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Which Perry?

Grace Shackman

There's good news for everyone who has ever confused the two Perry preschools.

The former Perry Nursery School of Ann Arbor, on Packard near Carpenter, is now Foundations Preschool of Washtenaw County. First funded by the Depression-era WPA in 1934, it took its name from its original location: Perry Elementary School at Packard and Madison, now the U-M's Perry Building. The building was named for Walter S. Perry, a former Ann Arbor superintendent of schools.

The other Perry preschool is the Perry Early Learning Center at 550 Perry St. in Ypsilanti. Its building, too, started as an elementary school, but was named after a different man: Lawrence Perry, Ypsilanti's first African American school board member.

David Weikart set up the Perry Early Learning Center in 1962. A program of the Ypsilanti schools, it aimed to improve students' performance in elementary school. In 1970 Weikart founded the HighScope Educational Research Foundation, where he continued a long-term study comparing the achievement of preschool students with a control group that had no education before kindergarten. His findings that preschool students did better in life helped create the rationale for the federal Head Start Program.

Meanwhile the Ann Arbor Perry School was making a name for itself as an excellent school dedicated to serving one-parent families. During World War II, it got funding under the Lanham Act, created to free mothers to work in the defense industry. After the war, community activists organized to keep the school in operation, realizing that there were many single women, divorced or widowed, still in need of the service. Before the arrival of the Pill and women's liberation, unplanned pregnancies often led to students quitting high school and a quick marriage--which often resulted a few years later in divorce and a life of low-paying jobs. Perry became a United Way Agency and charged on a sliding scale.

When the university bought the Perry building in 1967, Perry's board raised money to buy the former Phi Mu sorority at 1541 Washtenaw. It had a home-like atmosphere with nooks and crannies. Elizabeth McHale, the school's director from 1949 to 1971, insisted on providing not just day care but a preschool curriculum, always making sure at least one of the teachers in each room had a teaching certificate.

While the campus location made it easy to recruit additional help from education students as well as those studying psychology and nursing, by 1991 the old building needed more work than the nonprofit could easily afford. Fortunately, the board found a buyer for the Washtenaw building just as the Packard building, which was designed from the ground up as a preschool, came on the market. The location was also easier to reach for parents from outside Ann Arbor.

The single-parent requirement was gradually phased out as Perry started serving children with other needs. Sandy Williams, Perry's director of development, explains that in the early 2000s the state required that children have two "risk factors" to qualify for financial aid; coming from a single-parent family is only one. "Gradually we began to see an increase in dual-parent households [with children at risk] as the economy worsened," explains Williams. "Today we still serve a high percentage of single-parent households, but our number-one risk factor is low income."

Perry's board members decided on the name change after months of community input and brainstorming. They wanted to drop the "nursery school" part of the name, feeling that the term implied younger children, but changing to "Perry Preschool" would only have made the confusion with the Ypsilanti Perry worse--especially since they now have a satellite program in Ypsi at Grace Fellowship Church. So they changed "Perry" to "Foundations," describing what they hope to build for their students.

The final change, from "Ann Arbor" to "Washtenaw County," reflects demographic reality: while 40 percent of Foundations students have Ann Arbor addresses, 58 percent are from Ypsilanti, with a few coming from elsewhere in the county.

Photo caption 1: Development director Sandy Williams and executive director Sandy Hilton at Foundations Preschool of Washtenaw County -- formerly Perry Nursey School of Ann Arbor.

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Grace Shackman