Spartan Connector: Improving the Future for Flint’s Children

October 19, 2017

Mary Barkley photo A long-time educator is helping build a brighter future for Flint’s youngest children behind the scenes.

By Nathan Burroughs

When Mary Barkley started working on a strategy to give new parents in Flint a newborn literacy bundle, she discovered something surprising: three different groups were working on providing newborn services, but they weren’t talking to each other. In fact, they were barely aware that the others existed.

There was the United Way of Genesee County, which for years had worked with local hospitals to provide a “literacy bag” to new parents. There was the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, which was launching an initiative aimed at increasing overall literacy in the Flint community. And there was the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), which wanted to offer reading material and hire a literacy coach to work with new parents.

In the wake of the Flint water crisis, there was a massive infusion of new resources in the community. But Barkley immediately identified the risk: without proper coordination, this opportunity could be wasted. The danger wasn’t just that resources wouldn’t be used efficiently—competing messages might confuse or alienate the very people they were designed to help. Generic information about local literacy services might lead parents to apply for programs they weren’t eligible for, and overlook local services that were available.

“After I started working in Flint, I was impressed with the multitude of high-quality early childhood opportunities available to Flint families,” reflected Barkley. “The challenge was to connect parents to these services.”

As the point person on early childhood for the Michigan State University Office of K-12 Outreach’s work in Flint, Barkley got to work. Alongside MSU faculty member Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of the Pediatric Public Health Initiative, Barkley helped bring together state and local educational agencies, foundations, and community organizations around the joint project of providing literacy support to Flint newborns.

By pooling their resources and expertise, a broad span of organizations are creating a system that will ensure the parents of every child born in a Flint hospital receives: specific information about early childhood services for which they are eligible, books from the United Way and the NBPA, and enrollment in the Dolly Parton Imagination Library. The latter sends a new age-appropriate book to a child’s home every month. The cost of the book is borne by the Imagination Library, with Flint community partners supporting the mailing costs.

In addition, parents can schedule a follow-up phone call or home visit with a trained early childhood professional, providing critical one-on-one support to Flint families. This literacy coach is being provided by Early On as part of Michigan’s response to the Flint water crisis. Early On is a collaboration of Michigan’s Education and Health and Human Services departments, which have been charged with serving all Flint children birth to age 5 with supports like home visits and free screeners for early identification of cognitive and/or physical delays in development. Early On has also joined the effort to provide a newborn literacy bundle, as there is a natural fit between identifying children that need to be evaluated and promoting literacy once they are identified.

Outreach outside of schools

Barkley’s efforts in Flint are a vital piece of MSU K-12 Outreach’s work on behalf of Flint Community Schools (FCS). Barkley is part of a team of outreach specialists that are on the ground in Flint. Under the leadership of Assistant Dean Barbara Markle, for 20 years MSU K-12 Outreach has contributed to school improvement efforts throughout Michigan. Now in its third year of funding from the C.S. Mott Foundation, MSU K-12 Outreach is supporting comprehensive reform in FCS. Leadership coaches are helping to improve the curriculum, strengthen the administration, and cultivate collaborative leadership. Meanwhile, MSU College of Education faculty members including Amy Parks in early mathematics and Laura Tortorelli in literacy have provided training to FCS staff to improve instruction and build more effective systems.

Barkley’s role is rather unique, however. Where most of the MSU K-12 Outreach specialists are active in the schools or district office, Barkley is focused on the broader community. Given that MSU’s grant from the Mott Foundation is intended to help turn around FCS, why hire an early childhood specialist who spends limited time in the schools? The answer lies in part in the growing recognition by educators and policymakers of the critical importance of early childhood. Too many children arrive at schools unprepared to learn, especially children from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is a particular problem in high-poverty urban school districts like Flint. Nationally, the percentage of school-aged children from low-income families has grown dramatically, from 40 percent of fourth-graders eligible for free and reduced meals in 2003 to 52 percent in 2015. As large as these proportions are, they pale in comparison to Flint: 93 percent of fourth graders in FCS were classified as economically disadvantaged in 2016-17.

