District piloting free 3-year-old preschool program

A teacher works with a group of students in the Strong Beginnings 3-year-old preschool in the fall of 2022.

While one small student struggles to wake up from his nap, his three-year-old classmates spend a few minutes sitting on their cots quietly flipping through board books from their personalized book bags.

Next comes some singing and dancing – to practice motor skills, learn new words and reinforce numbers.  That is followed by a story time with the teacher and then working in smaller groups on patterns, colors, shapes and counting.

Welcome to the Strong Beginnings class at Cotter Early Childhood Center in Dearborn Public Schools.

Strong Beginnings is a free preschool program for 3-year-old children from low-income families.  Dearborn offers one of only 12 classrooms around the state taking part in the pilot program funded by the state of Michigan.

Strong Beginnings started in January of 2021, bringing the young students into class while the rest of the district was still closed due to the pandemic, said Amy Modica, Early Childhood Coordinator for Dearborn Schools.

That first class of students stayed with the same teacher as they continued through the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) the next year at Cotter. GSRP is a state-sponsored preschool that is free for 4-year olds from families who qualify. Dearborn Public Schools offers more than 600 GSRP slots across the district, with some openings still available.

Michigan started offering free preschool for some at-risk 4-year-olds in 1985 and has steadily expanded what is now known as GSRP.  Strong Beginnings follows the same curriculum as GSRP, but obviously adapted to 3-year olds.  For example, lessons are a bit shorter and students might focus more on learning to count than on recognizing written numbers.

Strong Beginnings initially was not included in the state budget for the 2022-23 school year, but legislators voted to extend the funding for a third class of students later in the summer.

The program handbooks says, “Strong Beginnings classroom curriculum places emphasis on literature, listening, oral communication, problem solving, number and numeration, fine and gross motor coordination, social relationships and self-help skills.”

Strong Beginnings also has a very strong family component, which engages parents through monthly meetings, teaches parents activities they can do with their children, and provides parent resources and ongoing support for families in need.

Modica noted the classroom always has a waiting list and prioritizes helping students with the highest risk factors. Only 14 students are allowed in the class, which has a teacher and an assistant teacher.  Students attend four days a week for a full day of school.

It’s too soon to say for certain how much Strong Beginnings helps students.  The first class of preschoolers, which only had a half year in the program, only recently started kindergarten.  The district and the state will be watching how the students perform over the next few years.

While academic results might not yet be certain, Modica said the teachers have noticed other skills.

“We have seen a huge difference in self-help skills,” Modica said.

Teaching students how to get their own materials, put on coats, and put away toys and supplies is important to making sure they show up to kindergarten ready to learn.

“Strong Beginnings is a great program, and we are glad to be able to offer it to at least a few of our families,” Modica said.  “We are also curious to see how students benefit over the long run and if the program will be expanded.”