TRAVERSE CITY — Early childhood education options for lower-income families in Grand Traverse County could be at risk for years in the wake of a controversial move from Traverse City Area Public Schools.
The ramifications of TCAPS Interim Superintendent Jim Pavelka’s decision to cut the Great Start Readiness Program, a free state-funded preschool option, are likely to go beyond just the upcoming school year, experts predict.
Yvonne Donohoe McCool, the director of early childhood education for the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District, said the 112 slots TCAPS would have provided for the 2020-21 school year could be lost to the region for some time if other providers do not pick up the slack. Donohoe McCool added that no area providers have stepped forward to provide services in place of TCAPS since the district’s decision earlier this month.
The Michigan Department of Education allocates a certain amount of money for GSRP — last year it was nearly $250 million. Limited funding means there is a finite amount of slots available to Great Start programs across the state.
Providers that operate Great Start programs are guaranteed to get the same number of slots the following year if they fill all of the slots allocated to them. If those slots are not filled, Donohoe McCool said the MDE then redistributes them to other programs seeking more slots.
Donohoe McCool said not filling the slots has long-term consequences for Great Start in Traverse City and for the region, adding that it’s not as simple as cutting the program and then bringing it back when the funding is there. She called the TCAPS decision “unexpected and quick,” giving TBAISD officials little time to plan a response.
“If we aren’t able to fill them or no one comes forward and we give 112 slots back to the state this year, those 112 slots would be lost,” she said. “We wouldn’t be able to access those back. Single-year stepouts don’t work well for a program like this.”
Parents, community members and other early childhood educators met the last two weeks through the Great Start Collaborative to express concern and to brainstorm solutions while coordinating advocacy efforts for GSRP.
Missy Smith, parent liaison for the collaborative, said there simply are not enough providers in the area to take on the 112 slots left vacant by TCAPS. The ISD extended its deadline for providers to apply for slots until July 27 after no partners or potential partners stepped forward.
Smith said there is dialogue happening but that the “volume of slots that makes it unlikely that any subcontractor can come forward and offer what TCAPS has been offering.”
Anna Fryer, the multi-site coordinator and enrollment specialist for Teddy Bear Daycare and Preschool, said the Bass Lake location has the space and resources to offer five full-time slots, but she said the TCAPS cut put a “great burden” on parents and the early childhood community.
Smith believes TCAPS officials “could have tried harder” to save the program, citing existing structures and opportunities for collaboration and additional funding to cover the $125,000 shortfall TCAPS offered up as the reason to cut GSRP.
Traverse City resident Wayne Workman said he was “very distressed” by the TCAPS decision to walk away from GSRP, calling it shortsighted.
Workman said he has yet to hear what TCAPS officials did to try and save the program. The only thing Workman said he knows is that TCAPS Board of Education trustees “followed the lead of what the administrative staff told them to do.”
“The public should know that there were some substantial efforts to try to preserve something that brings youngsters up to school readiness,” Workman said. “It’s obviously been working for 30 years, and then — on short notice — they get rid of it. It’s like eating your seed corn.”
Smith said parents will have to show a “strong voice” in advocating for the program.
“That’s what will move the needle to get people to come up with a more creative solution,” she said.
Smith and others are hopeful after hearing comments at the TCAPS board meeting Monday that the district could reverse its decision.
However, Pavelka said Thursday he does not want his comments Monday to be misconstrued as an indication that TCAPS would reconsider the decision to cut the program.
He clarified that TCAPS officials are working with other agencies, including TBAISD, to make sure the slots are filled by other organizations and offering resources — such as food service, transportation and classroom space — to those organizations.
Pavelka said he is hopeful all 112 slots will be picked up by Aug. 15. If not, he said they will work again with the providers to see what other support TCAPS can offer to help them pick up more slots.
“We wanted to save the service. We’re committed to early childhood,” Pavelka said. “But the program is in a structural deficit. With all of the unknowns out there, this was a decision that was one of the most difficult I’ve had to make in my career.”