Episode 180 – The Early Learning Neighbourhood Collaborative (ELNC) is making strides in the Grand Rapids community by supporting accessible early childhood education with its model that prioritizes local learning environments, cultural competence in the early educator community and involving dual-generations in the early learning process. We chat with Dr. Ezeh, CEO of ELNC, about her drive, vision, and strategies to empower low-income communities with the resources needed to support their youngest and most vulnerable. A really inspirational episode!
Dr. NKECHY EZEH:
This is like I tell my staff, “This is their last bus stop and they have the last bus ticket. They have to get on this right bus and it has to take them to the right destination,” meaning kindergarten. Anything else is unacceptable.
Dr. Ezeh, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
Thank you so much!
We’re delighted to have on the show today Dr. Nkechy Ezeh. She is the founder and CEO of the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative based in Michigan. She’s also an associate professor of education at Aquinas College. Great to have you on the show, Dr. Ezeh.
You’ve got a long history in early-childhood education and as a leader doing great things to support the early-childhood community in the Michigan community where you are. Tell us a bit more about just how you got into early-childhood education and why you’re so passionate about what you’re doing.
Yes, thank you so much for having me on this platform. I’m really grateful to be contributing to the early-childhood field through your network and your podcast. Early childhood is one of those things that I dabbled into. I wasn’t really excited about children. I did not like children growing up. I always see me now and think about those days – it doesn’t match.
But what happened is that growing up in Nigeria, in West Africa, there were certain oils that parents would put on the children’s skin to avoid it from over-drying. And it just made my stomach a little queasy; I didn’t like it. And I felt like the children were so very, very fragile. And I just felt like, “Oh, my lord, I can’t even hold these children,” and all that. So, I wasn’t so excited about children.
But here I am in America, fast forward, in America, I’m pregnant, about have my own child. And I don’t have my family members here. I don’t know anything about children; I don’t know anything about child development. On my daily walk I was able and fortunate to enter the library of Grand Rapids Community College. And I saw a brochure, it said, “Child Development”.
So, in my brain, I know what a child is; I know what development is. But child development, I’ve never seen it like that together. So, out of curiosity, I decide to enroll in one of the classes just to learn a little bit about child development and what I’m going to do, taking care of my own daughter when she was born.
So, I started taking classes. And from there the miracle of child development took hold of me. And the more I learned about children, how they develop, how their environment, their daily routine and ordinary moments can impact their life for the rest of their life I was hooked. I just got excited about that. I wanted to know everything about how children develop and grow. I wanted to know how I [could] influence or build them a better environment to help them develop better. And I got into that; I got excited. And from then on it has child development and early-childhood for me ever since then.
That’s an awesome story! And you founded something called the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative [ELNC], based out of Grand Rapids in Michigan. Can you tell us what that is and what that does? And I’m just looking at some of the stats here on your website, that it’s created over 500 preschool opportunities and received over 20 million dollars in grants. So, that’s [an] amazing contribution to early child education in that area!
Yes, Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative [was founded] when the W.K. Kellogg Foundation approached me to work on that and find out. Really, if I take a step back, I wanted to kind of give you a little idea because ELNC, or Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative, did not start idle in a vacuum.
In 2009, the superintendent of [a local] public school in his state-of-the-school address issued almost what I would call called a call for help. That was really the watershed moment for us here in Grand Rapids. He said that 83% of the children coming to them were not ready for kindergarten. That really sent a shockwave through Grand Rapids.
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation approached me to find out, “What is a problem? Why is it that children are not ready for kindergarten?” Well, we know that when children are not ready for kindergarten, they’re not ready for life.
So, at that time, nobody’s really doing what we’re doing right now. There was no blueprint or a manual on what to do. People just kept on doing what they had been doing. But it wasn’t working and nobody’s stepping back to say, “Why is this not working? Why is it okay for our community to accept that 83% of the children going to kindergarten are not ready for kindergarten?”
So, armed with that information, it wasn’t good enough for me. I knew that we needed to do something and I knew we needed to do something different. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. So, that’s not how I grew up. I was raised to challenge things when they are not working.
So, armed with that I was able to pool a collaborative of community-based organizations, several of them, to really begin to dig deeper and find out, “What is going on? What do we need to do differently?” And doing a study that I call the “current reality research”, it was able to give us more information. The reason why the children were not ready for kindergarten was that only 2 out of 10 had access to quality early-learning opportunities.
