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Flint daycare, preschool aims to mitigate effects of lead exposure

Children at Cummings Early Education Center play at a water table using bottled water
Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio

Every child who attends the Cummings Early Childhood Center in Flint lives in the city and was exposed to lead as a result of the Flint water crisis. That can have damaging effects on their development and growth. The Cummings daycare and preschool opened late last fall to help mitigate some of those effects on the youngest children. 

The first thing you see when you walk into Cummings is a row of clear, plastic water bottles. There are cases of them, stacked up against the wall in the hallway and tons more stacked up on the stage in the auditorium. The water in Flint may be safe to drink now, but no one here wants to take that chance. 

Cases of water bottles are stacked along the window in the main hallway.
Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
The main hallway is lined with cases of water bottles, and there are more cases piled high in the auditorium.

The daycare and preschool opened last year in response to the water crisis to help children ages zero to five with any social and emotional, behavioral and developmental delays or behaviors that may arise as a result of the exposure. Cummings program director Mary Lynn Gottler says they do that through a combination of high-quality early interventions, healthy meals, and an educational philosophy that emphasizes the importance of one’s community. It’s called Reggio Emilia, named after the town in Italy where it was first developed.

"The philosophy was born out of the rubble of World War II when the city was recovering from the devastation of the war," explains Gottler, "and the families came together and wanted to create a school of joy, a school of hope, and I truly believe that’s what this school is."

TIMELINE: Here's how the Flint water crisis unfolded.

The school is a partnership between the state, Flint Community Schools, the University of Michigan-Flint and a bunch of community partners, and there are enough slots at Cummings and an affiliated preschool for about 220 kids.

As dean of Education and Human Services at U of M-Flint, Bob Barnett oversees the new early learning initiative. He says they have roughly $5 million to run the new early childhood center for three years in the form of $2.2 million from the state and another $3 million in grants from foundations.

Families that attend don't pay a thing -- it’s all free: free tuition, free services, free food. Parents can take GED classes at the center, and there will soon be a nurse’s clinic on site that families can use. 

And there’s one more thing that's unique about Cummings: It’s not just a preschool and daycare, it’s also a research center. Mary Jo Finney chairs the education department at the U of M Flint and says "this is very different than a traditional kind of preschool childcare environment because we’re so present studying for the benefit of the children and the families there, but also for the greater good." 

Staff wear Flint Lives Matter t-shirts for Flint Pride day
Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Staff at Cummings Early Childhood Center show their Flint pride.

There will be the standard student assessment data to track how kids are developing, and then -- with the parents' permission -- researchers from U of M Flint and elsewhere will collect data on other issues related to lead exposure, like anxiety and depression in families:

"If the child is stumbling, mom’s worrying, like, 'Oh my God, does that mean my child is dizzy because of lead?'" says Finney. "So part of the research will be looking at the parents and how are they weathering this reality, and how can we help them so that they can feel a renewed sense of hopefulness that can then start to reshape and re-frame their trauma."

Another part of the research will focus on longitudinal studies, as the plan is to follow these children through at least high school to see how the effects of lead exposure, coupled with high-quality early interventions, play out in the long term. There will also be research that "goes beyond the lead crisis," says the U of M-Flint's Bob Barnett, like placing in the infant room all the non-native speaking families and conducting research on that cohort over time. "As much as we can," says Barnett, "we want the data to lead us in directions of making their lives better."

So that's the research side of things, focused on the future. 

Children at Cummings Early Childhood Center hug the school's program director, Mary Lynn Gottler
Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Cummings program director Mary Lynn Gottler says she's seen a lot of healing happen at the center.

For Mary Lynn Gottler, the director at Cummings, she’s focused on the 200 or so kids in front of her as they are right now, and she uses this Fred Rogers quote as her guide:

Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.

"I thought it just spoke to who we are, and Mr. Rogers talked about the people in the neighborhood and that’s who we serve," says Gottler, wiping away tears. "Because the people in this neighborhood have hurt quite a bit and I’ve been so blessed to see a lot of healing happen here."

The state has guaranteed funding for Cummings and an affiliated preschool for three years. U of M Flint researchers hope they’ll have enough data by then to show that their interventions are working, so they can go back to the legislature and ask for another three years of funding to keep the school open.

Jennifer is a reporter for Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, which looks at kids from low-income families and what it takes to get them ahead. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and was one of the lead reporters on the award-winning education series Rebuilding Detroit Schools. Prior to working at Michigan Radio, Jennifer lived in New York where she was a producer at WFUV, an NPR station in the Bronx.
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