Earlier this year, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation announced more than $10 million in grant funding to support the launch of the Flint Center for Educational Excellence. Summer programming began in July, and the Flint Center, located on Saginaw Street in downtown Flint, officially opened its doors to the public in October.
In this Q&A, Mott Foundation staff talk with Ja’Nel Jamerson, executive director of the Flint Center, to learn more about his background and what the community can expect from the new organization. Jamerson, who holds a doctoral degree in education and previously served as executive director of Educare Flint, also discusses why he thinks the Flint Center’s collaborative structure is so important for the community. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mott: Tell us a little about you and your background.
Jamerson: I’m a Flint kid born and raised, and I’ve had the privilege and honor of either living or working in the city of Flint my entire career. I started my work in precollege programs right after being a student in precollege programs and really working through afterschool programs on campus at University of Michigan-Flint. I ultimately got the opportunity to lean in on creating pipelines for first-generation college students. I was a teacher, and I’m still a learner, so all of that comes together during my work here at the Flint Center, and I’m really excited to lead it.
Mott: What made you want to have a career in education?
Jamerson: When my grandmother would drop me off at school, she would always say, “Learn all you can, while you can.” It was a mantra when we were kids. She would start it, and we would finish it. Then, over time, it became a commitment — literally wanting to learn as much as I could and feeling like there wasn’t enough time to learn it all. Then, over time, it became a passion — just realizing the opportunity to truly be able to learn. For me, as a teacher, I realized that education is one of those things that we all know something of. We all know something of being a teacher if we are teaching a friend how to do a new dance, if we are teaching a grandparent or an elder how to use a device, or even teaching our youngest babies how to walk or pronounce a word. For me, I find education to be universal. I find it to be something people generally seem to organize around, and I love that aspect of the work. And it’s definitely work, but it’s also a purpose, connected to advocacy and the well-being of children and families. So, in some ways I feel like education chose me, but I am absolutely here for it.
Mott: Talk to us about the Flint Center for Educational Excellence.
Jamerson: The Flint Center for Educational Excellence is an organization that envisions a future where Flint kids thrive because they are supported by thriving families, thriving schools and thriving communities. We are working toward that vision by coordinating six interconnected and interdependent initiatives that span from early childhood to adults — we say “cradle to career,” or my favorite is “from twinkle to wrinkle.”
That includes the following:
- The Early Childhood Collaborative that focuses on two early childhood centers as demonstration projects feeding into a community education initiative that is being implemented in six school systems across 15 schools, ensuring that, wherever Flint families choose to enroll their children, there are consistent supports for kiddos.
- Afterschool programs that make sure all of the enriching learning that is happening during the school day is expanded beyond the school day, but also ensuring that kiddos have a safe place to continue learning while their parents are at work or in school.
- A Parent Collaborative that truly centers the voices of parents as leaders, experts and equal partners.
- A Community Council on Education that expands the leadership role in education beyond the governance role of school districts. What is our role in transportation, in housing, in human services to drive outcomes in education?
- And then, finally, there is a Network for School Excellence that is engaging teachers and school leaders directly in developing the innovations and interventions that are needed to move the needle for Flint kids.
Mott: Why was the Flint Center created?
Jamerson: The Flint Center for Educational Excellence was created for one very discrete purpose, and that’s to ensure Flint kids thrive in any path they choose. Our experiences during the water crisis, during the pandemic, they’ve confirmed one inescapable conclusion: The experiences kids and families have during their earliest years and throughout K-12 truly set a foundation throughout the remainder of their lives. We want to make sure that kids and families who are born in Flint have the opportunities they need to thrive. And that’s really the purpose of the Flint Center for Educational Excellence. And, in part, our role is to demonstrate the value of the highest quality in early childhood education, in community education, in afterschool programs, and in partnership with families and community — not just to demonstrate it as an exception, but to truly set the standard for what we want to see in other communities, as well in Genesee County, in Michigan and beyond.
Mott: And when you say you want to see Flint kids thrive, what does that mean to you?
Mott: What makes the Flint Center unique?
Jamerson: The Flint Center for Educational Excellence is truly a transformational effort. There were two key questions that guided our work. The first being, “Are we doing the right things?” And the second being, “Are we doing those things right?” Research and practice have taught us in this community that early childhood programs, community education initiatives and afterschool programs are the interventions that truly make a difference for kids and families. And we’ve heard time and time again from families in Flint that this is what they want to see. The Flint Center gave an opportunity for highly dedicated educators who have been doing this work for more than a decade to completely drop silos and to combine and harness their efforts together to transform how we wrap our arms around kids and families in the city of Flint. And so, the Flint Center, as it is today, is six initiatives under one roof, but those six initiatives together truly position Flint and Genesee County to demonstrate to the world what can happen when the full community really embraces education.
We use this term “community education,” but for the first time we have the opportunity to truly integrate afterschool, community ed and early childhood programs into a variety of systems so Flint families don’t have to ask, “Where do I send my child based on what they have?”
Mott: How do you hope the Flint Center will serve kids and families?
Jamerson: My sincere hope for the Flint Center for Educational Excellence in serving Flint kids and families is to do so with excellence. One thing that we tell our staff and remind ourselves of often is that excellence is in the name. You can’t avoid it. I think a lot of times — when we are providing services in communities that have been disenfranchised, that are underinvested — a lot of times we further disenfranchise families and children by not providing the highest level of excellence. For us, we are uncompromising. We understand who our children are. We understand who our families are. And we know what they can do given the opportunity. The Flint Center for Educational Excellence is the opportunity to provide excellence and, again, to demonstrate what happens when we truly wrap our arms around children and families, center their needs and their aspirations, and focus our outcomes on getting them there.
Mott: What should Flint families and the community expect from the Flint Center?
Jamerson: We were excited to kick off programming this fall in Flint Community Schools, Beecher schools, Carman-Ainsworth, Westwood Heights, International Academy of Flint and Flint Cultural Center Academy. Families in those systems should expect to see many familiar faces of individuals who have supported them and their efforts for years, from their community school directors to their afterschool staff. But families should also expect that things feel a bit different. Families should expect to have a whole lot more voice in what they are seeing. We’re expecting that kiddos have a lot more choice in what they’re doing, but also that we’re able to integrate a whole lot more community partners helping us to reach as many Flint kiddos as possible.
Community members should expect to hear from the Flint Center quite a bit. We’re going to be calling for volunteers to serve as success mentors. We’re going to be calling for community organizations to serve as club leaders in the afterschool space. And so, we are going to be asking the community to keep their eyes open and ears open — not only for opportunities to engage as participants, but to truly engage as leaders and change agents in this movement toward systems transformation here in Flint.
To learn even more about the Flint Center, visit theflintcenter.org.