequate wraparound support for attendance, health and nutritional needs, social-emotional awareness and other needs.
  • Our communities are plagued by a vicious cycle of poverty resulting from our inability to create universal policies that support strong starts for all children, and lead to high school graduation rates that ultimately impact economic conditions of all our communities. For example, the federal government estimates indicate, that a high school dropout costs society $243,000 to $388,000 in present-value dollars over his or her lifetime, and societal costs related to incarceration are $1.3 to $1.5 million in present-value dollars.

I am certain that all of my colleagues, and the like, who are struggling to make budgets match need could think of many more effective ways to use those resources. But let me end by asking, do you feel this is the best way for us to make the greatest social impact for our communities? I’m willing to bet you’d say, “Absolutely not!”

In the above mentioned brief, we set out to report how best policy and action can support our students from birth, and we have outlined within the document very specific ways in which our elected policymakers, advocates, educators and stakeholders set our city up for success. Personally, I firmly believe that together we can work to level the playing field for our underserved communities, and create solid policies to action before one more family slips through the cracks.


1 “Readiness in Detroit: A Local Policy Roadmap for birth to Eight Success”, Excellent Schools Detroit,, Detroit, MI October 2016.

2 “Cost savings of school readiness per additional at-risk child in Detroit and Michigan”, Chase, Richard and Diaz, Jose, Wilder Research, Minnesota, 2015.



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