Now, people may say, “While they stay with their families, what’s wrong with it?” Well, everything is wrong with it. When your parents did not even finish their own high school or have a GED [general education diploma] or are very, very low income and they lived in impoverished environment and everything is wrong with it.
So, that’s how ELNC was started. And since then what we have been doing, really, is to create opportunity, early learning opportunity, for the most vulnerable children in Grand Rapids because I believe that the key to breaking the cycle of poor educational achievement and its ripple effect is access to quality early education.
And so is it fair to say then what the ELNC is, it’s brought together a group of organizations to solve this problem of children not being ready for kindergarten in the community? Is that right?
Yes, that is right, to solve it. And the theory behind that is that I believe that people the intelligent capacity to solve their own problems. It was almost like sending out a message to the community, “We don’t want people coming into our community telling us what to do. We want people to empower us with resources.” Like the W.K. Kellogg Foundation empowered us with resources, empowered these community-based organizations, not only monetary resources, but technical resources.
My job as an early-childhood expert was to provide technical assistance to those community-based organizations. So, together we’re able to work together to solve that problem in making sure that more and more children have access to quality, early-learning opportunities.
And so what are some of the solutions that the ELNC is driving forward to help provide more access to quality early-childhood education? Because, as I understand it, the ELNC itself is not running like childcare programs or services…?
So, you’re working with others? So, how you doing that?
Well, there are three non-negotiables for ELNC. And you are right, ELNC is not running programs, we’re not creating. ELNC is like this umbrella. Our job within the ELNC hub office is to provide technical assistance, is to walk the partners through that. The goal is for the partners to do what they do best.
For instance, some of our partners also have a food pantry; some of our partners also have a senior programming; some of our partners have a youth program. So, early-childhood education is not the only thing they do. So, stay there, concentrate on what you know better and do that. Then the ELNC home office, our job is to provide “and’ bring in those technical assistances.
So, there are three non-negotiables for ELNC: number one is, we are a place-based. During my research I found that our children were being transported from one neighborhood to another. Sometimes a three-year-old or four-year-old is spending 30 minutes, 45 minutes being driven from one area to another. If you are not in your area, in your neighborhood, what message does this send to children? That my area is not good enough?
And early-childhood programs are very good in putting so many children in one building –400, 300, whatever – in one building. That was too much. So, with us, “place-based” means that they are in their own environment. That’s one.
The second non-negotiable for us is that this has to be quality and culturally competent, meaning that environments need to be conducive where children can learn, meaning also that the children – especially the black children and Latino children – need to see somebody that looks like them.
Now, we’re not talking about somebody who comes in and cleans up in the evening. No, we want somebody that looks like them in a teaching capacity. In any classroom we have that we have predominantly Latino children, if we cannot find a teacher that looks like those children we will hire a parent and train that parent until we can get somebody in there. So place-based; the child needs to be in the environment; developmentally appropriate; high quality, culturally competent.
And then the third one is this idea of the two-generation approach. I believe, and our program believes, that more as much as we pay attention to the children we must also look pay attention to the parents. Children do not exist on their own; they exist within the context of a family.
So, our society has created this division between the caregivers, all the teachers and the children. In our own program we make it as one unit. We are paying attention to the children; we are paying attention to the parents. So, those three non-negotiables are what makes the ELNC difference from other programs. And I’d say those are the things that are helping us achieve the results that we are getting right now.
And so what are some of those results? And how do you know you’re making a difference with what you’re doing?
We know; you can feel it. You know when our children go to kindergarten and we hear back from the teachers that they are coming in with confidence. It’s almost like, “I have been here. I know that.” We do so many activities to get our children to be able to be ready to transition into kindergarten.
But we know that, besides the anecdotal records and reports, we also have the data that shows that our children are developing, that they are doing well, that age-appropriate behaviors, that they have it. We assess our children, three different points. We have what we call checkpoints. We assess them in the beginning – around September, October – to have the baseline data when they come. We then use this baseline data to figure out where the children need us the most and use it to kind of plan for that.
And then we do another checkpoint towards the end of the year to kind of see what we need to do differently, what we need to adjust and all that. And finally we do the third checkpoint around March, April to kind of get the final data and see how they’re doing.
So, we know by just watching our children that they are doing better. We also know because, after all, this is an educational program that we have those data, both qualitative and quantitative data, to show that the children are doing well.
