Future of Schools

Money’s not enough: The unconventional way Detroit is filling Head Start classrooms

Teachers like Margaret Jones (standing) say the challenge of teaching Head Start is part of why schools have difficulty recruiting and retaining teachers. “Some of the kids can be overwhelming, especially when you don’t get help from the parents,” Jones said. (Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat)

At a time when cities across the country have long waiting lists for every seat in free, quality preschool programs, Detroit has a different problem: hundreds of unused seats.

Of the 4,895 seats that the federal government funds for Head Start programs in Detroit, nearly 800 are empty because providers have struggled to fill and open classrooms.

That means that in a city where 94,000 children live in poverty and where the need for licensed childcare reportedly exceeds availability by more than 23,000 kids, many children who could benefit from early education aren’t getting it.

The problems preventing Head Start providers from putting kids in classrooms are years in the making.

The program, which is emerging from a wrenching upheaval, suffered years of deterioration and neglect that have made it difficult to find and retain qualified teachers and to locate classroom space that can realistically be brought up to code.

“The depths of poverty and the depths of long-term disinvestment that’s happened in Detroit for decades, you can’t really match that in Houston or Miami or some of the other cities where Head Start operates,” said Katherine Brady-Medley, the Head Start program director at Starfish Family Services, one of four agencies that run Head Start in Detroit.

But while Detroit’s problems are more severe than elsewhere, the city also has an unusual solution: a remarkable collaboration among local philanthropies to expand early childhood programs that has boosted the number of children enrolled by 20 percent in just the last year.

The unconventional effort is drawing attention from early childhood advocates across the country. But to make an even bigger difference, it will need to address serious facilities and staffing challenges — problems that have proven difficult to solve.

* * *

At the Winston Development Centers Head Start, nutritious meals are served family style. (Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat)
At the Winston Development Centers Head Start, nutritious meals are served family style. (Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat)

The issues facing the city’s early childhood programs are on stark display at the Winston Development Centers Head Start on the city’s northwest side.

Winston offers bright, colorful classrooms, engaging activities and nutritious meals to low-income kids that will give them a leg up when they get to kindergarten. Studies on Head Start show the federally funded program can influence everything from whether kids succeed in school, to whether they become smokers as adults.

But the school is in such poor repair that on frigid winter mornings, some families get calls telling them to keep their children home. A broken boiler leaves some classrooms too cold to open.

"Of the 4,895 seats that the federal government funds for Head Start programs in Detroit, nearly 800 are empty because providers have struggled to fill and open classrooms."

“If you have to go to work, it’s an issue,” said LaKeyia Payne, whose 5-year-old son Carlos has attended Winston since he was three. “People’s jobs are not that flexible and they may not have family support, so for some, it’s very irritating.”

The school also has classrooms that have seen a rotating cast of teachers. Low pay and the stress of working with children with intensive needs has meant that too many teachers have left too soon – and been too hard to replace.

“In this classroom, just [this year], there have been two other teachers before me,” said Trenda Jones, an assistant teacher who started at the school in February in a classroom that is currently without a permanent lead teacher.

Winston’s challenges are hardly unusual. Early childhood teachers’ pay is typically low and stress is high. In fact, Winston is better off than some schools, since it has substitutes on staff who can fill in when teachers leave. Other schools don’t have enough teachers for all of the classes they have federal funds to offer.

Other schools also have not been able to open all of the classrooms they need since many of the schools and churches that have housed Detroit Head Start programs have deteriorated so severely during years of financial struggle that providers have difficulty bringing them up to code.

These issues, combined with the challenge of spreading the word to parents about available openings, are why the federal Administration for Children and Families says that just 84 percent of Detroit’s funded Head Start seats were filled last month. That’s compared to the national average where more than 95 percent of funded Head Start seats were filled.

But Head Start in Detroit is a system in transition.

