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After Flint’s lead crisis, the ‘most important medication’ for kids is education

December 20, 2016 at 6:25 PM EDT
There is a well-established link between lead exposure and learning disabilities, but early childhood education has been shown to counteract the effects. In Flint, Michigan, where the youngest residents have been the most vulnerable to lead poisoning, the city has opened a free child care center in an attempt to counteract the harmful effects on developing brains. Hari Sreenivasan reports.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But first: a story about an effort in Flint, Michigan, to help its youngest residents cope with the possible effects of lead-contaminated water.

It’s part of our weekly series on education, Making the Grade.

HARI SREENIVASAN: More than a year after alarmingly high levels of lead were found in Flint’s water supply, the city has opened a free all-day early childhood center for children 2 months to 5 years of age.

BOB BARNETT, University of Michigan, Flint: It’s for any children currently living in Flint or were living in Flint when lead exposure was at its worst.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Bob Barnett, a dean of education for the University of Michigan in Flint, helped create the new early learning program.

BOB BARNETT: We made phone calls. We went door to door to every single neighborhood in the city.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Barnett had a mission, to reach families with the youngest children. That’s because lead is a neurotoxin that targets the developing brain.

DR. MONA HANNA-ATTISHA, Hurley Medical Center: A child’s brain doubles in size from zero to 2. And when you have these insults to the developing brain at such a young age, it really impacts that entire trajectory of learning.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician who discovered elevated lead levels in Flint’s children, says there’s a well-established link between lead exposure and learning disabilities.

DR. MONA HANNA-ATTISHA: Lead has been shown to drop children’s I.Q., so it impacts how they think, and it impacts how they act. It has been linked to attention-deficit disorder, impulsivity, many other developmental delays. And so it has these life-course-altering consequences.

HARI SREENIVASAN: More than 5,000 of Flint’s youngest children were put in danger when the city switched to a new water source, the Flint River, in the spring of 2014, causing lead from aging pipes to leach into the system.

Since then, Flint officials have switched back to Lake Huron for their water supply, and although lead levels have been dramatically reduced, residents are still urged to use bottled or filtered water for everything from drinking to bathing.

The lead exposure lasted only 18 months, but health officials say a threat still exists.

DR. MONA HANNA-ATTISHA: Imagine these little babies who were on formula, and all they’re getting is this lead-tainted water mixed with powdered formula for the entire year, not that they’re all going to have problems. And we’re not going to wait to see who is going to have problems.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Hanna-Attisha sees the new child care facility as a needed intervention.

DR. MONA HANNA-ATTISHA: The most important medication that I can prescribe to our Flint kids is early education. People are like, you’re a doctor. Don’t you want like, you know, health care stuff? I’m like, no, I want early education.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The center is an expansion of a high-quality program called Great Expectations Early Childhood run by the University of Michigan in Flint.

BOB BARNETT: We know that lead exposure, especially in our youngest children, birth to 5, affects their cognition and their behavior. We also know that the impact of early childhood education and intervention can counter that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The free program has been able to accommodate 240 children. Another 220 families remain on the waitlist.

Major donations from 10 foundations, as well as millions from the state of Michigan, cover tuition costs as high as $15,000 to $20,000 per child per year.

Joyce Sanders says she and her husband could not have afforded the program for their 3-year-old daughter, Nyla. Sanders is anxious to protect her child’s ability to learn.

JOYCE SANDERS, Flint Parent: She’s so incredibly bright. And it’s terrifying to think that this exposure could take that away from her. It is terrifying. And I’m trying to do everything I can to give her the resources, so that she can hold on to that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Nyla and her 5-year-old sister, Kaia, both tested positive for low levels of lead in their blood.

But because lead has a short window of detection in the bloodstream, Sanders is unsure how much her children ingested.

JOYCE SANDERS: I don’t really know what their exposure level is. Every time they get anything, I’m worried: Is this something that I’m missing?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Like many parents in Flint, the experience has left Sanders feeling uneasy.

JOYCE SANDERS: I have noticed with my daughter Nyla, she can sometimes get upset, and it’s very, very hard to calm her down. And that just may be one of those quirky things, or it could mean something. And if it means something, that’s huge. And so those type of things are always in the back of my mind.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Great Expectations uses the Reggio Emilia teaching approach, which emphasizes emotional well-being, something educators believe is a good fit for kids with possible lead exposure.

Lead teacher Katie McCormack:

KATIE MCCORMACK, Teacher, Cummings Great Expectations: We’re working a lot with impulse control, so everyone can listen, everyone can take turns and pay attention. We really want to just see where they are at developmentally.

DR. MONA HANNA-ATTISHA: These early childhood teachers are actually brain builders. They’re building these kids’ neural connections. It is unethical for us to sit back and wait and study these kids in five, 10 years, and say, oh, look at the impact of lead exposure.

We must be proactive. We must be preventative.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The new center is housed in one of Flint’s shuttered elementary schools. The city’s school enrollment has declined dramatically since the 1980s, when car manufacturing jobs started disappearing.

Flint school’s superintendent, Bilal Tawwab.

BILAL TAWWAB, Superintendent, Flint Community Schools: Right now, we have only 5,000 kids in Flint Community Schools. At one time, there was about 50,000 kids. Actually, we have more closed buildings than open buildings.

HARI SREENIVASAN: More than 40 percent of Flint’s residents live below the poverty line. And Superintendent Tawwab says using vacant buildings for early education coupled with good nutrition will better prepare Flint’s children.

BILAL TAWWAB: I would like to believe this is just the start of some very, very important work.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But while educators hope to expand the program, there’s only enough money to serve 240 of the 5,000 to 6,000 children in the city. And even those slots are operating on limited three-years grants.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Hari Sreenivasan.