Cornetta Lane-Smith, Brent and Legend Smith are considering the early childhood center at Marygrove because of the school’s partnership with University of Michigan and its cradle-to-career offerings. (BridgeDetroit photo by Valaurian Waller)

On a Tudor Gothic campus designed for college students, a $15 million, 28,000-square foot educational center designed for Detroit’s littlest people aims for a grand opening in Fall 2021, despite the uncertainties for both construction and school programming brought on by a global pandemic.

It has been just over a year since the closure of Marygrove College, a beloved institution of higher learning founded in 1905. But a massive intervention by a number of collaborators, along with a $50 million investment from the Kresge Foundation, spared the west side neighborhood from being hit with 53 acres of vacancy. The emerging cradle-to-career program at Marygrove, or P-20, is intended to use education as a form of community investment. Priority enrollment is given to families who live within 1 to 2 miles of campus.

The new early childhood center has a “foundational role” in the P-20 program, said principal Celina Byrd, but she also sees it as a model of a “systems-level change” in early childhood education. “The center really is an opportunity to showcase what’s possible,” she said.

Celina Byrd is the principal for Starfish the P-20 program where veteran teachers will be matched with University of Michigan residents. (BridgeDetroit photo by Valaurian Waller)

The University of Michigan School of Education is responsible for a K-12 teaching residency at the School at Marygrove, the year-old public school on campus, where students in training will work with veteran educators in the way that resident doctors are placed at teaching hospitals. U-M also is in the beginning stages of working with Starfish Family Services to develop a teaching school for the early childhood center, Byrd said, which will “mirror some of the same goals.”

“I consider this kind of an incubator,” added Kelle Sisung, marketing and communications manager for Starfish, the local nonprofit operating the center. “It has so much potential for impact, not only in Metro Detroit, but in the neighborhood. You start with education. You start with children.”

One of those children may be Legend, the 15-month-old son of Cornetta Lane-Smith and Brent Smith. His parents attended a recent listening session about the early childhood center, where they met other parents virtually. As they consider their options, Smith said he’s mindful of “where are resources, where’s the people power, [and] who does what.” 

If 15-month-old Legend Smith enters the Marygrove program, he will have access to safe, stable school facilities, with high-quality indoor and outdoor space. (BridgeDetroit photo by Valaurian Waller)

Lane-Smith said she likes the center’s collaboration with U-M and Starfish, where her mentor worked for many years, as well as the fact that “when you graduate from the school, you have a pipeline from the high school to the college.

“We thought that maybe it’s a good opportunity to set him up for academic success early,” Lane-Smith added. “It just seemed to be a no-brainer.”


While the enrollment process will be unveiled in early 2021, potential parents are encouraged to get on the waiting list by filling out an interest form, or calling or emailing Starfish. 

Meanwhile, construction on the center is progressing even in the midst of a pandemic. Sheila Fredricks, project manager for the Detroit office of architect Barton Malow Builders, reported that multicolored terracotta material arrived on site from Germany about a month ago, and as it gets installed on the exterior, it is set off by the surrounding campus limestone. Tiling and paint in the classrooms is finishing up, as well as mechanical electrical and plumbing work. Some millwork is yet to be done. With a design that emphasizes natural light, Fredricks said there is a lot of excitement about “nice, beautiful glass” that will come in later this month or in early January.

Access to safe, stable facilities, with high-quality indoor and outdoor space, is often a challenge for early childhood centers, especially in communities that have experienced historic disinvestment. Patched-together sites in the basements of old churches are common. In its roadmap for elevating early childhood care in Detroit, the nonprofit Hope Starts Here listed “safe and inspiring environments” as one of its imperatives. That includes improving facility design, and locating programs near where families live and work.

At Marygrove, there will be 12 classrooms, six for infants and toddlers, four for preschoolers, and two that are designed as “flex classrooms.” Those two are meant to provide stability through future fluctuations in the ages of enrolled children, whether due to natural demographic shifts, the development of a universal pre-kindergarten program in Michigan, or anything else.

The Smith family attended a listening session for Starfish, the early childhood center at Marygrove. The school will begin accepting applications early this year. (BridgeDetroit photo by Valaurian Waller)

The center will also have a library, health therapy rooms, courtyards, and a natural playscape designed around existing oak trees. It will have capacity for 144 children and about a little more than 40 staff positions, including teachers, receptionists, family service guides, education specialists, and classroom aides. 

