KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Western Michigan University's Dr. Regena Nelson, professor of early childhood education in the Department of Teaching, Learning and Educational Studies, has been appointed the board president of Kalamazoo County Ready 4s (KCR4s). The organization partners with pre-K classrooms in Kalamazoo County to advance high-quality early education through professional development, tuition assistance and family support.
"It's a mission that I believe in so deeply about how early childhood education can change the trajectory of a child's life that I just want to support it in anyway I can," says Nelson. "And if I'm asked to lead to support that mission I won't turn it down."
KCR4s originated from the social justice organizing process used by Interfaith Strategy for Advocacy and Action in the Community (ISAAC), when identifying and addressing issues in the community. In early 2008, volunteers from ISAAC listened to hundreds of people in Kalamazoo County and found residents were concerned about the well-being of young children, their support and preparation for life. After being selected by ISAAC as one of three issues that needed to be addressed in the community, Pastor Carol Richardson and other ISAAC members created the Early Childhood & Education Task Force.
Task Force members met with leaders in education, government and business to identify what could be done to intervene early and prepare children. What they discovered was children were not ready for kindergarten because of the lack of accessibility and quality of preschools in the county. With this as their focus, the Task Force launched the Kalamazoo County Committee for Early Childhood Education (KCCECE) to secure funding, establish community partnerships and build relationships with early childhood education experts, like Nelson.
In February 2011, KCR4s was launched and started partnering with pre-K classrooms in the county to advance high-quality early education. Currently, the program works with 26 preschools serving over 1,200 students by providing support through mentors, professional development and specialized support staff. The program also provides tuition assistance to families so their children have access to pre-K programs. Families can also receive support through sponsored family engagement events, providing referrals to community partners to address the needs of the family and specialized support for family members who need behavior, speech and occupational therapy.
Originally brought in as an education expert, Nelson's role in the organization grew after the closure of Western's preschool in 2019. She had received funding from a grant to support college students with preschoolers, but after the closure of the center she had to relocate children to nearby schools.
"I told the executive director at KCR4s I need to find preschool partners to send our students to so they can use this funding. So I started partnering with them on that," says Nelson. "We were working so closely on this that the executive director brought me in and said, would you be interested in serving on the board?"
After several years serving on the board and involvement in different committees with KCR4s, Nelson was appointed board president in July 2023.
"Regena is one of the early education experts who continues to inform KCR4s and ensures we're utilizing best practices. We're lucky to have such a knowledgeable and passionate leader for our community," says Kristyn Buhl-Lepisto, executive director of KCR4s.
Nelson is excited to help support the mission in a leadership role and help every child in the community attend preschool. She also looks forward to continuing the already strong connection between WMU and KCR4s by increasing the university's involvement by placing more teachers candidates in classrooms.
"Dr. Nelson has been diligently working with our early childhood education program for decades and is such an integral part of the success that they've seen," says Dr. Luchara Wallace, associate dean of the College of Education and Human Development. "We're exceptionally proud of all the work that she continues to do, and the future impact she will have on the lives of children and families in Kalamazoo County as the new board president."
The biggest benefit of the program for most families is the tuition assistance. With an average cost of $741 per month (Economic Policy Institute), many families have to choose between sending their child to preschool or paying bills. However, KCR4s has been able to provide over one million dollars to provide full or partial tuition assistance to parents in the county.
"It has saved my entire life! It helped me not get my house foreclosed on," said one parent in the program. "It has saved me thousands of dollars, and has saved everything."
According to Nelson, convenience is also a big factor when parents are making decisions about preschool for their children. Often it is easier for them to bring their children next door to a neighbor than it is to drive them to a preschool. And for most of those parents this was how they were raised and believe it will be fine for their children. However, her research has shown that it isn't as effective for their development.
"We're noticing that kids who go to preschool benefit more having that type of socialization and a trained preschool teacher who understands child development," says Nelson.
The program is also benefiting kindergarten teachers as children are coming to them more prepared and understand how to behave in a classroom setting. On average, children learn twice as much compared to those who do not have a high-quality pre-K experience.
WMU students enrolled in the early childhood education program are also benefiting from Nelson's involvement with KCR4s. Each semester, Nelson places between 30 to 40 students in preschools across Kalamazoo County for their required internships. And according to Dr. Suzan Piazza, chair of the Department of Teaching, Learning and Educational Studies, these internships are preparing students for future careers in education.
"When we place our students in the KCR4s preschools, they are earning really valuable experience because their internships meet the new Michigan standards for birth through kindergarten for both general education and special education. With these opportunities, we can ensure our students are prepared to recognize the whole child development and when they need to seek outside support if they encounter any potential difficulties that children are having," says Piazza.
KCR4s is not only impacting the live's of students in the early childhood education program but also WMU students who have children in KCR4s sponsored preschools. Dung Pham, a mother and international student in the evaluation, measurement and research doctorate program, was able to enroll her daughter into preschool because of the financial aid provided by the program. While attending preschool, Pham says her daughter learned English and developed the social emotional skills necessary for her age.
"It was a miracle for our family," says Pham. "Having the opportunity to get funding from KCR4s for her to go to school is just the starting point of a very wonderful journey."
According to Timothy Bartik, senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, data from the 2011 and 2012 cohorts of KCR4s participants already looks encouraging. His previous research in Tulsa, Oklahoma evaluating pre-K programs found that a 1 percentile increase in kindergarten test scores increases adult earnings by about one-half of 1 percent. Preliminary estimates from the KCR4s program suggest that there will be large test score increases of up to 9 percent.
“A 9 percent boost would represent over $23,000 in present-value gains, evaluated at age four. As KCR4s provides a maximum subsidy of $4,500 per child, the implied benefit-cost ratio is over five-to-one,” says Bartik.
As the program progresses, more data will be given to the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research to be analyzed.
Early childhood education at wmu
WMU’s nationally accredited Bachelor of Science in Early Childhood Unified Education prepares candidates for teaching and leadership positions in settings that serve children from birth through 3rd grade. Experienced faculty members mentor candidates to develop an effective balance of research, theory and practice in diverse educational settings. WMU offers multiple clinical experiences and a final internship which are spread across infancy through third grade and take place in private and public settings within diverse communities. To learn more about early childhood education at WMU, visit the program website.
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