Denise Smith has seen the disparity between children who have access to quality early childhood education, and those who don’t. She’s seen it as a Detroit native, as a mother, as an educator, and as a long-time advocate for equitable, accessible, high-quality early education for all children. In November, she was named the first-ever Implementation Director for Hope Starts Here – Detroit’s ambitious citywide early learning framework supported by a $50 million investment from The Kresge Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Smith began her career 26 years ago as a home-based provider and then went on to administer Head Start programs, help design and build Michigan’s child care rating system, and manage and lead neighborhood and citywide coalitions seeking additional high-quality early childhood slots for communities that need them. Most recently, she served as the Executive Director of Educare-Flint, a massive early learning complex that opened in December 2017 (with help from an IFF investment). She has a degree in Communications from the University of Michigan and is the mother of three grown children as well as a 10-year-old great-niece that she is helping to raise.
We sat down with Denise to talk about her new role, her views on Detroit’s early learning landscape, and how her travels both around the world and in her own community have informed her approach as an agitator and collaborator.
IFF: At the Hope Starts Here third anniversary events in November, everyone seemed SO excited to have you on board. How does that make you feel – Welcome? Nervous? Excited?
Smith: All of the above. But also – joyous. And grateful.
I live here. Detroit is my home. And as a result, I have seen the disparity. I have seen the advantages that other communities have just down the road. And I have traveled to amazing programs and facilities in places like California and thought: Why don’t we have that? Because we’re in Detroit? That’s always plagued me. And now, knowing that folks here trust me to be able to deliver on that promise – it just means so much.
You know, even when I went to work in Flint, it was with mixed emotions. Even though I definitely appreciated the experience on so many levels…it just wasn’t home. So to have the opportunity now to work in my hometown, and in the field I’m truly passionate about, and where I’ve been afforded a lot of experiences and opportunities…it just means so much to me to be able to give back, to give my knowledge and experience and talents toward this effort.
IFF: Hope Starts Here has developed six imperatives, one of which is to guarantee safe and inspiring learning environments for children. What’s your take on how facility quality affects kids? And how does this facility-related imperative fit in with other priorities?
Smith: If I’m in a dark and a dreary place, I’m going to be distracted. Environments provide the context in which quality learning can happen.
I have worked in this field for 26 years now, and I’ve seen a lot of different spaces – from my own home at the beginning of my career, to Head Start classrooms I administered, to an Educare facility in Flint, to amazing outdoor classrooms in California, to Reggio classrooms in Italy. Having seen all these spaces, a few things stick out to me.
First, classrooms really need to speak to ALL the individuals who are active there – not just children, but also educators and parents. Yes, many elements are there specifically for a child’s learning, but they’re also for a teacher’s ability to engage with them appropriately. Adults congregate there too; these spaces are their home for the day, and therefore need to address their needs too.
Second, safe and inspiring environments extend beyond the walls of any classroom or facility or program. Think about a different demographic for a moment – the young, single adults who are working for a large software company in a downtown area. Their employers offer them spaces and amenities that literally show evidence that they are welcome, that they are wanted. I want the same thing for young children and families – to have safe and inspiring spaces for them even outside of their classroom. For me, this is the litmus test for whether or not we’re successful in this effort.
Across all the imperatives, there’s definitely interdependency. There are no clean lines – and that’s the way a child is developed, right? All those facets are really important to their developing wholly and being their best self. When I think of any of them, I see overlap.
IFF: You got the chance to visit Italy’s famous Reggio Emilia early childhood education facilities. Could you tell us a little more about your experience in Italy and how you might see that playing out in Detroit?
Smith: Oh my gosh – they really appreciate and respect children and families there. What I most took away from my experience was how every person in the community really knew the program – which is in line with its origins and history.
Reggio was started at the end of World War II, when the area was just decimated from bombings. The community came together to talk about how to rebuild, and the men wanted to build entertainment houses because everyone was feeling really sad and low and they thought it would make them feel better. But the women were like: Nope, we’re going to build schools so that our future can have a chance. Of course the women got their way. Community members helped build the structures. Parents were essentially the first educators. It was communal from its origin.
A Reggio approach essentially allows children to explore their own curiosities, guided by the teachers and parents and community members around them. The best way I can explain it is with one of the examples I saw in Italy.
There was a group of four children. One of them was taking gymnastics, and so she started doing somersaults. The other kids imitated, and they wanted to learn more. The teacher saw this as an invitation to learn and took it to the next level by introducing a new medium – clay – and asking them: How do we share what you’re learning about gymnastics with the rest of the school? So the children started by creating these 3D figures, but they quickly realized that it was only showing the end of the somersault. So the kids themselves begin to work collaboratively to solve this problem – they said, well, we could break out the stages of the somersault by drawing them and numbering them. Then they presented all this to the other children – not to the adults – and the other children gave them feedback. Now the whole school is thinking about acrobatics and what it is they’re doing and how they do it. And eventually they have a whole circus of characters – but no where to put them. So now they engage the parents and ask them to build a stage.
So now you have multiple mediums – clay, drawing. You have lessons on numerology. You have active feedback and collaboration and problem solving. Mind you – this is all with 3- and 4-year olds. Teachers and parents and community members were there to guide and provoke questions. And all of this came out of something they were already curious about – gymnastics. It’s truly amazing.