This level of investment isn’t common, but it’s not unprecedented either. Educare Flint opened three years ago — a new 36,000-square-foot facility with 18 classrooms, as well as a theater, play spaces, a STEM lab, and adult learning spaces. It offers free full-day, yearlong early education for 220 children, who are eligible from birth up through age 5. 

Like the Marygrove center, Educare Flint was supported by investment from IFF, a Midwest-based community develop­ment financial institution. In November, its executive director, Denise Smith, began a new role in Detroit as the first implementation director of Hope Starts Here.

Brent Smith said he sees the value of high-quality facility design, but given the uncertainties of the pandemic, he just hopes “the building they’re in is in use. … I just hope the kids are able to use those spaces. Inside. Safely.”

Pre-COVID, the construction management team based in Fayetteville, Arkansas, made visits to the site. It also engaged with a local firm, INTOTO studio, to provide construction administration services. That turned out to be useful once the out-of-town builders faced travel restrictions brought on by the pandemic. “They were really set up to be local by extension even prior to COVID, and that arrangement has really worked to the benefit of the project” said Rachel Sikora, senior project manager for IFF’s real estate services.

Construction shut down March 23 in 2020. At the time, they thought it would last three weeks. Fredricks said the team used the time to develop a safety process for its boots-on-the-ground workers. The 17-page return-to-work plan includes cleanings twice a day of common areas, including Port-a-Johns, and a hand-wash station. (The campus allowed them to use the running water from a nearby building.) 

The virus hit happened early enough in construction for the team to make late adaptations to the building design, including a finer filtration system and additional academic space outdoors. “Even if COVID is behind us, these are smart strategies for virus mitigation,” Sikora said. “It will benefit the early learning center for years to come.

The 28,000-square-foot early childhood center is located on Marygrove’s 53-acre campus. (BridgeDetroit photo by Valaurian Waller)

Builders got back to on-site work on May 7. The nature of outdoors work naturally facilitated social distancing, but a number of extra safety measures were implemented. Every worker fills out a project-specific Microsoft form accessed by QR code, where they go through a number of self-evaluation questions about whether they have a fever, for example, or if they have been in contact with someone who tested positive for the virus. If they answer no to all items, the screen displays a large dated green note, visible at a distance to supervisors. If they say yes to any of them, the screen shows a red note — the worker is not allowed on site, and is required to quarantine according to federal guidelines. The survey also allows team leaders to keep a database of who is on site every day.

One day, an electrician came down with the virus. It was a Friday. Over the weekend, team leaders put in place a safety plan, which included a two-week quarantine for the electrician’s entire crew. To date, that’s the extent of how the virus has materialized among workers, Fredricks said. The pandemic also led to some delays with material delivery, but it hasn’t significantly affected the schedule or the budget.

As the new early childhood center is built, another is already in operation. It’s on the garden level of Marygrove’s Liberal Arts building, which also houses the secondary school. There are four classrooms for infants and toddlers, and two for preschoolers. The idea behind its presence for a couple years before the official launch is to build stronger relationships with the community. They might be more inclined to say, as Sisung put it, “‘Oh, you’ve been there. Oh, we trust you. Oh, we know who you are because we’re neighbors.’”

Starfish too developed its pandemic opening and closing policy in accordance with state and federal health guidelines, as well as client survey feedback. “We thought we could move to an in-person phase, and that lasted about a week, and we reverted back to virtual,” said Byrd. “But we were ready. That’s the good thing.” 

The nonprofit also developed a virtual platform for very small learners that, Byrd said, was acknowledged by Wayne Regional Education Services Agencies as being effective and developmentally appropriate. The team engages with the Head Start and Great Start learning programs in Detroit to learn from them and exchange best practices, she added. They are also busy with a number of work groups, including ones that focus on community, curriculum, project management, and data and evaluation, as well as emerging parent advisory councils.

“We want families and children to grow up here. To grow up here and to go out into the world,” said Sisung.

This gets at the larger picture of what Cornetta Lane-Smith hopes for the Marygrove project, whether or not little Legend ends up enrolled there: that it is fully integrated into the community life of neighborhood residents, physically and programmatically for the full family. She can imagine a world where they walk their son to school, and then maybe work on campus, maybe in a full-time job, or maybe Brent Smith, the in-school art program coordinator for Living Arts Detroit, could bring his organization’s work to Marygrove.

“Almost a seamlessness from our front door to the front door of the school,” she said.

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