Lansing School District: Free, universal pre-K well worth the effort

Early Education Matters is a series about how Michigan parents, childcare providers, and early childhood educators are working together to implement PreK for All. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Lansing parent Ian Burelson has watched his daughter Marguerite flourish in Wexford Montessori Academy’s preschool, part of the Lansing School District.

Burelson talks about how she is “nailing” her ABCs and can count to 10 and beyond “like pro.” She has learned how to communicate, especially her emotions, and how to share, something she was not always good at.

“To see Marguerite grow the way she has in the last few months means the world to me and my family,” Burelson says. “Free preschool has been an amazing experience both for Marguerite and myself as I feel that I, too, have grown in many ways. Not having to worry about whether I can afford her next tuition payment, especially with the rising costs of everything, has been something I feel every parent should be able to experience.”
Ben Shuldiner.
Lansing Superintendent Ben Schuldiner agrees. When he joined the district in 2021, one of his first actions was to implement free, universal preschool.

“The first week I became superintendent, we sent every kid back to school face-to-face,” Schuldiner says. “The second week, we announced universal pre-K. It was awesome. Thanks to the strong support of my board and strong support from the community, it's been a real success.”

Today, Lansing School District, the 14th largest school district in Michigan, operates one of the largest preschool programs in the state with 32 preschool classrooms in 12 buildings. Next year, the program is scheduled to expand to 34 classrooms in 13 buildings. According to MI School Data, 86% of the district’s kindergarten population participated in a preschool program whether it be through Lansing School District or another program. 

“What we hear from parents is how thankful they are that they have a robust, full day of preschool that's actually academic,” Schuldiner says. “The parents are thankful that they can go to work and that their kids are coming home, having had a full day of instruction and education. We've certainly only heard positive things about the universality of it by allowing everybody to be part of it.”

Lansing School District, the 14th largest school district in Michigan, operates one of the largest preschool programs in the state.
Starting with a strong preschool base

According to deputy superintendent of special populations Sergio Keck,Lansing School District's long tradition of offering preschool started about 30 years ago. At that time, Keck was tasked with working with building administrators, discussing the benefits of preschool to the children as well as how it would help the district grow its kindergarten enrollment. With strategic planning, the district placed preschool programs throughout the district, which largely serves the city of Lansing. In addition, the district established a Chinese immersion preschool with Michigan State University and later a Spanish immersion preschool, leading to Chinese and Spanish immersion schools. 

“I care deeply about being thoughtful of the community in which you serve,” says Schuldiner, who before Lansing was an educator in New York City, where universal preK has been offered since 2014. He knew and had seen the benefits of the program. “Lansing already had a very strong pre-K program, but it wasn't universal. It wasn't open to all. The work that we did behind the scenes was really about how do you expand it. How do you add extra classrooms? How do you add extra teachers? How do you add extra assistance and equipment and all that? So, that was the work we did.”

For many districts, the biggest concern with universal pre-K is space. Schuldiner says for Lansing, where the student population had been declining for a number of years; the district’s student population is around 10,000. The district had the physical space. The task was to make sure the designated preschool rooms were up to code and met all licensing requirements.

Following the Great Start Readiness Program guidelines, which has been ranked first nationally in early childhood education quality by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), the district selected HighScope for its pre-K curriculum. The research-based curriculum encourages a child’s creativity and exploration. Teacher Nicole Simmonds notes that there is more than learning the alphabet or colors.

“We're not only teaching just the basics, but also social emotional skills,” Simmonds says. “It's something we hit on big in our classroom —
how to be a good friend, how to be kind, sharing, taking turns, learning about our feelings and how to express them. A big thing we've been working on right now is conflict resolution and how to solve a problem safely and appropriately. All these skills that they get in a preschool program are going to help them when they get into kindergarten.”

Of the 32 preschool classrooms, eight combine GSRP, Head Start, and are inclusive of students with learning or other disabilities, four are GSRP and inclusive, and 1 combines GSRP and Head Start. Another nine early classrooms for students with disabilities are self-contained.

