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Michigan Sandbox Party

Jacob Schott

One thing that is currently going great in Michigan education is advocacy for early childhood education and recognizing the importance of supporting our youngest learners. Recently, in July 2010, there was the creation of a group called the Michigan Sandbox Party, a nonpartisan movement for Michigan residents who recognize the need to make sure infants, toddlers and other children are healthy, strong and ready to thrive when they begin kindergarten. It’s also for those who understand the crucial role that school-ready children play in Michigan's economic revival.

            On August 26, 2010, more than 6,500 people joined together for the Sandbox Party Convention in East Lansing. With engaged and informed participants, both gubernatorial candidates agreed to speak at the convention. The Sandbox Party was the first organization to secure both candidates at the same event. I was fortunate to attend this event with my family, and it was so encouraging and inspiring to see the plethora of people with a passion for early education. (Another Convention is currently being planned for 2012.) Then, in January 2011, more than 1,300 Michigan residents responded to a Sandbox Party survey, in which people were asked to share their hopes and concerns about early childhood with new Gov. Rick Snyder and the Michigan Legislature. And this is just the beginning of an awesome growing movement!

            Another fantastic organization devoted to our youngest learners is the Great Start Collaborative. The purpose of Great Start is to assure a coordinated system of community resources and supports to assist all Michigan families in providing a great start for their children from birth through age five. Local communities come together and form chapters, and these chapters provide resources and support for families with young children. There are often free events for families, with educational materials provided for the parents. Free playgroups at libraries are frequently offered, as well as Parent Cafes where moms and dads can get together, sip coffee, and talk about parenting and their struggles while their children are in a free, supervised child care. Monthly meetings are also held, where everyone is welcome with a free dinner, free child care, prize giveaways, and a parenting topic of interest, from giftedness to interacting with other parents, to school readiness. There are currently 55 Great Start Collaboratives, with members serving as the change agents for young children and their families.

            Great Start also organizes "Star Power", an annual event in which MI citizens march to the capitol building in support of early childhood education, then spend the afternoon meeting with their local representatives to discuss their thoughts, concerns, and successes regarding early education. This year, my family was part of over 4,000 parents, teachers, advocates and community members who spoke as one powerful voice on behalf of infants and young children in Michigan. Legislative meetings were all arranged and scheduled by Great Start volunteers, so concerned citizens simply had to show up and follow the schedule to meet their representative--easy and so much less intimidating then trying to go in alone! Great Start also provided talking points for the nervous individual, and steps on how to follow up with your representative after the event. The next Star Power will be held in May of 2012.

            Also in the early childhood education spotlight, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has made a promise to refashion education in Michigan along a cradle to adulthood model. In support of this, Snyder signed an executive order this past June creating an Office of Great Start within the Department of Education. According to the governor, the new office will coordinate 84 separate funding sources for early childhood programs that currently are spread across various state agencies. “Consolidating these worthwhile programs into one office will help make sure children are best served and developmentally on track," Snyder said. Snyder also stated that the new office "will work hand in hand with foundations and businesses to make early childhood a focus". It is indeed an exciting time for early childhood education in Michigan.

2011 Michigan delegate Jennifer Lavender-Schott began her fight for better schools with an education degree. She teaches in Detroit and regularly volunteers in her daughter's school.