The city had managed Head Start programs since their creation in the 1960s until four years ago, when the Obama administration responded to years of mismanagement by inviting nonprofits and other agencies to bid on contracts to run the program.

Many of the family service agencies that ultimately won the contracts in 2014 had been running small-scale Head Start classrooms in churches or schools under the city’s contract. Now they would have to expand quickly to meet new obligations.

The new contracts directed more money to programs for younger children – not just the 3- and 4-year olds who have traditionally been served by Head Start, but also babies and even pregnant women.

That meant scores of new classrooms had to be renovated and hundreds of teachers needed to be swiftly hired.

“That was more difficult than a lot of them realized,” said Kaitlin Ferrick, the director of Michigan’s Head Start Collaboration office. “They were having hiring fairs where they were trying to hire a couple hundred teachers and really having a challenging time. It’s been a struggle.”

The changes to Head Start were happening as Michigan ramped up spending on pre-kindergarten programs – one of the largest preschool expansions in the country.

That opened early childhood education to more children. But it also introduced competition between state-funded pre-K programs and federally funded Head Start for teachers, exacerbating already high turnover and creating turmoil for kids.

“Anytime you lose consistency in the classroom, the classroom can kind of turn,” said Rhonda Mallory-Burns, the Development Centers director who oversees Winston and four other centers. “It can impact the development of the children.”

Development Centers has a robust program to try to keep teachers in their jobs. It does extensive professional development and has twice-annual “wellness days” where teachers can get massages, pep talks and even Zumba classes from devoted volunteers.

“We get back massages. We get smoothies. We just get a lot of pampering on that day,” said Margaret Jones, 65, who works at the Development Centers site on West Seven Mile Road.

But early childhood salaries are notoriously low — Development Centers pay $19,956 for an inexperienced assistant teacher to $42,998 for an experienced master teacher — and the work the teachers do is demanding.

“Some of the kids can be overwhelming, especially when you don’t get help from the parents,” said Jones, who said she retired last year due to “burnout” but came back this year because she needed a job. “We get kids with behavior that they throw things, they hit the other kids, and you have to be on top of them at all times.”

Some of the children have experienced trauma at home and so act at out school, teachers say.

“Obviously it’s not the children’s fault,” said Trenda Jones, 45, the Winston teacher. “But it’s a challenge.”

* * *

Development Centers director Rhonda Mallory-Burns says her agency was told the Winston Development Centers building had working heat but, when winter came, many classrooms were too cold to open. “There were some days that were very challenging,” she said. (Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat)
Development Centers director Rhonda Mallory-Burns says her agency was told the Winston Development Centers building had working heat but, when winter came, many classrooms were too cold to open. “There were some days that were very challenging,” she said. (Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat)

As difficult as it is to support and recruit teachers, some Head Start providers say finding quality classroom space in a city that has seen so much decay is even more daunting.

Starfish Family Services, which oversees the Development Centers and two other Head Start programs, has three classrooms sitting empty that could be serving up to 74 children —  if only they could get licenses and approvals from city, state, and federal inspectors.

“We have a lot of sense of urgency around getting these classrooms open,” said Brady-Medley, the Starfish Head Start director. “It’s so hard to see they’re still not open and knowing there are children who need them.”

But for months, every time a new inspector has visited the aging buildings where the classrooms are — a large Catholic church and a Salvation Army building — Starfish learned of new problems that generated new expenses and delay. The agency hopes, at last, to open two of the classrooms next month, but it will still have many unfilled seats.

Starfish could arguably open more classes at Winston where there are two unused classrooms now piled with junk, but the former Yost Elementary School is owned by a cash-strapped church that doesn’t have resources to fix the roof or the boiler.

When Development Centers leased the building two years ago, it used $228,000 in federal startup funds to renovate Winston and four other sites. It added a new infant and toddler playground, painted the walls, and redid the floors.

“We were told the heating system was fine, but you don’t know until the winter comes around,” Mallory-Burns said.

