FLINT, Michigan — “Thank you for teaching me how to teach independent children.”
That was the message to my 5-year-old daughter Isla and a classmate from their teacher, Jen Cozart, at the University of Michigan-Flint Early Childhood Development Center (ECDC) graduation ceremony May 23. I could only laugh. Isla and I had recently had the following conversation:
Me (in a normal, talking voice): “Isla, pick up your things.”
Isla: “Okay, but don’t yell. It’s bossy to yell.”
Me: “I’m not yelling. Also, you yell at me all the time!”
Isla: “It’s okay that I yell, because I’m bossy.”
So it’s fair to say Jen’s message to Isla on her graduation day perfectly encapsulated the spirit of my daughter. It wasn’t unique to her, either — each of the 11 students graduating from the early childhood program that day received similarly descriptive and heartfelt messages from their teachers during the ceremony.
I was filled with typical parental pride watching my daughter accomplish a milestone, mixed with sadness that I can’t slow down how rapidly she’s turning into a smart, talented, fearless young woman right before my eyes. But I was also filled with a different type of gratitude. I am grateful for Flint.
In particular, I am grateful for the education she has received right here in the city of Flint. Throughout Isla’s three years in the UM-Flint ECDC program, she has blossomed, particularly her language skills and imagination. As much as I’d like to take parental credit for those creative inclinations — I am a wannabe writer, after all, and her mother is a talented singer and theatre actor in her spare time — I can’t. We are indebted to UM-Flint and, in particular, the many teachers who have touched Isla’s life over the last three years.
She has picked up typical academic skills — she has good fluency with letters and numbers, she can write her name, she can recite where she lives. But beyond that, I am grateful to her teachers at ECDC for helping her learn to express herself.
As with any sibling relationship, she and her brother get into fights. When she apologizes for hurting him, she also asks, “What can I do to make it better?” She asks if he wants a hug or wants space. She learned that in her class. She can also articulate — confidently — when she wants space. She has a concept of healthy boundaries, the ability to understand when she crosses one, and an understanding that she has the right to tell someone to give her space. I am grateful she has already developed a concept of empathy. It will serve her and grow the rest of her life.
She has also been in a classroom environment for three years that is racially and economically diverse. She came home from school one day and noticed that one of her friends had “different hair” than her. We were able to talk about differences in people — with the help of Flint author LaTashia M. Perry’s book "Hair Like Mine
" — and how those differences make each of us unique and beautiful. She’s had diverse teachers who she has formed bonds with and adored. This includes male teachers, who are typically underrepresented in early childhood programs — studies show student achievement increases in early childhood programs when there are male and female teachers present, and I am proud that UM-Flint has a diverse staff teaching their diverse student population.
She has already found passions — she loves painting, drawing, and costumes. She’s always had those inclinations, but they were given focus and nurtured at UM-Flint. She comes home daily with new drawings she created during the time she’s given to work on art. She was regularly excited about costume/dress-up play. She went through a Batman obsession — that included correcting any adult with the audacity to call her Batgirl instead of Batman — and her desire to wear costumes almost daily was welcomed at school.
Isla is an independent child. Sometimes — as with any small human figuring out who they are — that independence manifests itself in ways that aren’t always convenient for the rest of us. I will forever be indebted to all of Isla’s teachers at UM-Flint for embracing that independence and tailoring how they teach to the needs of each of their students rather than forcing a conformed set of behavioral expectations on all students regardless of personality. Isla has emerged from that positive environment with healthy coping mechanisms, self-confidence, and an ability to collect herself and breathe when she gets frustrated.
Mostly, I am just thankful that this program exists in Flint here on the campus of UM-Flint — as well as similar programs at Great Expectations at Brownell Elementary and the Educare school that neighbors Durant-Tuuri-Mott Elementary. I am hopeful that resources continue to be invested in these amazing early childhood institutions and teachers here in the city. The difference it has made for Isla as she prepares to start school is remarkable.
Imagine a world where there were no barriers for access to this type of education for all students? Flint at its peak created a world-class education model for kids of all ages. With the right focus and investment, the city still has the programs and people to recreate that.