In Flint, a future built on schools as well as safe water

Why We Wrote This

The Flint water crisis may have faded from national headlines, but for locals the story is lifelong. The city's holistic approach to recovery may hold lessons for other struggling communities.

Ellyn Sudow
Canisha Norris, an educator from the Crim Fitness Foundation, teaches yoga to members of the Southwestern Jaguars football team in Flint., Mich., late last year. Civic groups, foundations, and universities have joined hands with local government and public-health officials to provide services to city residents.

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When badly corroded pipes resulted in high levels of lead entering the drinking water, the city of Flint, Mich., became mired in a crisis not only of water safety but also of public mistrust. A legacy of high poverty and economic decline added to the challenges. But the crisis has spawned a range of projects – many supported by nonprofit foundations – seeking to help Flint and its residents recover. The water has tested safe for two years, although many in the community still don’t trust it. Other efforts range from parenting classes to promoting children’s mental health, and from economic development to prescription vegetables. “We all work hand in hand,” says Mona Hanna-Attisha, a crusading professor and pediatrician whose research on child development has informed Flint’s efforts. She hopes the work will become a model for other struggling communities. Crystal Garcia-Pitts is a mom whose young son, diagnosed with elevated lead levels and developmental delays, has benefited from an innovative preschool launched in the wake of the crisis. “He’s talking more; he knows how to count to 10 already,” she says. “If he hadn’t been here, that wouldn’t have been the case.”

When her two-year-old son DeQuincey was diagnosed with elevated lead levels and developmental delays, Crystal Garcia-Pitts worried he might face a lifetime of health and behavioral challenges.

The infamous Flint crisis over lead-tainted water, while not definitively to blame, was a possible cause of her son’s lead exposure, as for many others in this economically depressed Michigan city.

Yet after a year at an innovative school opened in the wake of the water crisis, DeQuincey has caught up so much he’s no longer considered delayed at all.

“He’s talking more, he knows how to count to 10 already,” Ms. Garcia-Pitts said recently after a support group for mothers wrapped up at the school, which serves 220 children from months-old babies to 5-year-olds. “He’s outgrown a lot of the stuff.... If he hadn’t been here, that wouldn’t have been the case.”

Late last year, Garcia-Pitts also enrolled her 4-month-old son Leo at the state-of-the-art school, the first in Michigan to follow an innovative model called Educare, for early childhood education. The former waitress even landed a job at the school as a liaison with families.

Her encouraging experience reflects the tangible successes of broad-based recovery efforts that have gathered momentum since the crisis – all centered around the idea that success involves a definition of community health that broadens well beyond safe water in city pipes.

It’s too soon to say how effective the blend of public and private initiatives will ultimately prove to be given Flint’s myriad woes. High poverty, crime, and distrust of institutions persist in this city, which once prospered as a factory hub for General Motors.

But what’s under way here is notable for its breadth and scope – ranging from parenting classes to promoting children’s mental health, and from economic development to prescription vegetables. It could also hold lessons for other communities struggling with economic decline. 

“We all work together, so we all work hand in hand,” says Mona Hanna-Attisha, a crusading, Flint-based professor and pediatrician who helped expose the water crisis. Her research on child development has informed efforts here. “The hope is all of this holistically serves as a best practice for children everywhere who are suffering from similar toxicities and traumas.” 

‘All of these pieces came together’

Civic groups, foundations, and universities have joined hands alongside local government and public-health officials.

“We want [Flint] to be a model in terms of what to do in a recovery process,” says Ridgway White, president and chief executive of the Flint-based Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, which provided $4 million in grant funding to reconnect Flint back to a safe water source in 2015.

“The nonprofit sector was here to respond and lessen the struggles,” he says. “All of these pieces came together at a time when the government was not able to respond.”

The water contamination started in 2014 from a botched cost-cutting effort. A change in the water source, approved by a state-appointed emergency manager for the financially struggling city, resulted in badly corroded pipes. The city’s water quality has tested safe for two years, according to federal guidelines, though many in Flint still don’t trust it.

After the water crisis captured international headlines, Mott was one of 10 foundations, including W.K. Kellogg, Kresge, Ford, Robert Wood Johnson, Skillman, and others, that pledged $125 million over five years to help Flint bounce back. Of that amount, the Mott Foundation alone pledged roughly $100 million, with half going toward educational endeavors specifically, including $11-million to build Educare Flint.

Impressive as such sums are, Mr. White is cautious about how much the nongovernment players can achieve without more publicly funded support.

“We can’t claim success until a person who grows up in Flint has an equal opportunity to someone who grows up in a more affluent area,” he says. “Foundations can’t do it alone. Maybe the old model of test, scale, and have the government take over isn’t exactly what it used to be, but there is still a major role for government.... We shouldn’t be the ongoing funding source.”

With the help of state and federal funding, the city of Flint is still replacing pipes that could contaminate the water supply. It hopes that work will be complete by the end of next year.

Wider recovery for the community is a longer-term task – and much of it hinges around education.

‘Full-service’ schools

With help from various nonprofits, the Flint-based Crim Fitness Foundation has implemented a “full-service” school model, so schools are one-stop shops for parents in need of multiple types of help. A full-time community health worker and a full-time community school director have been added to every school to help parents with everything from finding housing to getting to school. This community-education model, informed by resident input, began before the water crisis, but was expanded rapidly in response to it.

