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Washtenaw United: Celebrating the legacy of Foundations Preschool of Washtenaw County

Foundations Preschool of Washtenaw County executive director Sandy Williams.
Foundations Preschool of Washtenaw County
Foundations Preschool of Washtenaw County executive director Sandy Williams.


Sandy has been with Foundations Preschool for 15 years. She is an EMU grad and former elementary school teacher who found her calling when she discovered the non-profit world and felt she could do the most good for the children and families of our community through this work.


Foundations Preschool of Washtenaw County


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And I'm David Fair with a Labor Day edition of Washtenaw United. Now, this is a historic area for a number of reasons--among them, the Willow Run Bomber Plant. During World War Two, that plant churned out war planes and was instrumental in helping the nation and its allies defeat the Nazis. And, of course, that plant was productive in large part to the good number of women who joined the workforce while many of the area men were serving in the European theater. Now, that includes a number of mothers that had children requiring education while they worked and daycare. That's where Foundations Preschool of Washtenaw County comes in. Back then, it was Perry Nursery School. Today, it's located on the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti border and continues to provide educational services to the children of single mothers and low-income families that will one day populate our future workforce. Our Washtenaw United guest this week is the executive director of Foundations Preschool. Sandy Williams, thank you so much for making time for us today.

Sandy Williams: Thank you.

David Fair: Foundations is just about to celebrate its 90th anniversary, having been founded in 1934. What are the plans to mark the occasion in 2024?

Sandy Williams: Oh, we're really excited about that. We're hoping to do a bunch of mini-events throughout the year, and I've been talking with a well-known establishment in our community, Washtenaw Dairy. They are also celebrating their 90th anniversary, and we're hoping to next summer celebrate together with the community for our joint 90th celebration.

David Fair: Well, I think that would be a lot of fun. Now, I touched on some of the history, but perhaps you can give us a thumbnail sketch of the start in 1934 and the journey to today.

Sandy Williams: Yes, thank you. So, in 1934, of course, we were in the middle of the Great Depression, and the President decided that he needed to get people to work. And that was a part of the Work Progress Administration, the WPA. And, in doing so, they needed to employ women. And women were employed in child care centers. There had never been child care centers before. And the reason that they established child care centers was because women needed to go to work, and they needed a place to put their children. They really didn't know much about the benefits of education at that time. It was just to increase the workforce. And so, they established four of these nursery schools, and it only lasted a few years. And then, three of the nursery schools closed. We were one of the four, and we remained open. And that was because World War Two hit. And then, there was another effort to make sure that these women were going to stay employed. These women--

David Fair: Are Rosies!

Sandy Williams: Are Rosies! And there were over 10,000 of them who worked at Willow Run alone.

David Fair: When did the daycare start to evolve and become an education center as well?

Sandy Williams: It wasn't until much later. So, after the war, and as soon as the war was ending, the government said, "That's it! We're not funding these programs anymore. Women have to get back into their homes." But it was around that time, in the fifties and sixties, where people were studying the effects of education on children--early education. And so, they were saying, "Hmm. Okay, we're seeing that children who are participating in these programs are actually doing better as they progressed through their formal school years." So, in the sixties, there was a very important study that is still talked about today: the Perry Preschool study--a different Perry, yet still local. They ran the study for two years, and then, they tracked the kids for decades. They found that children who participated in a high-quality early childhood education. And I'm going to tell you there's a big difference between high-quality, early childhood care and just putting your child in care.

David Fair: Well, you talk about having high-quality education--

Sandy Williams: Yes.

David Fair: But, by the way, you're listening to Washtenaw United and our conversation with Foundations Preschool executive director Sandy Williams continues. Access and affordability: are those the greatest barriers to getting that high-quality preschool education today?

Sandy Williams: Yes. So, here's what parents face today. Child care is expensive. High-quality child care and education is almost unattainable for most families. It can cost almost as much as a college education. So, families often are faced with the decision, "Do I work or do I not work because I have to make the decision of putting a roof over my head, feeding my family, or paying for child care." And the subsidies you can get to pay for childcare, they say you have to work, but you become employed. Then, they say you make too much money to get the subsidies. So, it's this round in rounds, difficult thing. So, this is where we differ. And this is why I think that we've existed for as long as we have. Unlike other places, we're a nonprofit organization. We make sure that we have in-house scholarships. We tell families we're going to help you. We want you and your family to survive. We want you to be able to get the education for your child that you and your child deserve. You deserve to work and improve on your path to self-sufficiency. Your child deserves the best early childhood quality education, and they deserve to get on their path to self-sufficiency. Because we know studies show that the children who do have this opportunity, they're the ones who then will progress throughout those formal school years in a more positive way, more apt to have success, more apt to graduate, attend college if we just take care of them now.