And then when we send them to kindergarten, we also know because we stay in touch with the kindergarten teachers that let us know that the children are doing well and they have adjusted. And we do it a lot in terms of transitioning our children to kindergarten. So, we don’t just don’t take it by chance.
We do… in Michigan here we have a program called Kindergarten Here We Come, that we get the preschool children ready to go visit the school kindergarten that they’re going to be going to, to see the teacher that they’re going to be working with and get to see that environment and all that.
And believe it or not, for most of the students, the kindergarten program that they go to is right in that neighborhood. So, that’s why the whole place-based [concept] is working because when they’re coming to preschool they can see the school that it might be going to in less than nine months or eight months, depending on when they started preschool with us. So, that’s how we know that it’s working.
Oh, that’s a pretty cool idea, to have the children go visit the kindergarten programs where they’re going to go just to, like you said, see what the environment looks like and feels like in the interactions and everything like that. Probably that helps with the confidence level as well, I would imagine?
Yes, and parents tell us, parents will also let us know. We hear stories about how the children are doing. We hear stories about, “Before they started your preschool this what happened.” Or, “My child who did not attend your preschool program, this is what we’re doing.”
And the confidence level that you just mentioned is what I was referring to in the beginning about when they go, it’s almost like… even as an adult, our work, the way we behave is different if we have been in a place before. If you’re going to a place where you have never been, the culture shock, it shows all around your face and your body language and all that.
And children are very, very sensitive. So, if they are thrown into an environment where they are not prepared to be in, every little thing will get on their nerve. They will snap out you; they will get upset and all that. And then what do we do? If a teacher is not experienced or knows what to do, they will react back to that, not knowing that child is not doing it to get back at you. They are just afraid.
And so taking them to go visit that place, to walk around the neighborhood and see, “This is where you’re going to be going to school. Everything is going to be okay. This is your teacher,” and all that. You’re going to calm their brain down and send the message to them that it is okay. “It is okay for you to be here and to learn.” And also knowing that it’s in their neighborhood helps a lot.
Yeah, absolutely. And so we touched on a few points that I think are really unique and interesting about ELNC. From your perspective, why do you think it’s been successful and you’re seeing these results?
Personally, I think ELNC is successful because it is personal. The work is personal to me and my staff. My colleague and I, K’Sandra Earle, and all our team members, we treat these children like they are our own. We are there to make sure that they are successful. We pay attention to the environment; we pay attention to the parents. Any time you have something that you are doing and you are being careful relating to the parents and the children, they are going to do well.
So, we are doing all that knowing that… this is like I tell my staff, “This is their [the children’s] last bus stop and they have the last bus ticket. They have to get on this right bus and it has to take them to the right destination,” meaning kindergarten. Anything else is unacceptable. Anything else is unacceptable.
So, because it’s in their neighborhood, because we are from that neighborhood, because we can relate to it, because the children can see themselves in us and we can see ourselves in them I honestly think that’s the “secret sauce” of ELNC because it’s emotional, it’s personal to us, we’re connected to it and we are treating these children like they our own children. And anytime you create that kind of empowering environment that is very supportive to who that child is, it changes everything for the better for them.
That’s very interesting to hear. And sort of what I was thinking was exactly what you said, which is this point you’re talking about with the three non-negotiables, including the place-based on being local and the cultural aspect. And that’s all connected to those things that you said about, “It’s your neighborhood and you can relate to it.” And that’s why you’re so passionate about it in making sure it’s such a success.
So, I guess my question to you is, and I don’t know if you’ve thought about this, but how could we try to, as the early-childhood education community at large, try to replicate this local grassroots impact, but at a wider scale across other parts of the country, or the world, let’s say? Because not every local community has a Dr. Ezeh who’s going to come in and see a problem and come and fix it, which you’ve done a fabulous job of. Or maybe that is? We try to find other people like you to take the lead? Have you ever thought about that?
Yeah, I have, actually I’ve thought about it. At ELNC we have been working with ELNC in phases. The first phase, phase one, was really, it was more like… ELNC was a demonstration project to see if it’s going to work. “What if we stop doing things the way we have been doing it and do something different? What if we use a bottom-up approach to everything we do? We empower our families. They are part of the decision-making. They’re part of the two generations. We are culturally competent. We are place-based. What if we did it differently? What would the result be?”
