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Education is a big issue in northern Michigan, whether we're reporting on school funding issues to breakthroughs in the classroom.

Tiny town gets big money to give kids a leg up

Morgan Springer
Jenny Shooks, CLEO's manager, hangs out with the kids during playgroup. Before Cleo Purdy left more than $14 million to support early childhood education in Central Lake, there was no playgroup. Now it happens every week.

Research shows the quality of a toddler's education is incredibly important. It often determines a child’s success in the future. However, state and federal dollars typically don’t kick in until a child gets to preschool. Before that – from birth to three years old – families are often on their own.


In the town of Central Lake in Antrim County, a group of organizations is trying to make sure the kids in town get a good shot at success. And they have a more than $14 million endowment to do it.

The woman who made it happen

The money is from a woman named Cleo Purdy. 

Cleo M. Purdy was born in Central Lake. When she died in 2013, she left over $14 million to support young children and families in her hometown.

"Cleo Purdy was born and raised in Central Lake ... on her family’s farm," says Alison Metiva, director of community relations at the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation.

Purdy left Central Lake, joined the Army and eventually landed in California where she became a teacher and a successful real estate developer.

"What I’ve been told about her," Metiva says, "she was a keen, kind of savvy businesswoman." 

In 2013, when Purdy died, she left the money to the community foundation.

For the past three year, the community foundation and partner organizations in the region have worked to make Purdy’s goal a reality. They call this effort CLEO, short for Central Lake Early Experiences and Opportunities. 

CLEO offers a number of other programs for Central Lake families with kids from birth to age five. There are free books for any family that signs up, a summer camp, networking nights, a playgroup and library lapsit and preschool is 100 percent funded in the town. Home visits are also offered. They're considering starting a diaper pantry that would offer free diapers once a month.

Credit Morgan Springer
Kids, parents and CLEO staff hang out during playgroup. While it might not look like a typical classroom, CLEO staff members say there is a lot of learning happening and connections being made.

The benefits of playgroup

Central Lake’s playgroup happens every Tuesday in the basement of the First Congregational Church. It's a large room with grey carpeting, toys, comfy chairs, a kitchen and tables for eating. Four moms and a grandmother have brought babies and toddlers, all boys. For more than two hours they'll play, talk and eat lunch.

Before CLEO, playgroup didn’t exist. And while it may not look like a classroom, Jenny Shooks, CLEO's manager, says kids are learning a lot. 

"There’s a lot of modeling going on," says Shooks. "It might be the language Kate is using. It might be the activities she’s providing."

Kate Essenberg, CLEO’s Family Community Navigator, runs playgroup. On this particular day, Essenberg is on the floor playing with blocks with two of the kids. Kids are interacting and learning social and emotional skills and new words. That’s rather than doing something more solitary, like watching TV or playing by themselves. 

"But really at that age our goal is not to be the teacher," Shooks says. "We really want to promote the parent being the teacher, and we want to promote the parent engaging with their child. That’s the most important thing they can do."

She says another goal is to connect parents and caregivers with each other so they can form a supportive network of people who are experiencing similar things like "the ups and downs of raising children."

"I feel like becoming a mother, unfortunately, can be a very lonely time in a person’s life," says Shooks. "And I think a lot of times we feel like we’re the only ones. You’re the only parent in the world that has a child that doesn’t sleep or you’re the only parent in the world that struggles with challenging behavior."

Credit Morgan Springer
Sally Kramer (left) and Melissa Sheldon (right) catch up while their kids play nearby.

Shooks says before CLEO, parents often didn’t meet until their kids went to preschool. Now parents are getting to know each other when their children are infants. They swap war stories, commiserate and give advice.

"That is a highlight," says Shooks, "when I see other parents reaching out and supporting another parent that’s struggling. That is success."

The research

Marsha Miller, an early childhood consultant, was hired by the community foundation to help shape programs at Central Lake that would fit Cleo Purdy’s goals. She says there is “abundant” research showing that educational experiences for young kids and their families help.

"All evidence shows that children are more likely to have positive outcomes not just in school, but in life in general," says Miller.

But she says, it matters what type of programming is offered.

"Many folks try to extrapolate that to mean that, ‘ok if we’re providing any services, we’re going to have that high return on investment.’ That’s not the case," says Miller. "It’s only if the programming is comprehensive and is high quality. And high quality is not done cheaply."

But research shows that despite the expense, the payoff for early childhood education from birth to age five is high. A 2016 study by Professor James Heckman from the University of Chicago estimated the cost/benefit ratio at $6.30 for each dollar invested on a child.

Credit Morgan Springer
Parents, teachers, and CLEO staff look on while Patti Loper demonstrates different language activities for kids. The monthly early childhood networking night is funded by the Cleo M. Purdy endowment.

Teaching the parents so they can teach their kids

Later that same evening, parents gather at Central Lake Public Schools for an early childhood networking night.

The event is put on by Great Start Collaborative and funded through Cleo Purdy's endowment. It happens once a month. The presentation that night was on early childhood literacy.

Parents sit with their kids in a classroom eating a free dinner of fried chicken and ham sandwiches. When the presentation begins, the kids are ushered off to childcare, also paid for by the endowment. 

Patti Loper, an early childhood specialist at the Charlevoix-Emmet Intermediate School District, leads the class. She talks about the importance of talking to your kids.

"The 5,000 words you learn in conversation make up 83 percent of the language that’s used in conversation" says Loper, "so your talk is so important."

Loper tells the parents that besides just talking to their kids, reading and singing will also help improve language skills. To demonstrate how singing teaches the rhythm of the words, she shows this video:


Later on, Loper lays out language activities for parents to do with their kids. She has them fill boxes with the activities to bring home.

Melanie Hurst, who's at the networking night with her husband Benjamin and their three kids, says she comes to these networking nights “like every time they have one.”

"Here’s like every opportunity that you could think of, and it’s amazing," says Hurst. She's been involved with CLEO through playgroup, summer camps and networking night. She asked Shooks about starting a sexual assault support group and got the go-ahead.

The Hursts say CLEO has given them a strong community of "forever friends" and support, and they hope its helped them become better parents.

"There’s always room for improvement, right?" says Benjamin Hurst. "I think a lot of the stuff that they go over in these meetings is beneficial to any parent. Even if you’re the best parent in the world, all this stuff is beneficial for you.”

Melanie Hurst adds she frequently runs out of new ways to engage her kids. So the language activities Patti gave them will help.


Credit Morgan Springer
Melanie and Benjamin Hurst goof off together after the early childhood networking night. Benjamin says even if you're the best parent, you can always learn something new at these events.

Measuring Impact

The next step for all the many organizations involved in CLEO is figuring out how to measure impact. Right now, their proof is pretty anecdotal. There are rave reviews from parents. Then there are stories. One time the community brought a mom food when she had surgery on her hand and two kids in diapers. Another time a mom told CLEO staff she realized spanking wasn’t the best way to potty train.

Miller says more formal measurements will likely include third grade reading measures, child abuse and neglect data, data on access to mental health services and parent surveys, which they've already begun conducting.

The community foundation allocated $433,781 from the endowment to the CLEO project last year. With 78 kids participating so far in a town that could have around 100 kids from birth to age five, that’s approximately $5,500 per child that participated.

Partners of CLEO include the community foundation, Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency, Central Lake Public Schools, Charlevoix-Emmet Intermediate School District, the Women's Resource Center, Central Lake District Library and the First Congregational Church.

Morgan Springer is a contributing editor and producer at Interlochen Public Radio. She previously worked for the New England News Collaborative as the host/producer of NEXT, the weekly show which aired on six public radio station in the region.