By Edward Manuszak, Ed.S Superintendent Dundee Community Schools and AASA Early Learning Cohort Co-Chair

In December of 2018, the ten local superintendents gathered at the Dundee High School Media Center to learn more about the Buffett Early Childhood Institute’s Superintendent’s Early Childhood Plan there was a sense of purpose. It was to not allow a child’s zip code to determine the quality of education that they would receive in Monroe County.  Monroe County already had a very collaborative working environment within Monroe County due to our county’s handling of the Schools of Choice program mandated by the state of Michigan. We had many years ago agreed to an alternative plan that allows our students to request to leave and request to attend, but we limited (deliberately) the number of students who could participate on a yearly basis. This helped our districts in Monroe County work closer together and communicate.  This meeting was another chance for us to work together on something much larger!

As the founding co-chair of the AASA Early Learning Cohort, it opened me up to a network of other districts, programs, and relationships around the nation. One such relationship was that with Kim Bodensteiner, Program Director within the Buffett Early Childhood Institute. She has since retired and been replaced by Cris Lopez Anderson, but the work continued. Eleven metro school districts in the greater Omaha, Nebraska area banded together in 2016 to form the Superintendent’s Early Childhood Plan. This plan allowed each district to use the levied money dedicated toward early childhood to how they saw fit in their own communities, but they learned very early that if they grew this initiative together that they could close equity gaps in academics, socialization, and exposure gaps due to low socioeconomic status, and make strong connections to families who were not officially kindergartners. They absorbed the mindset of creating the school as the “hub” and the services that each school provided as the spokes of the wheel that made the community a better, richer place.

So, I brought my county together to explore their interest level in a similar model. Not only did we have school leaders at the meeting, but we had our elected officials present, other governmental agencies, and health-based organizations too. The meeting turned out to be a smashing success!

At our Monroe County Superintendents Association Leadership Conference in August of 2019, we put the plan into motion. We reviewed data from the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment (KRA) and the Early Learning Program Assessment Tool (ELPAT) © to determine how ready our districts were in helping our children and families. The age span that we focused on was Birth through Age Three. The ELPAT © is now a web-based resource sourced by Standards for Success. That resource can be found here for those that are interested in pursuing this as a tool to assist your district to understand your early childhood program readiness. 

These results led our county to apply to the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation and we earned a three-year grant where it allowed us to hire Family Engagement Coordinators who have been busy working to connect our students who are birth through age five with their local school districts through active playgroups, home visits, field trips, and taking part in a parent education program called Preschool U ©. This program was developed by Detroit Public Television as an outreach program scaffolded after the High Scope program. It offers five distinct modules of engaging professional development for a parent/lead caregiver the chance to learn more about how to work with and love their children. Monroe County has seen GREAT results as this program enters its’ second year.

Dr. Rachel Kopke, Assistant Superintendent at the Monroe County Intermediate School District for Special Education and Early Childhood, has been leading her department in the efforts to connect as early and often as they can with families and their children. As evidenced below from March 2022, see the dynamic differences that have been made while investing around $130,000 per year to hire the two Family Engagement Specialists who carry out the work on behalf of the Monroe County Superintendents Early Childhood Plan. These individuals are responsible for the implementation of the vision of the Monroe County Superintendents Association Early Childhood Plan.

There are nine local public school districts that are being served by this program. The leadership from these districts again meets with our elected state officials on Friday, May 20 to see how to continue such a meaningful and data-rich program that is meeting the needs of our youngest learners and their families as we emerge out of our pandemic.  The county is also now engaged in universal Kindergarten registration that works closely with Great Start and Head Start.  There are also now Playdates with Principals that also encourage Principals to meet their newest students and their families in an informal setting during the summer. Not only are connections being made with families of children who have special needs, but there are also connections being made with children who have never experienced a structured learning environment. Please see the chart below which demonstrates the impact that is being made in each district with this program.

The current funding for this program expires due to the nature of the grant this November 2022 and I have been working to collaborate with the Michigan Department of Education and the Education Development Center to scale this program to other parts of the state. As I transition to my new position, I will continue to monitor the progress that is made in Monroe County, while attempting to again bring local Superintendents to the table in Washtenaw to make Early Childhood Matter Most!

Monroe County was also chosen to be a part of an exciting pilot with the Michigan Department of Education and Education Development Center (EDC) First 10 Pilot. More information about First 10 pilots can be found here.  This work includes Monroe Public Schools, Bedford Public Schools, and Dundee Community Schools. It builds upon the strong work that has begun in Monroe County and expands it. Each district will receive $30,000 to continue to assist staff with aligning vertical professional development opportunities between schools and providers (either home or center-based) along with continuing to offer ways for our schools to connect with our local families and other cross-sector agencies.

It is my sincere hope that the connections that are being made for the children and families in Monroe County can be replicated throughout the state of Michigan. A simple way to know we are making successful steps is when our building administrators begin referring to their schools as P-5 schools meaning that they serve prenatal through grade 5. We must continue to educate not just ourselves, our children, and the families we serve, but each other. It is our responsibility to make sure that Michigan, not just Monroe County is the best place to have a baby.


About the Author

Edward Manuszak, Ed.S Superintendent Dundee Community Schools and AASA Early Learning Cohort Co-Chair, is in his sixth and final year as Superintendent of Dundee Community Schools and is expected to graduate this summer with his PhD from Eastern Michigan University. He has 27 years of experience as a Professional Educator (Classroom Teacher, Elementary Building Principal, Central Office Administrator, Assistant Superintendent, Adjunct College Professor, and Superintendent).  This is his fifth year as Co-Chair for the AASA Early Learning Cohort, a national cohort leading 75 Superintendents, Central Office Administrators, and Building Administrators in embracing early learning. He is married to his wife Corey Alvarez and has two adult sons, Noah and Lucas. He will be transitioning into his new job on July 1, 2022, as the Executive Director for Early Childhood at the Washtenaw Intermediate School District in Ann Arbor, Michigan.