David Fair: Once again, WEMU's Washtenaw United conversation with Sandy Williams continues. She is executive director of Foundations Preschool of Washtenaw County. There are shifting attitudes and policies on early childhood education. This year's state budget provides funding for about 6500 children to access free pre-through-K education. And Governor Gretchen Whitmer says she intends to make free pre-through-K education universal before her second term expires. As a value question, is that going to make a difference in who we are as a state here in Michigan?

Sandy Williams: Yes, I think it will. And they've already done a good job with their Great Start readiness program, making sure that there is access for families who are lower-income to have free preschool for children. What we would like to see is to make sure that it's expanded the right way. And by the right way, what I mean without stepping on toes is that it it serves families to the point where they actually will enroll their children. So, right now, these programs do not run on a full workday, full workweek, full year schedule. They're not looking at what the families need. So, if you're not doing what the families need, families need to work, and if the programs you're providing for free do not match the needs of the working family, then the family isn't going to enroll their child in this program because they can't work because it doesn't fit their working schedules. So, I think the expansion is fantastic. They are trying to expand the hours. They are talking about expanding into summer. So, I think it's going into the right direction. As long as it gained steam, as long as it gains it has the funding to grow, that would be fantastic.

David Fair: So, let's play to the optimistic and envisioned state of Michigan, where, in that best case scenario you just laid out, comes into existence. As we celebrate the labor workforce of today, what additional contribution would full access to programs like that make in the labor force of tomorrow?

Sandy Williams: Oh, it would be huge. I mean, we have parents today who still can't get into that workforce, right? So, it's going to help today and tomorrow because they'll be able to stay in there. But, for these children who still can't participate in high-quality early childhood education program because their parents just can't put them in there, they have to find a program that's full-day. They have to find another situation. And, oftentimes, those situations aren't the high-quality ones because they got to put them somewhere they can afford. And what they can afford are not the programs that are going to give them that start that they need. So, if we can do this, if we can even do it for that pre-K year and get them what they need, they're going to start out on the right foot. They are going to be able to get through those formal school years with the skills that in the future--for our future workforce--and just see this growth and development in these children, I think we're going to see a big difference. And I think the studies show that that is what's going to happen. So, you know, there's studies behind it. There's science behind it. We just have to make it happen. And I'm excited about the possibilities.

David Fair: Well, I'd like to thank you for the time and sharing your perspective today, Sandy. I appreciate it.

Sandy Williams: Thank you so much. And I invite people to come, you know, visit our website. I had so much to talk about today that I couldn't. And it will be on our website: the history of child care in the county, the history of Foundations Preschool, our upcoming 90th celebration, and how people can get involved. It's all going to be there. And all they have to do is visit foundations hyphen preschool dot org.

David Fair: That is Sandy Williams, modern-day educational Rosie the Riveter and executive director of the Foundations Preschool of Washtenaw County--our guest on a Labor Day edition of Washtenaw United. For more information, visit our website at WEMU dot org, and we'll get you linked everywhere you need to go. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and we bring it to you every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

Sandy Williams as "Rosie the Riveter."
Sandy Williams
Sandy Williams as "Rosie the Riveter."


Foundations Preschool of Washtenaw County is perhaps the oldest, still standing, partner with the United Way of Washtenaw County. This partnership has been ongoing ever since 1958 when the United Way was called “Community Chest.”

Most recently, Foundations Preschool of Washtenaw County has received a $20,000 award from the 2023 cycle of UWWC’s Opportunity Fund—a resource for local organizations and groups whose efforts address poverty, racism and trauma: root causes of systemic oppression that hold opportunity at bay for all people in Washtenaw County.

Foundations Preschool of Washtenaw County used their investment on capacity building support to ensure a successful transition to a new childcare quality rating system, including: intensive in-house training, classroom monitoring, and the purchase of materials (books, videos, etc.)

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

Non-commercial, fact based reporting is made possible by your financial support.  Make your donation to WEMU todayto keep your community NPR station thriving.

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Contact WEMU News at734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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