Reggio is one of my favorite approaches in the whole wide world because it is just so communal, because it builds on every aspect of a child’s life – and also because it has demonstrated results. During my time there, when I visited third and fourth grade classrooms, the children were doing the work of high schoolers – and they were clearly independent, critical thinkers. I think a lot of that I have to attribute to the way in which their brains were allowed to develop.
IFF: In Detroit, a lot of people are talking about how this could be a pivotal moment as the mayor is asking lawmakers to support free preschool. This seems to present some opportunities for children and families, as well as some potential challenges for educators and caregivers. What do you think the early childhood education community needs to be thinking about or doing in this moment?
Smith: Our field – the community of early childhood education – has a responsibility to ensure that families understand what exactly this means for families. Often, when there’s something new and bright and shiny, that’s what people will go for. It’s important that we provide enough context and information to our families to choose the fit that’s best for their children. And it’s important that we have conversations with the city so that they can be very thoughtful about what it is that they’re developing and how they introduce it and provide equitable access. We’re constantly having these kinds of conversations – with parents, with providers, and with the city.
Being cognizant of where you’re going, how you’re going, and how you’re delivering is just so important. There are a lot of questions to address as the city considers the move to Universal Pre-K. How do they understand wrap-around services and needs? How are the slots being disseminated across the city? Is that distribution equitable? Are we addressing the areas of highest needs? Can we provide support to programs in those areas? How are we going to make sure that those families who need it most aren’t left out of the equation? How will we continue to have even more conversations with the programs and providers that are already on the ground so that they can understand how the new pre-k programs could complement, and not oppose or provide a threat to, the work that they’re doing?
IFF: From Hope Starts Here to Reggio Emilia to free preschool – these are all systems. And we’ve heard you say that you’re a systems agitator. But we’ve also seen you as someone who clearly understands and values partnership and collaboration. How do you see these values – both the agitating and the collaborating – working together?
Smith: I don’t think the current system we have addresses the needs of our children and families. And so when I talk about agitating, I want to shake up that system and make it into something that is much more responsive and cooperative.
Our systems – health care, education, all of those – are very much siloed. We don’t work in a cooperative manner so that we can assist families in navigating without another stressor. It’s hard enough thinking about whether you can eat or have shelter as an individual; when you add children into the mix, the issues and concerns are multiplied. So how do we coordinate better in order to be able to assist our families in navigating those systems – and at the same time have them be a part of that co-creation of a new system. Too often, we sit around a table thinking about what’s supposed to happen or what needs to be for a certain population or demographic – and we’ve never even asked them.
I really try not to do my work in that way. I want to ask folks: What do you think about that? Is that going to work for you? If you don’t ask those kinds of questions, you’re setting your program up for failure. What tends to happen is there’s a program or policy that’s much touted in the beginning but then ends up being underutilized because it’s not accessible to folks who have to overcome so many challenges and barriers just to get there.
So when I’m talking about agitating systems – it’s definitely an approach to developing and really systematizing our work in a much more integrated fashion. I’m agitating to get to a cleaner place where we’re coordinating with and being more responsive to families, rather than being in this disconnected state. Because when we do things in a coordinated way, that mitigates some of the stressors of families by helping them navigate systems with more ease. It’s helpful to families – who are working or going to school and, therefore, to our economy and to our society.
IFF: Bringing it even closer to home – You’ve talked about how your great-niece, who you’re raising, has come to be a kind of muse for you. She’s someone who reminds you of ‘why the help helps.’ Could you expand on that and tell us how that experience is shaping your work at Hope Starts Here?
Smith: I do talk about her all the time, which she knows. She had beginnings that were not ideal – being born with drugs in her system to a mother who still abuses and to a father who abuses people and situations. So, not the best parents in the world. But, she came to me when she was still really young and I’ve seen firsthand what a difference early work, early intervention, early education made for her. She was able to grasp things so quickly and so early. She has always read above grade level because we raised her in a literacy-rich environment – we read to her and we talked about what words meant. So you see: If I needed more proof that early work makes a difference, she is that proof.
I often use this example – the eggplant story. A mother and her young child go into a grocery store. In the produce section, the child spots an eggplant and says, “What’s that?” And the mother says: “We don’t eat that.” And they move on to buy whatever they came there to buy. Another mother goes into a grocery store, and her child asks her the same question about the eggplant: “What’s that?” And the mother says, “Oh, that’s an eggplant. Do you want to take a closer look? They come in all different shapes and sizes. What if we pick one out and take it home and cook it? You know, I’ve never done that before, so we’ll need to get a recipe.” And they go home, and they start preparing the eggplant – now they’re reading the recipe, measuring ingredients, and talking about what they’re doing. So you’ve got reading and math and language happening. And afterwards they’re talking about the texture and the taste and whether or not they want to try eggplant again with another recipe. Think about these two scenarios – one that shuts down the child’s curiosity, and the other that explores it. I use this often with parents to help them understand how simple it can be to build capacity for their children – and to see that it’s their responsibility to do that, to let them explore.
IFF: What’s something that you wish people asked about more when it comes to early education?
Smith: One thing I’ve been trying to elevate is the real-life impact that a quality early childhood education has on every aspect of all our lives – even if we’re not parents or grandparents. The adults who end up working in every aspect of our society – their early starts really determine who they are in those roles. This has become a reality for some corporations who can’t find employees to do the work they need – either because those employees didn’t have good starts themselves, or because they have children of their own and can’t find reliable, high-quality care for those kids. This makes a huge difference in the very fabric of our lives. Everybody needs it.