‘Preparing our youngest learners for success in the future’

August 15, 2021

UM-Dearborn early childhood educators have been inspiring minds for 50 years. And no matter how much the Early Childhood Education Center grows, it continues to stay close to the child-centric mission that it was founded on in the 1970s.

Photo Early Childhood Education Center student learning about space travel

During the past 50 years, UM-Dearborn’s Early Childhood Education Center has educated nearly 10,000 children — and thousands of teachers.

“It’s incredible to think about the impact that the ECEC has had on the community and beyond in these 50 years,” said Catie Stone, 2005 UM-Dearborn early education alumna. “And it’s not just on the children who were taught here or the teachers who came from the program. It’s the kids who indirectly benefited because they had a great teacher inspired by this really special place.”

Stone would know. Not only did she attend the education lab school as a child in the 1980s, she also did her teaching practicum at the ECEC as a UM-Dearborn student in the early 2000s. And later, after earning her Master’s degree, Stone landed a position as an ECEC lead teacher. 

Now teaching at the school for more than a decade, Stone said she enjoys watching her former students return to the center and participate in activities like coming in as guests to read to the younger children or writing letters to share how much the center meant to them.

“The center gave me a strong sense of community at an early age; I kept in touch with my teachers. And now some of my students continue to keep in touch with me. Time has passed, but connections made here remain strong. We are a family.”

The adage says that it takes a village to raise a child. And research shows that the people in our early education systems play an important role in helping raise a child to become a successful adult. Not only does early education increase high school graduation rates by double digits, it also improves the likelihood of having a higher-earning job, owning a home and earning a post-high school education.

“It’s preparing our youngest learners for success in the future. And that’s about more than academics — it’s social and critical thinking skills too,” said ECEC Academic Director Sarah Davey. “Much at the ECEC has changed over the past 50 years. We’ve grown. We’ve changed buildings. But what hasn’t changed is our commitment to educating children through creating lesson plans around their interests and having our highly trained teachers guide a new generation of teachers. We are a family of educators who do this enthusiastically because we know the value of early education.”

And it’s this principle of community and engaged learning that the ECEC was founded on. Started as a childcare and educational co-op in 1971, faculty, staff and students would bring their children to the Henry Ford Estate — which is on the southwest side of campus — and the kids would spend the day at and around Ford’s historic mansion. 

Professor Rosalyn Saltz, right, is pictured in this early 1990s photo at the campus’ Henry Ford Estate cottages, the location of the center from the late 1970s until 2008.

Education Professor Emerita Rosalyn Saltz, who taught at UM-Dearborn from 1970 until her retirement in 1996, founded the program after seven returning students asked for her assistance in proposing the idea of on-campus childcare to campus’ leadership.

“The 1970s saw a surge in the number of young mothers who wished to pursue a college education. For many of these women, fulfilling this ambition at UM-Dearborn would have been almost impossible if there were not the opportunity for convenient, quality child care while they were attending classes,” Saltz wrote in a 2009 reflection document. “In addition to providing childcare for students pursuing an education, I saw a child care center on our campus as an opportunity to plant the seeds of a future child study laboratory and teacher training facility.”

At first, the group met in the back of the Henry Ford Estate’s kitchen. However, the space wasn’t ideal for children ages 12 months through five. The following year, in 1972, the group moved to one of the three cottages on the campus, which Henry Ford originally had built as servant’s quarters. At the time, those were used as professor family housing. Several years later, as the center’s enrollment grew, the other two cottages were permitted for use to augment the physical facilities as faculty members moved out. Playground equipment was put in. In 1991, a kindergarten class module building was added.

Saltz noted that by the early 1990s, the center enrolled an average of 140 children per year. And more than 90 practicum students in campus courses earned course credits at the Center each term. 

With the continually growing enrollment, age of buildings, and need for a space that resembled a modern classroom for practicum teachers, the Center moved to its current Rotunda Drive location in 2009.

Education Professor Emeritus Mary Trepanier-Street, who worked with Saltz since the 1970s and served as ECEC director from 1995 through her retirement in 2011, said the new building was an important step in ECEC history. It could accommodate more pre-service teachers and up to 300 families (note: this is pre-COVID number). It also gave an opportunity for children with developmental challenges to be integrated into the center’s educational programming because of the partnership made with Oakwood Hospital, now Beaumont, to house their pediatric occupational, speech and physical therapy services — the Center for Exceptional Families — in the same building. “The idea was for children who needed added care to be able to leave their classroom for therapy or a rehabilitation service, and then return to the class or receive therapy in their own classroom.. We wanted to create an inclusive environment.”

Photo of Mary Trepanier-Street at promoting ECEC opportunities at an Education Fair at the Henry Ford Estate in 1978.

Concerned about education access, Trepanier-Street — who understood that not all families could afford the center’s tuition rates — also sought Michigan Department of Education funding to start two Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) classrooms for economically disadvantaged families.

“Quality education is expensive. And to have low teacher-to-child ratios and highly qualified teachers, it has to be,” Trepanier-Street said. “That’s why it was important for us to find avenues for access. Children who are in low-income families deserve quality education too.”

Early education advocates for decades, Trepanier-Street and her colleagues were ahead of their time. She’s glad that the federal government is now paying attention to its importance with the recent passage of a $3.5 trillion spending blueprint for social programs — like universal preschool for all Americans — in the U.S. Senate.

Although there are more federal hurdles to overcome before this plan can become a reality, College of Education, Health and Human Services Dean Ann Lampkin-Williams said she’s hopeful. But no matter what is decided at the federal level, the school will continue to contribute to the community through Reggio-Emilia-inspired teaching — that’s a preschool student-centered pedagogy where lessons emerge around child interests — and preparing teachers.

“It is a blessing to have the talent that we have here — and a huge responsibility,” Lampkin-Williams said. “We know the impact our practicum students will have on young lives in the future. So our university professors and ECEC teachers give them the experience needed to learn, grow and excel. Have an idea for a lesson plan? Bounce it off your teacher. Want to lead a class? You will do that too. Our job is two-fold. Help our youngest learners build the foundation they need for success; and pass along our expertise, research and experience so our future teachers are career-ready and positioned to help early childhood students. We’re great at what we do because of the dedication of our talented and professional ECEC team.”

Davey, who is a CEHHS faculty member in addition to her ECEC director role, agrees. She sees this as a supervisor — and as a parent. Her youngest daughter attended the center last year.

“They know how important education is to families. We were open during the majority of the pandemic. We welcomed children into classrooms safely and worked to give them the best experience they could have,” Davey said. “Even when everything else seemed uncertain, we were a constant. Our teachers and staff went above and beyond because they believe in what they do.”

Back in the classroom, Catie Stone is getting ready for a new academic year. To her, it’s another year to welcome both new and familiar faces and leave a positive impression.

But in the history books, it’s a major milestone. For five decades, UM-Dearborn early childhood educators like her have done their part to teach and inspire the generations to come.

Article by Sarah Tuxbury. If you are a member of the media and would like to talk with Director Sarah Davey about the Early Childhood Education Center or the topic of early childhood, please reach out to UMDearbornNews@umich.edu.