One year and counting: Cummings Great Expectations nurtures children and families in Flint

A woman gazes fondly at the smiling baby she is holding.
Cummings staff work hard to create a homelike atmosphere for students and families. Photo: Danen Williams

It’s midmorning at Cummings Great Expectations: An Early Childhood Center. It’s a peaceful time. Toddlers bundled up against the early winter chill are heading outdoors to the courtyard playground. Babies are being rocked and talked to in a sunny nursery. Four-year-olds are clustered around their teacher and their work tables, engaged in sorting, building and imagining. These activities are purposeful, because stimulation, movement, action and play are critical to early brain development, says the center’s Central Administrator Amy Hesse.

“The most important thing here is early intervention,” said Hesse. “If we can identify a physical or developmental delay by age 3, we can get them ready for kindergarten.”

It’s been a year since Cummings opened its doors, welcoming more than 200 infants and children who potentially were exposed to lead as a result of the city’s water crisis. Staff — teachers, maintenance workers, cooks — have turned the former elementary school into a family dwelling of sorts. They consider themselves part of a community of care for their children, as befits the school’s Reggio Emilia teaching philosophy.

Young children play in a kitchen playscape while a woman seated with them smiles at them.
At Cummings, the adult-to-student ratio is high, enabling staff to spend quality time with each child and chart his or her progress. Photo: Danen Williams

“This staff here is the most dedicated I’ve seen in my life,” says Hesse, former director of the University of Central Florida’s Educational Research Center for Child Development, one of the largest in the country. Hesse, who began her career in early childhood education at Flint’s Mott Community College, went on to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from Western Governors University in Utah.

Like Hesse, Cummings’ teaching staff is highly trained, certified and skilled in working with children ages birth to five. It’s a hallmark of a high-quality early education center, as is a safe and nurturing environment that values a family’s culture and respects every child’s abilities.

It is a full-day, full-year, full-care facility, a collaborative effort of the University of Michigan-Flint, which operates the center, the Flint Community Schools, the Genesee Intermediate School District, the Community Foundation of Greater Flint and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. Renovated and outfitted with a $1 million grant from the Mott Foundation and $500,000 from the Pritzker Children’s Initiative, a program of the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation, the facility receives operating funds from the state of Michigan.

A group of children play at an outdoor water table while a man shows them a small leaf.
A variety of indoor and outdoor activities encourage children’s natural curiosity.
Photo: Danen Williams

Designed to consider the needs of children and parents, the center takes a two-generational approach, providing wrap-around services for students, as well as support services for their parents.

“We have amazing participation by our parents,” said Hesse, of the young, mostly working families who increasingly are tapping the services at Cummings.

“Most of our parents are very busy. The more help we can offer, the fewer barriers they face in caring for their families. They appreciate connecting with teachers and caretakers who love their child and know about child development, too. We’re finding they’re very open to conversations about their children.”

When dealing with the effects of lead exposure, infants and very young children need to be surrounded by adults who are watching for behavioral or developmental delays, which is why participating in a high-quality early learning program is considered a critical intervention.

A group of children seated around a table play with small items like keys to help develop fine motor skills.
Stimulation, action and play are critical to early brain development. Photo: Danen Williams

A healthy diet and access to quality health care also are vital to optimal development in early childhood.

“The children are served two meals and a snack here each day,” said Hesse, adding that students and teachers together enjoy meals served “family style” in each classroom.

“They’re served what they need, not what they necessarily desire,” said Hesse, noting the importance of establishing healthy eating habits early, in the hopes that those habits will stay with children throughout their lives.

“It’s impressive what the children are willing to try,” said Hesse. “I can’t tell you how happy it makes me when I hear a call for more broccoli over the intercom.”

To encourage parents to increase the nutritional value of meals at home, the Flint Fresh mobile food market sets up a mini-grocery store at the school every Thursday afternoon.

Two toddlers play in the entrance to a pipe in an outdoor play area.
The enclosed courtyard at Cummings has been transformed into a play area that encourages children to engage with each other and interact with the natural environment.
Photo: Danen Williams

“Two times a week, we work with the Crim Fitness Foundation to put on taste testings, so our parents can try out and share low-cost, high-nutrition recipes. Participation is great,” said Hesse, adding that Cummings is working with local AmeriCorps FoodCorps members to develop a community garden next summer.

“One of our next-door neighbors donated her property to the University of Michigan-Flint for our use,” said Hesse. “We think it will be an ideal location for our garden.”

A nursing clinic also is in the works — that’s a big goal for the coming year, said Hesse. For now, the center relies on an Early Head Start health tech and visiting nurse, as well as UM-Flint’s nursing program. The center also hosts immunization clinics through Michigan’s WIC (Women, Infants & Children) program.

At Cummings, the adult-student ratio is exceptionally high. Not only does this increase adult-child interaction, it allows staff time to chart children’s gains. In addition to daily anecdotal notes, teachers are using the observation-based Teaching Strategies’ GOLD assessment system to check and document developmental progress.

Two young girls excitedly hold up small items they are playing with.
Holding small objects with the thumb and fingers is a fine motor skill that will help a child develop writing skills and draw shapes.
Photo: Danen Williams

“We’ve used this and other longitudinal data to establish a baseline, so now we’ll be able to measure annually to see how we’re doing — look at the children’s physical growth and cognitive development and assess our performance as well,” Hesse said. The University of Michigan-Flint is organizing and analyzing the data, with a long-term goal of informing policies at the state and national level.

Cummings is designed to become a “hub” for other home- and center-based caregivers who want to help raise the quality of their programs, said Hesse. “We’ve found many caregivers welcome the coaching we can provide, as they often don’t have anyone to talk to about age-appropriate activities, behavioral problems or other issues they encounter.

“It’s why I’m back in Flint,” she continued. “In Michigan, we’ve been working collaboratively to improve the state’s early childhood education system for years and years. For me, Cummings is a representation of all that work.”