Reporter's Notebook: The Perry Children Today

I couldn't wait to interview the people who went to the Perry Preschool.

I wanted to know what they remembered. What did they do there, what did they learn? And do they think preschool made a difference in their lives?

I thought I would have a chance to ask these questions.

When I first called Larry Schweinhart, president of the organization that did the Perry Study, he said he would be willing to help me track down some of the people who went to the preschool.

This is not something the researchers usually allow. They promised anonymity to the study participants from the start, which is typical for a longitudinal study like this. So much significant and personal information is collected; many study participants don't want their names revealed.

And even if participants are willing to have their identities made public, researchers are often reluctant to give names to reporters. They worry that an outsider asking questions might add new variables into the mix, possibly affecting the validity of the study in some way.

But when I called Schweinhart, he told me the study was finished. The oldest participants were turning 50, and the researchers had already published eight books about them. They weren't planning to collect any more data, do any more interviews. So if some of them were willing to talk to me that would be fine.

But just a few weeks later, Schweinhart got a call from a health researcher who is interested in the study. The researcher wants to know if the people who went to preschool are healthier than the people who did not.

So it appears the Perry Preschool Study is not over. The researchers are making plans to collect more data and do another set of interviews.

And they are not granting media interviews anymore.

I could have tried to find some of the study participants on my own. A lot of them still live in Ypsilanti, Michigan and asking around would probably lead to names and numbers pretty fast.

But Schweinhart asked me not to do that.

I was disappointed, and torn about what to do. I don't want to taint the results of the study. But I was deep into the reporting process. I really wanted to do the interviews, and it seemed like they were a critical part of the story I was trying to tell. I talked with my editor. We agonized for a few weeks. And finally we decided to let it go, not try to find any of the study participants. It seemed like the right thing to do.

And we wondered what we would really learn from the interviews. People went to the preschool when they were 3 and 4 years old. Would they really remember it? How reliable would those memories be? And what I wanted to know was - why? Why did the Perry Preschool have an effect on their lives? Why did it work?

And after many months of reporting for this documentary, it's not clear to me that anyone can provide a satisfying or accurate answer to that question, including the participants themselves.

Still, I am really curious about them. Who are they? What are they like? What are the human stories behind all the data?

So I went searching for every detail I could find. And there are some details out there.

When the age 40 results were released in 2004 and the Perry researchers thought the study was finished, they granted some interviews.

NPR interviewed a man they called "David," though that is not his real name. He was 45 when he was interviewed. Here's what he remembered about the Perry Preschool:

"As I recall even during the playtime there seemed to be a learning component to it. I understand it now as relationship building, playing games with others, getting used to interacting with others."

According to the NPR story, David graduated from college and went on to become a health care consultant. He was married with two children. He said this when asked how he thought the preschool affected his life:

"Maybe that's why I am such an inquisitive person today. I pick up a lot and I read a lot of different things [and I'm] always asking questions."

That was all he said in the NPR story. A colleague of mine tried to track down the uncut interview, but could not locate it.

Two other people who went to the preschool were interviewed by author David Kirp for his book The Sandbox Investment published in 2007. They were in their 40s when Kirp talked to them.

Charles Dixon was living in Ypsilanti, working as a sales manager. He told Kirp that he devoted a lot of his time to a church group, "giving back" to the community. Dixon said, "I'm still using the discipline of the school. The harder you work in school or in life, the more you get out of it."

Kirp also interviewed Perry alum Marie Thompson. Kirp writes, "When she was in her midtwenties, living on welfare and 'borrowing' from her mother, she 'woke up one day to decide that was just wrong.'"

Thompson apologized to her mother and went to work in a factory, according to Kirp. "I stopped dating the wrong kind of guys," Kirp quotes Thompson as saying. Eventually she married and became a union leader in the auto industry. According to Kirp, Thompson and her husband have two daughters and live in a spacious home on a cul-de-sac in a suburban neighborhood.

But not all of the stories end like this.

The Perry researchers wrote up case studies about some of the people who went to the preschool. They are included in the 2005 book Lifetime Effects: The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 40. These case studies reveal a mixed bag of success and failure.

"Calvin" was first interviewed when he was in his early 20s (the researchers gave pseudonyms to the study participants). He was in a state penitentiary serving a sentence for breaking and entering. "A high school dropout after grade 10," the researchers write, "Calvin had a history of resistance to authority and poor intellectual performance that persisted throughout his school years."