“Language is a huge part of our program,” says April Brownlee, a lead teacher for a classroom that includes Head Start, GSRP, and students with disabilities. “There is also socializing, being able to be independent. There are children that walked in who couldn't even get their arms in the sleeve of their coat and now they're able to zip their coats on by themselves. We see a lot of gains like that.”

Brownlee adds that the feedback from the kindergarten teachers has been positive. Former preschool students have demonstrated that they know their letters, can write their names and often, can follow a routine better.

Any child turning four by Dec. 1 during the school year can attend a Lansing School District preschool program.
Pushing through the roadblocks

For staffing, Lansing follows GSRP’s student-teacher ratio of one teacher to eight students. Each classroom has a total of 16 students with one lead teacher and one assistant teacher. Classrooms cannot exceed 16 students.

Each lead teacher has a valid Michigan teacher certificate with early childhood endorsement and are on the same pay scale as the K-12 teachers. The assistant teacher has an associate’s degree in early childhood education or related field or a valid Preschool Child Development Associate (CDA) credential.

The Lansing universal preschool program runs Monday through Thursday following the elementary school schedule, 8:30 a.m. to 3:50 p.m. On Fridays, teachers have time to plan and prepare, which Keck notes is important for maintaining a high quality preschool program.

“Because of our licensing, because of our teaching certification requirements, because of the grant requirements of having a strong curriculum, because teachers have a day off from the kids to plan and prepare for the following week, all those areas make these preschools the highest achievers in the early childhood world,” Keck says.

For the 2022-2023 school year, the district saw growth in its student population for the first time in 30 years as well as improvement in proficiency, graduation rates, and student success across all grade levels. In a December press conference, Schuldiner credited the universal preschool program as one of several initiatives the district has taken that led to that success.

Pre-K lead teachers receive the same pay as their K-12 counterparts and benefit from the teacher’s union collective bargaining for benefits and pension. Schuldiner says he believes this has helped the district attract a very high caliber of preschool teachers.

Recruiting has included working with local colleges such as Lansing Community College and Michigan State University along with participating in the state’s Grow Your Own program to encourage current district staff to become teachers, notes Angela Barry, Lansing’s director of universal preschool. 
Angela Barry.
To sign up for preschool, families go to While Lansing’s preschool program is open to anyone, families do need to provide income information along with proof of residency. 

“Anyone in the city of Lansing with a student turning four by Dec. 1 in the designated school year may send their child to a Lansing School District preschool program,” Barry says. “Families can select that they want to attend the Lansing School District program and their application will be sent to the district.”

Income eligibility helps the district fill its current GSRP slots. A district is allowed to have up to 15 percent of families above income requirements of 300% federal poverty rate as part of its GSRP enrollment. Of the 507 currently enrolled in the Lansing preschool program, about 43 are over the GSRP income requirements. Barry notes that most of the families in the Lansing District qualify for GSRP.

Breakfast and lunch are provided as well as transportation. Preschool students do ride the school buses, taking up the front two rows of the bus. No more than 10 preschool students are assigned to a bus, and a preschool student cannot be on a bus for more than 60 minutes. Parents can opt to bring their preschoolers to school and participate in the district-wide $50 gift card program.

Schuldiner is happy to see Governor Whitmer push for statewide universal pre-K. He believes that opening up pre-K to as many children as possible is “a wonderful thing.”

He encourages any district to “just do it” when it comes to implementing pre-K and says the roadblocks are worth overcoming as “you watch the students learning and doing well.”

Joanne Bailey-Boorsma has 30-plus years of writing experience having served as a reporter and editor for several West Michigan publications, covering a variety of topics from local news to arts and entertainment. 

Photos courtesy Lansing School District.

Early Education Matters is a series about how Michigan parents, childcare providers, and early childhood educators are working together to implement Pre-K for All. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
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