Nkechy Ekere Ezeh’s father, a tribal chief in Nigeria, was adept at navigating the intricacies of family communication. She leans on that experience today when working with parents. Photo by Mod Bettie
Born and raised in a small village in Nigeria, Nkechy Ekere Ezeh was shocked when she came to the U.S. as an adult and heard the messages bombarding low-income minority parents.
Founder and CEO of the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative (ELNC), Ezeh works to engage parents in their children’s learning while also overseeing infant, toddler and preschool education programs and services. ELNC has 35 classrooms staffed by 139 people across 11 sites in six Grand Rapids neighborhoods. Its hub office has 16 administrative employees.
Ezeh draws from her Doctorate of Education in child and youth studies from Nova Southeastern University in Florida, as well as 20 years teaching at Aquinas College.
A quote from Frederick Douglass sums up her work and the mission of the nonprofit she founded: “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
Ezeh grew up in a community where building strong children was, quite literally, the work of the village.
“I lived in an environment that supported me, uplifted me, provided opportunity,” she said. “People in the U.S. think, ‘Africa, wow, how rural, the jungle.’ But we didn’t know we were poor.
“Here, it’s a system that tells you, ‘You’re poor, you’re lazy, you can’t get out of this.’ When we meet with parents, we tell them that.”
Ezeh said she was blessed to be the daughter of Igwe Wilfred A. Ekere and Lolo Felicia Ekere, who loved and valued their eight children, encouraged their imagination, rewarded their curiosity and made them persevere through challenges.
NKECHY EKERE EZEH
Her father was tribal chief of Ogrute, Nigeria, which was one of four villages that made up the town Enugu-Ezike in the local government area Igbo Eze North.
Ezeh said her father was adept at navigating the many personalities involved in government, and he used that same approach with her.
“I was a third child, and I was the queen of the third child syndrome, always getting into trouble,” Ezeh said. “My dad would say, ‘You were at this place, so what happened?’ I said, ‘Dad, you already know.’ He said, ‘But I need to hear it from your voice.’ I would say, ‘I want to know what you know first,’” she said, laughing.
“My dad was patient. And he would say again, ‘I want to know your side.’ The jury is still out on my mom because she was such a quiet, traditional, submissive woman. But she would say, ‘You know what you did, just tell everybody, just stop torturing us.’
“He would say, ‘But she has a question. We have to give children the opportunity to express themselves.’”
That idea — everyone should have a voice, and everything starts with family — permeates Ezeh’s work.
After coming to the U.S. in 1986 to follow her husband, who was studying at Western Michigan University, the couple stayed and raised their family in Michigan.
Ezeh’s pathway into the education profession started with a practical motivation. She was pregnant and needed to learn how to raise a child, as her family was far away, and she didn’t know anyone here. She enrolled in a child development class at Grand Rapids Community College and never left the education field afterward.
She earned an associate degree from GRCC, bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Grand Valley State University and her doctorate from Nova.
The opportunity to teach at Aquinas College came in 1998.
In 2009, former Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Bernard Taylor issued a statement saying 83 percent of children enter GRPS unprepared for kindergarten, putting them at higher risk of long-term economic failure, as well as drug use, crime, teen pregnancy and gang participation.
That caught Ezeh’s attention — and the attention of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. From 2010-11, Ezeh did a yearlong study supported by the foundation to investigate the causes of that statistic.
“I found the reason they are not ready is because in addition to students not getting high school diplomas, there are not enough spaces for early childhood (enrollment). It’s access and economics,” Ezeh said, noting there was no free preschool in GRPS.
“If parents don’t have the job to pay for it, they can’t do it,” she said.
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation asked her to find out where the kids are going if they aren’t in school. The answer was day care. The foundation asked, ‘Why aren’t the day cares doing more?’ She learned it’s because parents couldn’t pay, there’s no funding and there’s no room for more kids.
“I took all that information, and I went back to Kellogg,” Ezeh said. “The next question was, ‘Where are the parents in this? What are they saying? What do they need?’”
Ezeh convened community parent forums to find the answers.
“It was, ‘I can’t go to a job because I don’t have anyone to watch my kids.’ Most of the Latino women said they quit their job to stay home, or they didn’t try to get a job because they don’t have family they can trust to watch the kids,” Ezeh said.
“What I heard is, ‘It’s got to be safe, and it’s got to have people that look like me.’ We were challenged that if we could pull it together, we could get funding. That’s how it started.”
Since then, ELNC has graduated 1,700 children from its programs. Every year, it has created 400 preschool spots for 3- and 4-year-olds. It has added 88 slots for infants and toddlers. Altogether, it currently has 544 slots for children.
When it first opened, attendance was poor. School was free, but where were the children?
“We created it, and parents weren’t coming. It took a couple years to build the trust that we (were here to) stay. Because prior to that, groups would start a program, and funding would shrink, and it would close,” Ezeh said.
“So, we said, ‘We have to get the parents involved. We need to relieve the teachers from having to call parents every day to find out where the children are.’”
ELNC created a parent engagement program called Empowering Parents Impacting Children (EPIC), which trained and hired family coaches from the neighborhood to follow up with parents.
“It’s a two-generation model,” Ezeh said. “We got to put the child in the middle, and the teacher and parents have to support the child on both sides.
“If I have issues — paying for rent, buying food — I’m not going to take care of reading to my child. The family coach works with them and does a basic needs-assessment, looking at shelter, food and transportation. If they are struggling in something, we help connect them to resources.”
Each of the six neighborhoods ELNC serves has different ethnic makeups and different needs. ELNC funds nearly a dozen community organizations to help support their work.
It also strives to hire staff that represents the ethnicities of the communities they serve, including bilingual parent teachers for majority Latino neighborhoods.
“The equity lens we bring in is if 98 percent of the children are Latino, you better have Latino staff,” Ezeh said. “If we can’t find them, qualification-wise, we develop them.”
She said ELNC is partnering with Aquinas to train teachers of color.
Ezeh’s current priority is rallying more community support to increase funding.
“We could use space for 200 more toddlers. Infants and toddlers have the least space available. In our neighborhood, we have 1,400 children born a year, and we don’t have space for more than 88,” she said. “We need funding.”
Ezeh said she knows she’s onto something, and she believes the work is achievable.
“I’m praying that when my last chapter is written, it’s going to be that I helped parents see the importance of early childhood education and that we are using daily routines to help develop that,” she said.
“We know we have something. We have to send this powerful message, ‘Preschool matters,’ and we have to give every child an opportunity to have this learning, so they can be ready for kindergarten from Day 1.”