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Early childhood education seen as key to helping youngest Flint water crisis victims

May 3, 2016

President Barack Obama will visit Flint tomorrow to get an update on the city’s drinking water crisis.

In Flint, thousands of children under the age of six have been exposed to high levels of lead in their drinking water, creating problems that could last a lifetime.

But there’s a new effort underway to try to help children most at risk.   

For weeks, teachers and other volunteers have been knocking on doors in Flint.

On Monday, they once again fanned out across a south-side neighborhood.

“Good morning, how are you?” Shirley Lee with the Genesee Intermediate School District greeted a man who answered his door. “We’re doing recruitment for our programs, birth to eight in the county. Do you have any children under the age of five?”

The man smiled and told her he’s a retired bachelor, adding “No kids,” with a smile.

On this day, the educators are finding more retirees at home than toddlers. But they push on.

They do it because they know early childhood education is critical for the youngest victims of Flint’s lead tainted tap water.  

For children under the age of six, exposure to lead can have profound affects, from behavioral problems to a lower IQ.

Dr. Mona Hanna Attisha heads the pediatrics program at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center. Her research shows elevated lead levels in the blood of Flint children, after the city’s pipes were damaged by improperly treated water starting in 2014. 

But she says early education can mitigate these effects by stimulating young children’s minds and helping them learn to focus.

“In Flint, these children need these things now. They needed these things two years ago, because we’re going on our third year in this crisis,” says Hanna Attisha. “We’ve already missed two years of critical brain development where these interventions could make the greatest impact.”

In a brightly colored classroom, a four-year-old boy stares at a computer screen with the letters of the alphabet displayed.

“Oh, Kreshon is going to look for A. Where’s it at Kreshon?” the teacher asks as the boy pokes his finger at a letter. “Uh-oh ... that’s the letter G. Let’s look for letter A.”

The boy is part of a group of three and four year olds gathered around the teacher to learn their ABCs at one of seven new early childhood education classes in Flint. 

Lauren Chom is the interim director of GISD’s early childhood programs. She says about half of the 4,000 students enrolled in this countywide early childhood program live here in Flint.       

Even before their tap water was tainted with lead, Chom says many Flint children had developmental obstacles.

“What we know is that the majority of the children in the community start out behind,” says Chom.“When we do our baseline assessments of children, we have many children who start out below the national expectations in most of the objectives.”

Chom says before the water crisis the focus was to bring those children up to the normal level of development. The water crisis simply makes that harder to do. 

Mott Community College in Flint trains many of the teachers who work with the city’s preschoolers. 

Sue Lechota runs the early child learning center at Mott. She says it’s not just about preparing teachers.

“You can have as many strategies and as much skill as you can get, but when you’re out in the field, you really need funding for the kind of support they’re going to need in a classroom,” says Lechota.   

Education officials here are hoping that lawmakers will approve more funding, not only for sorely needed early childhood education, but for Flint children as they become school age and try to keep up.