“Resilience in Flint is probably the biggest characteristic to stand out,” says Gerry Myers, chief executive of the Crim Fitness Foundation. He says that, although distrust toward outside institutions runs high in Flint due to years of corporate disinvestment, state cost-cutting, and the poisoned water, the community-education effort has escaped “this frame of distrust.”

“There are big voids that are being filled,” says Danielle Green, a member of the school board.

“Before I can even get in the door at schools, parents have a lot of thank-yous – a lot of questions, and still concerns – but a lot of thank yous.” she says.

One of those voids involved play areas, with the Community Foundation of Greater Flint stepping up to fund eight new Flint playgrounds in the past two years.

Another was a gap in books. A citywide program named Flint Kids Read, with help from Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, will mark two years in operation in January and has delivered nearly 75,000 books to more than 5,000 kids and 200 classrooms or daycare-type sites. And Born To Read, a local program that provides a bundle of books and developmental materials for newborns, recently enrolled its 1,000th child.

“It’s fantastic, I just can’t believe the volume of books.... There’s no way our community could mail 5,000 books a month to our kids and for just two dollars and 10 cents per book” without all of these partners involved, says Kathryn (Kay) Schwartz, director of library services at the Flint Public Library, which is operating with 40-percent less revenue than in 2009. “It makes this program affordable for our community.”

Mental-health efforts

Other efforts seek to broaden the mental toolkit of residents. Community members including Ms. Green are teaching a form of meditation known as “mindfulness” to residents. The initiative now reaches 6,000 children and 2,000 people beyond the schools, helping them build social and emotional skills. Proponents cite research suggesting the instruction can help with things like handling stress, collaborating, and staying focused.

Marlo Thomas, a Flint resident who works as a nursing assistant, says her 14-year-old twin sons are being helped by the coaching in mindfulness at Flint Southwestern Academy, the city’s only remaining public high school. The pair of 9th graders “compromise, make better decisions, have better thoughts. It helps them with their daily routine,” says Ms. Thomas.

Crim Fitness Foundation
Crim mindfulness educator Tom Hauer teaches a free community yoga class held monthly in the lobby of the Crim Fitness Foundation in downtown Flint. The foundation is one of many nonprofits supporting public-health, eduction, and economic progress in the city since its water crisis.

Some improvements in Flint began before the water crisis. Michigan State University’s Division of Public Health began its move to Flint’s downtown earlier, but then accelerated the process and served as an anchor for development and the expansion of services for Flint residents.

Most others were launched after the crisis made national headlines. Early in 2018, the city of Flint added an economic development team, with the help of a nearly $3-million, four-year grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The city has also created three new roles, including a chief recovery officer, all of which are funded by outside grants. And the United Way funds a new role created in 2016 – the president of Flint Neighborhoods United – to serve as a go-between among residents and those in power.

Many in Flint credit Dr. Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician-professor, with a vision and drive that has fueled the collective efforts and influx of financial support in Flint.

“Mona’s research is at the core of many of the interventions that we fund. She’s been instrumental,” says Isaiah Oliver, chief executive of the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, which among other things owns the Educare Flint building.

A focus on food

Another feature of the holistic approach to public health involves meals. About a year ago, the Hurley Medical Center where Hanna-Attisha works started screening patients for food insecurity. It refers those in need to get fully subsidized food from a Food FARMacy, which has reached more than 3,400 residents so far with lead-mitigating and other foods. And a program called Flint Kids Cook, in a partnership with Michigan State University (MSU), sits alongside parenting classes and the Born To Read program at Hurley. 

Some outside Flint are taking notice. One provision in the recently enacted federal farm bill was inspired by a Hurley/MSU nutrition prescription program.

But in a city where 60 percent of children live in poverty, numerous challenges remain.

Despite the Educare site, for example, more than 2,000 children in Flint below age 5 – nearly a quarter in that age group – are not in a licensed daycare or preschool program at all.  

Derrick Lopez, the new superintendent of Flint schools, points out that sometimes the most vulnerable parents are living so hand to mouth that they’re not aware of vital services.

“We can do more and I think that is the challenge,” says Dr. Lopez, who became the superintendent of Flint Community Schools in August. “There are more kids in crisis that we can identify.... It’s incumbent on us to make sure more parents are able to access” the expanded services available, he says.

Thanks to funding from the state and the federal Centers for Disease Control, Michigan State’s Division of Public Health launched FlintRegistry.org in January. The registry is modeled partly after a similar effort supporting families affected by the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. It aims to connect current and even former Flint residents who were affected by the water crisis to more than 30 services and resources, including those for early education.

Similarly, at both Educare Flint and a sister school that serves 144 children, Cummings Great Expectations, parents can connect with a range of services. The schools serve neighborhoods with some of the highest likelihoods of exposure to lead. The Educare school is one of 23 nationwide featuring full-day, year-round programming, and classroom observation rooms manned by specialized staff. Operating on a mix of public and private funding, both schools enable parents to sign up on site for programs including Medicaid and food stamps.

Lopez says such outreach efforts make “a huge difference because you lower the barrier. Time is the commodity, and often parents don’t think they have the time to do that, so a one-stop service stop ... is huge.”

Hanna-Attisha describes Flint as a “small big city,” voicing hope that it can become a model for other cities recovering from post-industrial decline.

“Our story is way beyond Flint,” she says. “It’s about kids everywhere.”

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