That was the first phase of ELNC. We did it; it started working. And then [the W.K.] Kellogg [Foundation] said, “Okay, let’s see. Let’s help you guys again.” And it helped that we had the use of W.K. Kellogg Foundation money to support us initially before we were able to get some funding from the federal government and all that.
So, yes, you’re right. Every community [does] need a Dr. Ezeh or a K’Sandra Earle to be able to help to provide that because I believe what was missing at that time was nobody to provide technical assistance. When you are working in preschool, everybody is emotionally charged. It’s very strong physically and emotionally. It’s very tiring to be working with children.
So, most teachers don’t have time to go home and then try to figure out what is going to work or not. You need somebody to step away. “It’s it working like I told you, using these three checkpoints? We need to see how the children are coming. What is the baseline data,” and all of that.
So, we have thought about it. ELNC is at a stage now where we’re taking our work back to our community. So, I’m hoping, by the grace of God, next year we’re going to have ELNC in Battle Creek [Michigan]. Our vision is to have ELNC in all the major communities where we have a concentration of poverty because that’s what we’re really trying to do: we’re trying to change the status quo for these children. Just because they are poor, they live in a poor environment, doesn’t mean that we can’t help them navigate and get out of that.
So, you’re right in the sense that it’s all those non-negotiables that are making it work. And every community can really apply what we are doing. If they need help we can guide them; it’s one of the things we do. [error in audio] I cannot come in to Toronto to run an ELNC for you back on. Back home you’ll need to run it.
Our job is to come in and convene the committees, show them how we have been doing it, and then let them do it as we guide them. Because it has to be authentic; it has to be personal. They have to buy into it that enough is going on in their community and we want to change that to show that you’re using early-childhood education to change the neighborhood and also to create a pipeline for these children that can help them achieve their God-given potential.
So cool. And I couldn’t agree more, it’s not just a system that you’ve created – like you said, it’s personal. And that’s the secret to success. The question is, can you try to replicate that? Because if we could, it could be very powerful. And certainly the right problem to solve, especially when you throw out a stat like 83% of children weren’t ready for kindergarten and only 2 out of 10 had access to quality early-childhood education. And as we all know, and as anyone listening to this podcast will know, if you start out in life like that and you’re behind at that stage, it’s pretty hard, if not impossible, to get back on track.
You’re right. I was going to say it, when children are behind it takes them almost 18 months. When they come in, vulnerable children are typically 18 months behind their peers in a classroom. So, can you imagine that coming in? You’re already 18 months behind in development and everything.
And the problem is that the classroom is full of all those children. It’s not like it’s a classroom where you have 16 children and 4 children are behind like you may see in a suburb, no. In a core city here, in Grand Rapids, the full 16 children in the classroom are behind, 18 months behind. So, you’re running against the clock, trying to get them to be ready.
And ELNC is now at the stage where it’s replicable in other communities. We just have to work with those communities to let them know what we did, what are the lessons learned. Because with ELNC we are building the plane, we are flying it and we are fixing it in the air. So, that’s what I love about ELNC, that it’s not a program or a model that we say, “Oh, we’re done, let’s go and sit down.” No, we are reinventing ourselves.
We started in 2011. In 2012 we added that component, we turned on to use the two-generation approach. So, yes, ELNC is replicable in other communities. And we’ll be willing to talk to anybody who is interested in learning more about ELNC.
It does not surprise me at all, Dr. Ezeh, that you wouldn’t be satisfied with any outcome without taking it to the next level and solving the next problem. Thank you so much for joining us on the Podcast. For our listeners, if they want to learn more about what you’re doing with ELNC, where can they go to get more information?
They can go to www.ELNCgr.org. They will find information about the current data, our annual report to show them how we are doing, to give them information about our partner sites because the partners are the ones really doing the major work. Our job is to provide those technical assistances and all that. And they can find out anything about ELNC. And they should also be able to e-mail us at info@ELNCgr.org and we’ll get back with them with any questions they have.
Cool, and of course, it would be amazing if you’re listening to this podcast and you want to be that local person who has that real connection with your neighborhood to make this happen in your community. That would be a phenomenal outcome of this podcast. Would you agree, Dr. Ezeh?
Okay, thank you so much for joining us. And thank you for all you’ve done for early-childhood education and the children in your neighborhood through this wonderful program!
Thank you so much!