When Calvin was interviewed again in his early 40s, he had served more than nine years in prison. But he was out, and said he was turning his life around. He was married and working as an assistant manager at a discount store. "Calvin's goals for his future are optimistic," the researchers write. "He wants to be a store manager and maybe even own his own store, but when asked about his plans to achieve these goals, he is vague and says he is 'trying to learn all I can and working hard.'" Calvin also told the researchers that he is thankful that "I'm still here, and still healthy."

The researchers also profiled "Bonita." She got a master's degree in special education and became a teacher. The researchers write: "Bonita was inspired by the promise of education ... and she believed strongly that parents' involvement in their children's schooling was the primary mechanism for bringing about lasting improvements." Bonita said that her family, especially an aunt, pushed her to get a good education. "She felt fortunate to have had such positive role models in her youth," the researchers write, "but also recalled school counselors who tried to discourage her ambitions and those of other young black students."

At the age of 40, Bonita was working as a consultant in the public schools. She had recently gone through a painful divorce and adopted a son. She told the researchers that she was determined to find a new mate. "I'm looking for a strong brother who will be with me," she told them. "I get so caught up in my work and parenting that, you know, sometimes I don't have time for social events. But I'm gonna have time. I'm gonna change some things."

"Jerry" is also profiled. The researchers report that Jerry's mother was involved with the preschool, serving as a classroom aide and participating in the home visits. They write that Jerry's father and uncles were "strong role models" who encouraged him to go to college. Jerry agreed that his male relatives were a good influence, but also said teachers and counselors encouraged him in his studies, as well as friends who shared his academic interests.

When he was 20, Jerry was enrolled in a pre-engineering program at a community college and working half time at a thrift store to pay for his classes. He planned to go on to the University of Michigan.

But he didn't. By his early 40s, Jerry was working as a mail carrier and had a second job at the airport. He said he was working 86 hours a week making a total of about $59,000 a year. As far as educational aspirations, he had his hopes pinned on his four children. They were going to Catholic school. Jerry said his main goal was to "make sure that I can keep them in that school 'cause they have a real good education system in there, and I think they'll come out a lot better." He told the researchers that he has this advice for young people: "Find a goal that you want and do what it takes to achieve it. You really can't blame anybody if you don't."

"Marlene" is also profiled in a case study. The researchers report that she was the only one of her five siblings to graduate from high school. She then enrolled in a secretarial program at a community college but dropped out after a year. At the age of 22 she had two young children and was in the middle of a divorce.

By the time she was in her early 40s, Marlene had five children. She was unemployed, living in a subsidized townhouse, and receiving food stamps. She had spent some time in jail for drug possession and was ordered to undergo drug treatment, but told the researchers she never went.

Marlene reported feeling disappointed about how her two oldest children had done in school. One dropped out in 11th grade to have a baby. The other dropped out in 10th grade, also to have a child. Both daughters were on welfare and working as cashiers. The researchers did not include any information about how Marlene's other children were doing, but they did report that Marlene remains confident her oldest daughters will eventually graduate from high school and go on to community college.

As for herself, the researchers report that Marlene believed she was not doing as well as her family expected and that she "feels helpless in dealing with her problems."

And that's it. That's what I was able to track down about the people who went to the Perry Preschool.

It's hard to know what to make of these details, these little pieces of people's life stories. In the end that's all we ever get, I think, just pieces - of other people's stories, and our own. There's no way to add it all up, to know what it all means.

I still wish I could have included their voices in the radio documentary. What they have to say about it all feels like a missing chapter in this story. I don't think any of them could have told me why the Perry Preschool worked. But they could have told their stories. They could have given their reasons why life worked out the way it did for them.

But in the end, who's to know what makes the difference in a person's life? For anyone asking himself or herself that question, there have to be dozens, hundreds of possible answers. Can you really know how or why you end up the way you do, making the choices you make, living the life you lead? People create stories for themselves along these lines, but who's to know what's really true?

I can't answer those questions for myself with any certainty. I find it a fascinating thing to think about and talk about. That's probably why I'm a journalist. I'm always wondering why things are the way they are. I don't think I've ever come up with any definitive answers, and doubt I ever will. At some fundamental level, I don't think I really believe that answers exist. And wondering is enough to keep me going for a lifetime.

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