Parents were furious when they started getting calls canceling classes on cold winter days. There were 11 days in January and February this year when at least one classroom at Winston fell below Head Start temperature requirements and couldn’t take kids.

“There were some days that were very challenging,” Mallory-Burns said.

Development Centers is looking for a new location but has so far found nothing.

“There are no other spaces in that particular pocket of the city that we could use where we wouldn’t have to spend a bajillion dollars,” Brady-Medley said.

* * *

Schools like the Winston Development Centers Head Start offer bright, colorful classrooms and engaging activities that will give kids a leg up when they get to kindergarten. (Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat)
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat
Schools like the Winston Development Centers Head Start offer bright, colorful classrooms and engaging activities that will give kids a leg up when they get to kindergarten. (Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat)

In a city where the child poverty rate is among the highest in the nation, where 30 percent of mothers have poor access to prenatal care, and where thousands of children are going hungry every day, there are few things that vex early childhood advocates more than the sight of unused classrooms in buildings where children should be safe, learning, and eating healthy meals.

That’s why the city’s philanthropies have banded together to try to address the hurdles now preventing programs from expanding.

"The depths of poverty and the depths of long term disinvestment that’s happened in Detroit for decades, you can’t really match that in Houston or Miami or some of the other cities where Head Start operates."

The 10 foundations in the Southeast Michigan Early Childhood Funders Collaborative, which formed in 2010 out of a more informal conversation, have poured $54 million into early childhood programs between 2012 and 2015. During the federal shakeup of the city’s Head Start program, that collaboration led to an eight-foundation Head Start Innovation Fund that has spent $5.9 million to help agencies respond to the demands of the changing program.

But the foundations have learned that money alone is not enough. They’re also doing strategic planning, convening monthly “learning” sessions to identify problems, and bringing non-profits, foundations, and government agencies together to solve them.

When Head Start centers said they were having trouble spreading the word about new programs to families in the neighborhoods they serve, the Innovation Fund began a citywide enrollment campaign that helped increase the percentage of occupied Head Start seats from 71 percent in March 2015 to 84 percent last month.

“It’s unusual for the foundation community to be running an enrollment campaign, but that was what the agencies told us they needed,” said Katie Brisson, vice president of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan.

This month, the fund announced another round of funding largely aimed at helping Head Start agencies recruit and retain early childhood educators.

The Fund released a report spelling out a “Head Start Talent Strategy” that proposes ways to increase salaries, give teachers leadership opportunities, and make it easier for educators to get the training they need and find available jobs.

These conversations have led to initiatives from individual funders, including the Kresge Foundation, which this year announced a $20 million five-year push to build new centers, help existing centers make repairs and develop other strategies for growth.

The coordinated push takes a page from other recent philanthropic efforts to solve Detroit’s vexing problems. The region’s foundations have come together around boosting the economy, helping the families of Flint in the wake of the water crisis, and engineering the “Grand Bargain” that pulled Detroit out of bankruptcy.

“It’s a new way of working in many ways,” said Wendy Jackson, the interim co-managing director of Kresge’s Detroit program. “What foundations are doing is coming together in the spirit of collaboration to highlight that the young children in this city are a significant priority. We’re not only putting our resources on the table but also … putting a spotlight on ways to get effective problem-solving under way.”

That unusual coordination is catching the attention of early childhood advocates across the country. “I would go as far as saying it is extraordinary,” said Jeffrey Capizzano, the president of Policy Equity Group and a former senior policy advisor for early childhood development at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Capizzano, who works as a consultant to some of the foundations in the collaborative, said early childhood programs in most cities are paid for with a hodgepodge of state, federal, and philanthropic funding streams without much, or any, coordination.

“In a lot of cities, there’s no one. All those funding streams have different eligibility and workforce incentives and it’s up to the community to try to put it together or not,” he said.

“This is the philanthropic community stepping up in a big way in Detroit. … They’re in there, trying to help.”

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”