‘Tiny’ bathrooms, big curriculum: New Marygrove early childhood center boosts Detroit neighborhood

A little boy wearing a red shirt and protective mask holds someone’s hand as other children walk behind them on a sidewalk.

When Ariyah Small came home after the first day of school last week at the new, highly touted Marygrove Early Education Center, there was one small thing that had her excited.

“I love my new school,” Ariyah, 3, told her mother, Antoinette Reid, who recounted the conversation Friday as she spoke during the grand opening of the new center.

“I’m like, ‘What about it do you love?’” Reid recalled asking her daughter. “She said, ‘They got tiny bathrooms and I can use it all by myself.’”

The tiny bathrooms are just small features of this big new center on the campus of the former Marygrove College in northwest Detroit. What is most significant about the new $22 million 28,000-square-foot building, is what it represents.

The early childhood center is part of a unique “cradle to career” initiative that was announced in 2018 and already includes the School at Marygrove, a high school operated by the Detroit Public Schools Community District. The initiative will eventually also include a kindergarten to eighth grade school. Construction on the early childhood center, which is being operated by Starfish Family Services, began in 2019. The Kresge Foundation (a Chalkbeat funder), expects to invest $75 million into the cradle to career project, including for the construction of the new center.

Speakers Friday described the opening of the center as an “historic” moment for Detroit, in part, because it represents a full-scale effort to create quality early childhood options that every child in the city deserves. 

“It’s not just about the building,” said Wendy Lewis Jackson, the Detroit program managing director at Kresge.

Jackson said “it” is about the curriculum that was developed by Starfish and University of Michigan, about the center serving as a resource for other early childhood providers in the neighborhoods surrounding Marygrove, and about the center providing “essential support for children from birth through higher education and onwards towards a career.”

The curriculum is focused on literacy, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and social justice.

The cradle to career effort at Marygrove has also spurred development in the surrounding neighborhoods, said Rip Rapson, Kresge president and CEO.

“It is undertakings like these that will define the Detroit of the future, that will give the city’s residents reason to believe that their neighborhood will offer the kinds of opportunities that every citizen has a right to expect and that every citizen deserves,” Rapson said.

Reid toured the new facility in July. It features 12 large classrooms, three interior courtyards that bring in natural light and a connection to the outdoors, and areas dedicated to children’s health and holistic development.

“When I toured the center, I was like finally, someone gets it,” she said. “The building was designed with the whole child in mind, which I’m very appreciative of … Inside is cheerful and just inviting. I like the space for the teachers, for the families. And sometimes it’s the small things that matter, and it was the laundry facilities for me that make the difference.”

The cradle to career initiative is one of the biggest efforts to emerge from Hope Starts Here, an ambitious project publicly launched in 2017 with funding from Kresge and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (also a Chalkbeat funder). The goal of this 10-year project is to ensure that by 2027, Detroit is a city that puts its children first by taking steps such as increasing the number of children in quality preschool programs. 

Mayor Mike Duggan, who has been a strong advocate for quality early childhood education programs for all Detroit children, said the Marygrove effort took “what could have been a tragedy for the city,” when the college closed its doors in 2019, and “turned it into a cause for joy.”

He echoed Rapson’s comments about how the effort has spurred growth in the surrounding communities. Duggan said property values in the Marygrove neighborhood and the adjacent Fitzgerald neighborhood have grown faster than any others in the city. Storefronts that were once boarded up are now open for business.

It “has helped the rebirth of northwest Detroit,” Duggan said.

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