Detroit breaks ground on $15 million early education center that will serve as national model March 2, 2020

Tiny handprints and the tiny hands that made them stole the show at the Nov. 22 groundbreaking of a $15 million early childhood education facility that will serve approximately 144 children from birth to age 5 in northwest Detroit. The center is one component of a “cradle-to-career” educational campus being developed on the historic grounds of Marygrove College with the help of many partners, who dug into the ceremonial groundbreaking sandbox alongside their smallest —  but most important — constituents.

The entire campus is supported by The Kresge Foundation, and IFF serves as the lead developer for the early learning center — a 28,000-square-foot facility that will include 12 spacious classrooms, dedicated developmental spaces, and a central focus on interior courtyards that bring in natural light and connect to the campus.

In our developer role, IFF’s Detroit-based team is providing construction oversight and working closely and collaboratively not only with architects and contractors, but also with community members and area providers.

“We are not a typical real estate developer,” said IFF CEO Joe Neri in his comments at the groundbreaking. “We are strong advocates for children, families, providers, and the entire early learning ecosystem. We seek out and choose to work on projects that will have the most positive and lasting impact.”

We are not a typical real estate developer. We are strong advocates for children, families, providers, and the entire early learning ecosystem. We seek out and choose to work on projects that will have the most positive and lasting impact.

“And how did we know the center would have impact? Data,” Neri continued.

Long before the community informed the design, and long before the architects and contractors were selected, IFF conducted a study on the supply and demand for early childhood education slots in the City of Detroit. A key finding was that the demand for early childhood seats far exceeded the supply in the communities surrounding the Marygrove campus — which represent nearly a third of the total gap in the city.

In addition to providing additional slots where they are most needed, the new center will also serve as a hub for other area providers to convene and access resources as a way to grow both the quantity and quality of early education programs in the community over time.

“This center is going to be a resource and benefit for the entire neighborhood. It’s not just a standalone facility on a campus. We’re trying to build a network of support with a number of programs and centers in this particular part of the city,” explained Wendy Lewis Jackson, who leads The Kresge Foundation’s work in Detroit.

That network is strongly supported by Hope Starts Here, which brought together providers, parents, and other partners to create a vision for early childhood in Detroit. The initiative — which was co-founded by The Kresge Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation — celebrated its 3-year anniversary on the same day as the groundbreaking of the new early learning center on Marygrove’s campus.

“When we launched three years ago, we didn’t mean merely a partnership of two foundations,” said Rip Rapson, Kresge’s President. “We meant instead a partnership of the myriad people, groups, and agencies needed to make Detroit a city that puts its young children first. A city that puts principles of equity to work in the years from prenatal to pre-k. A city that does not pretend that there is any true make-good when we miss the once-in-a-lifetime window of human opportunity.”

Hope Starts Here has six core imperatives, one of which is specifically to create safe and inspiring learning environments. IFF has led the collaborative work in this area, centered in part around our Learning Spaces program — a $4 million investment from Kresge, Kellogg, and other philanthropic leaders to make strategic improvements in early learning facilities throughout the city.

“You hear ‘facilities’ and you think: boring. But when IFF is involved, it’s anything but,” Neri said. “Our research team finds out where to strategically locate centers where most families need them. Our real estate team understands the best practices in design for early learners. Our developers work collaboratively with providers, parents, and other partners to create a real sense of community. The spaces we help create inspire not just babies and toddlers but also teachers, parents, and caregivers.”

We want to create a symbol for everyone to see that the Detroit Renaissance is not just about a booming downtown; it’s about investment in our future and investment in our children.

Neri also noted that the early learning center at Marygrove is intended to be a national exemplar.

“We want to create a symbol for everyone to see that the Detroit Renaissance is not just about a booming downtown; it’s about investment in our future and investment in our children,” Neri said.

Architect Marlon Blackwell also described the early learning center at Marygrove as “a bridge between the community and the campus.” The campus will eventually serve more than 1,000 children and young people at full capacity. Campus partners include:

  • Starfish Family Services, which will operate the early learning center and provide full-day, full-year care for families with infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Starfish will also provide holistic support for children and families through behavioral and developmental health services, informed trauma care, parenting classes, prenatal support and more. Importantly, this center will operate on a blended funding model that includes both subsidized and market-rate slots; this type of business model helps stabilize the center’s finances and may help bridge the achievement gap.
  • University of Michigan School of Education, which is working with Starfish to co-develop the center’s curriculum and child-based services. This is a collaborative effort to develop year-round, cutting-edge curriculum for children from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds in an urban setting. The university is also hosting a new Teaching Residency program on campus.
  • Marygrove Conservancy, the nonprofit created to manage operations at the former Marygrove College, which ceased undergraduate operations in 2017 and then its graduate program in late 2019. The Conservancy will steward the beautiful, tree-filled grounds of the 53-acre campus, where historic buildings will become new homes to K-12 schools and other educational services.
  • Detroit Public School Community District (DPSCD), which operates the School at Marygrove, a public school that will offer grades K-12. In September 2019, the first class of ninth grade students began classes.
  • Detroit Collaborative Design Center, a community engagement that coordinated the intentional effort to gather and integrate community input into the design process. They conducted large community meetings, focus groups, and one-on-one conversations focused on the Marygrove campus, as well as attended existing local meetings to integrate with ongoing community conversations. Those engagements helped shape the physical and programmatic design of the early learning center – everything from the connectivity to the outdoors to the small classrooms to the wrap-around wellness services.

“We know that not every early learning center will have this level of investment and support,” Neri says. “But this center can demonstrate best practices and help shape the conversation about facility quality in Detroit – all while serving actual children from this neighborhood.”

As Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who was on hand for the groundbreaking, said: “Children at a young age know how their community values them. Can you imagine 3-, 4-, 5-year-olds walking into a first-class childcare center on this beautiful campus? What a statement that is.”