Growing up in poverty has its own intrinsic difficulties, but one of the most serious is that children from low-income households are much less likely to get the kind of learning opportunities that more affluent families take for granted. By the time they begin school, poorer children are often far behind other students in terms of their literacy, numeracy, health, and emotional and behavioral maturity. It is this urgent need that motivates FCS and other stakeholders to address early childhood education. Given the challenges facing the Flint community even before the water crisis, it is critical to begin closing opportunity gaps before children begin school

Recognizing that school readiness begins at birth, FCS superintendent Bilal Tawwab made high-quality, accessible early childhood services a major priority. Until recently, FCS had little direct involvement with early childhood programs, and most Head Start classrooms and other services were housed outside of Flint, which made it quite difficult for many Flint parents who already struggled to make transportation arrangements. While re-organizing the district’s central office and grappling with the water crisis, Tawwab did not want to lose sight of the goal of creating a seamless web of wraparound services linking Flint children to Flint schools, and he turned to MSU K-12 Outreach for support. Beginning in March of 2016, Barkley was tasked with helping Flint schools build the community’s early education infrastructure.

A dramatic transformation

Barkley proved to be an inspired choice. The daughter of Michigan dairy farmers, she spent her entire career in the state’s public school system. After graduating from MSU’s Teacher Preparation Program, she served for nearly a quarter century as an elementary teacher, after which she spent a decade as a principal in Olivet Community Schools. Her retirement led to her second career as an early childhood advocate and organizer. Barkley worked for five years at Calhoun Intermediate School District’s Early Childhood Connections in Battle Creek, Mich., a grant-funded home visiting program using the Parents as Teachers curriculum and strengthening school readiness skills for Calhoun County’s most at-risk children. Despite its many differences from Flint, Calhoun ISD exhibited some of the same problems: a substantial low-income population, a weak early childhood system, and real concerns about the future.

Barkley’s role at FCS has been as a facilitator, an example of what Malcolm Gladwell has dubbed a “connector.” Rather than being the person expected to direct a given task themselves, Barkley works to nurture trust and communication among varied community actors whose shared history can often be an obstacle. In a given day, Barkley might meet individually with Flint’s early literacy director, spend time with early childhood directors at Genesee ISD, and attend group meetings of Flint’s community partnerships. In all of these circumstances, her role is to ask the right questions, to seek shared understanding, and to build the capacity of everyone to work as a team.

Of course, there are instances where she has been asked to take a more active role. For example, when FCS was undergoing a leadership transition she represented the school district with other community groups on early childhood issues. In addition, she has helped lead professional development sessions on literacy with Tortorelli for Flint preschool through third-grade teachers. In sum, Barkley is an exemplar of MSU K-12 Outreach’s model of leadership coaching.

Although she would be the last person to take personal credit for the changes in Flint, the past two years have seen a dramatic transformation in the early childhood services available to Flint families. Among other developments are the following:

  • Great Expectations Early Childhood Program at Cummings School serving children birth to age 5, with University of Michigan-Flint staff providing wrap-around services (e.g., health) and educational preschool experiences.
  • Head Start programs housed in FCS buildings, growing from no such programs in 2015-16, to half-day programs in 2016-17, and full-day programs in 2017-18.
  • Montessori classes held at Durant-Tuuri-Mott Elementary (a K-7 school), growing from last school year’s K-1 pilot program to two K-2 classrooms in school year 2017-18, along with another Great School Readiness (GSRP) classroom.
  • And most impressively, the city of Flint will soon host an Educare Center. Educare centers are model institutions for providing early childhood services, with highly trained specialists, research-based techniques and rigorous evaluation of programs. FCS and the Mott Foundation are playing critical roles in establishing the new center.

Community stakeholders recognize Barkley’s contributions. According to former FCS Early Childhood Director Michelle McQueen: “Mary Barkley has been instrumental in building strong relationships between the community’s early childhood agencies and the Flint Community Schools. These relationships along with her involvement with community agencies have directly led to more school readiness opportunities and resources for Flint children.”

Alongside the new Educare center and expanding Montessori and Head Start programs, there are plans to integrate student behavioral supports with early literacy. Barkley also remains focused on what she sees as the key to early childhood—parents.

“Parents are a child’s first and most important teacher,” said Barkley. “I do this because I believe in the resilience of parents and families. A child can grow up to be anything they want to be, and it’s our responsibility to give them as many opportunities as possible.”