Michigan makes the leap to improved educational opportunities with MiLEAP

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.

As 2024 unfolds, so does a new chapter in the State of Michigan's education system. Last December, Governor Gretchen Whitmer created the Michigan Department of Lifelong Education, Advancement, and Potential (MiLEAP). It's a move to make it easier for families with young children to connect with high quality, affordable opportunities for their kids to learn and grow – all the way from pre-K to the post-secondary stages. 

"The governor has really been emphasizing this idea that we all know that education starts before kindergarten, and that it must continue after high school graduation," says Michelle Richard, the department's acting director. "And, yet our systems in Michigan sometimes lag in that belief."

Richard, who is Whitmer's former senior education advisor, a former teacher, and herself a mother to a 6-year-old, explains that until now too many Michigan families have been struggling to navigate disconnected systems on their own. The new department is powered by 300 staff members pooled from four different state departments and will complement the Michigan Department of Education and State Board of Education. 

MiLEAP, Richard says, consolidates a number of the governor's education goals. Among them are the expansion of Pre-K for All, which will allow every single child in Michigan the opportunity to attend a free, quality pre-K program by 2027, and Sixty by 30, which would see 60% of working-age Michiganders boasting a postsecondary degree or certificate by 2030. Notably, the initiatives are designed to strengthen the state's future workforce and population.

"A big part of the charge for MiLEAP is to be able to say how do we make it just a little bit easier for families with young kids," Richard says. "Everybody wants their baby to meet their milestones, no matter how old that baby is. We want to be an ally for families and help them achieve that for their children, starting with pre-K." 

Michelle Richard at PreK For All listening session in Ypsilanti.
Supporting students journeying on the other end of the education spectrum – after they graduate from high school – is also part of the plan. Richard explains that the new department will place an emphasis on before- and after-school programs and emphasize opportunities for education across a wide swath of career pathways.

"All pathways are necessary for our economy," she says. "Figuring out what opportunity best aligns with your career goals is hard, and we have a lot of partners who are working tirelessly to make that just a little bit easier."

Conversations have included ways to rally and align efforts not only so Michigan children have the best education, but also so their families have the support that they need to be able to stay in the workforce, go back to school themselves, and know that their children are in a safe, quality, learning environment.

Richard shares that MiLEAP is getting ready to release a Pre-K for All action plan – the culmination of almost a full year of strategic work. Likening it to a road map, Richard says that support and momentum is increasing as they dovetail Pre-K for All with the new department. 

"There is an air of anxious anticipation around this new department and all that they can do," says Jeffrey Capizzano, president of Policy Equity Group. “We're having a lot of discussions about what exactly we want out of MiLEAP and having a lot of fun thinking about that."

Classroom at NEST Child Care and Parent Institute in Detroit.
PreK for All roadmap coming

Based in Washington D.C., Policy Equity Group works to promote equity and support the wellbeing of children and their families by helping states, cities, and organizations design more effective systems. Capizzano, along with Frances Einterz, Policy Equity Group’s senior director of early childhood equity initiatives, are working on the roadmap that will make Michigan’s Pre-K for All a reality. 

Capizzano explains that fragmentation happens in all educational programs. However, since the problem is more pronounced in early childhood programs, MiLEAP makes sense to him.
Jeffrey Capizzano.
"Having different programs under one entity allows for better coordination, and it allows for more accountability," he says. "What we love most about the decision to create MiLEAP is that Michelle and others have approached it as a blank slate opportunity to rethink the way that we organize programs."

Capizzano points to Pre-K for All – which is about serving four-year-olds in a program that will serve them for six and a half hours a day, five days a week, part of the year. As an example of how the pieces fit together under MiLEAP, he explains that Pre-K for All means there will need to be other supplemental programs to help families cover all the hours that they might be working before and after school as well as during the summer.

"We're going to need to open more classrooms to meet the goals of Pre-K for All and that requires more buildings and classrooms to be licensed. Licensing falling under MiILEAP makes things easier," he says.
Frances Einterz.
Ease, according to Einterz, is something that local communities are definitely ready for. She explains that in creating the Pre-K for All roadmap, Policy Equity Group partnered with Southern Imaginations to gather community input across the state. After compiling the reactions and responses, Einterz was struck by the amount of anxiety and frustration people had around the way early childhood was governed before MiLeap was announced. 

"There was a sense among the communities that there was a lack of unity or conversation or even collaboration across funding streams and bureaucratic processes," Einterz says. "The community just feels ready for this sort of greater sense of ‘we're all in this together’ and we're working toward shared goals."

“It’s all very exciting”

In agreement is 24-year-old native Detroiter Imani Foster who has been an education activist since she was 15. Foster sat on the governor's Growing Michigan Together Council PreK-12 Workgroup and currently works for 482 Forward, a Detroit-wide education organizing network. 
Imani Foster.
"Many community members want investment in early education, so the governor thinking about this on such a wide level is so important," she says. "I think as long as we don't lose sight of the fact that money will be needed to fund things, it's all very exciting."

Foster adds that what really stands out about MiLEAP is the summer school opportunities, citing summer learning loss as one of the biggest barriers to learning in Detroit. 

"MiLEAP could mean that our students don't lose everything that they learned over a whole year by being at home for the short summer," she says. "Just giving parents easier and more affordable access to education any time of the year is exciting." 

Noting that the governor and legislature have made incredible investments, Richard says that MiLEAP will make those investments really work for Michiganders and for the institutions that serve them. 

"My own little guy is in kindergarten this year, and we know that preschool is expensive and lots of families are stretched," she says. "This is one more piece of the governor's commitment to put a little money in families' pockets and to support healthy early development for all of our kids."

Teacher and children at NEST Child Care and Parent Institute in Detroit.
Richard says that she's been buoyed by the interest from longtime allies and offers from newer incoming partners to be part of making MiLEAP a success.  

"We have to acknowledge that we're all fighting to create the very best systems for our kids and families," she says. "My little humans are small. I'm really committed to building a state that they want to stay in for the long term. I'm proud to be a part of a department that has lots of people thinking about their friends, family and neighbors to move our state forward."

Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at [email protected].

Photos by Doug Coombe.
Photos of Imani Foster, Jeffrey Capizzano, and Frances Einterz courtesy subjects. 

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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