Head Start

As a major provider of Head Start exits the program, hundreds of vulnerable Detroit families brace for change

PHOTO: Steve Palackdharry
Evangelina De La Fuente worries about the future of the Head Start her 3-year-old twin grandsons, Randy and Prince, attend. "The babies are secure and they’re happy and they’re well fed and they’re well cared for. It’s scary to think it could change," she said.

Hundreds of Detroit’s most vulnerable families just received some alarming news.

The Head Start centers they rely on for free, federally funded preschool, healthy meals and other services will be undergoing significant change and could potentially close.

Affected are the 420 low-income Detroit children who attend 11 Head Start centers operated by Southwest Solutions, a prominent Detroit social service organization. The organization notified families last week that, because of severe financial and logistical challenges, it will cease operations at its Head Start centers at the end of December and lay off its 122 Head Start employees.

The news is the latest upheaval to a Head Start program that has struggled to regain its footing in Detroit after years of deterioration and neglect. And social service advocates say they are worried that the problems that beset Southwest Solutions — which has had shortfalls in its financing for three years, a spokesman said — could also affect other Head Start providers in the city.

We know that the latest challenges are symptomatic of larger systemic challenges facing early education providers across the city and region,” said Katie Brisson, a vice president of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, which coordinates the work for a group of 10 philanthropic organizations that have partnered together to support Head Start. “Such challenges as facility shortages, financing gaps, and uneven care quality, among others, must be addressed if we want our youngest children to excel in elementary school and beyond.”

All of the Southwest Solutions Head Start programs will be transferred to other operators who could rehire existing staff, but their ability to smoothly pick up the added children and find classroom space for them is uncertain. That is adding stress to the lives of families already in crisis.

“They’re the only ones who’ve been able to help me,” said Rosanna Ramos, 40, a mother of three who said her children’s Head Start program supported her through a painful divorce.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Rosanna Ramos says staff at her children’s Head Start have been “the only ones who’ve been able to help me.” She fears coming changes could hurt her kids. “My children need the consistency of the same school to reiterate that we’re safe now.”

The staff at the Head Start, which operates inside the Escuela Avancemos charter school near Ramos’ southwest Detroit home, was there for her when she lost her job, when fire damaged her home, when her water was shut off, she said. Teachers got help for her son, Eliseo, now 5, when he developed behavioral issues and a stutter in the wake of a traumatic incident, she said. (He recently graduated from the program and started kindergarten.) A beloved teacher — Mr. Jason — worked with Ramos’ daughter, Elisabet, now 4, when she stopped taking naps as a toddler “because she felt vulnerable,” Ramos said.

“They’ve been like a second family to us,” she said. “We’ve had so many hardships and the school has supported us with the resources we need, with counseling and all-around understanding.”

Even if the program stays open, the thought that staff might change is highly distressing to her, she said. “My children need the consistency of the same school to reiterate that we’re safe now.”

Another parent, Evangelina De La Fuente, burst into tears at the thought that the Head Start her 3-year-old twin grandsons attend could close or change.

The school, inside a Salvation Army women’s shelter near Corktown, was an oasis for her family after her daughter, Christine, died shortly after giving birth and left De La Fuente to care for infant twins.

“We’re concerned and worried about what’s going to happen,” said De La Fuente, 55. “My health is not that great and this program is a lot of help for me … It’s become like a second home.”

De La Fuente says she’s been told that her grandsons, Randy and Prince, will likely still have a spot in a Head Start program but she worries about how they’ll cope with possible change.

“Our babies are used to their teachers,” she said. “They not only get an education here, they get attention, they get love, they get protection. For us, it’s hard to go back and trust another staff … We are very comfortable with our social worker, our director, our instructors. The babies are secure and they’re happy and they’re well fed and they’re well cared for. It’s scary to think it could change.”

Gabriela Alcazar, a family services worker at the Salvation Army Head Start, comforted De La Fuente as she cried while talking to a reporter.

“Continuity of care is one of the biggest tenets in social and emotional development,” Alcazar said. “We talk about intellectual and academic rigor but … [quality early childhood education] is teaching how to regulate your emotions and being able to participate in a classroom setting. That’s how you prepare children for school. That’s why continuity of care is so important and that’s basically being swept away from all of these children.”

Alcazar is union representative for the Head Start workers who are being laid off. She expects that most of the affected workers will land other jobs given the teacher shortage that affects many preschools in Detroit, but she notes that Southwest Solutions employes are in a union, which is not necessarily the case for other Head Start providers. That means that even if they are offered a spot at their current schools, they could face reductions to wages and benefits.

The decision to walk away from Head Start wasn’t easy for Southwest Solutions, said spokesman Steve Palackdharry.

“I cannot tell you what a painful decision this is for our organization” he said. “The mission of Southwest Solutions has to do with trying to put low-income families on the path to success and when you think about trying to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty, early childhood education has to be a part of that process.”

But a complicated federal funding system for Head Start that requires providers to match some of the funds and the challenge of finding and renovating classroom space that meets state and federal regulations made it difficult for Southwest Solutions to continue operating the program, he said.

“We were suffering significant losses for three years,” Palackdharry said. “We have more than 70 different programs … We’re the lead agency on homelessness, mental health, the leading provider of affordable housing in Southwest Detroit … and if you’re bleeding money in one particular area, there are concerns in the organization that it’s starting to affect the viability of the many other programs.”

Southwest Solutions has been operating Head Start centers since 2014 when it was part of a group of local nonprofits that collectively took over management of the program. The city of Detroit had administered Head Start for years but the federal government under former President Obama put the Detroit program out to bid to trigger a fresh start after years of mismanagement and neglect.

Since taking over the program, the new providers have struggled to find enough classrooms that can be affordably brought up to code. That hurdle, along with the difficulty of finding enough teachers, has left hundreds of Head Start seats unfilled in a city where thousands of needy children and their families could benefit from the highly regarded program.

Getting classrooms open was one of the major challenges facing Southwest Solutions, Palackdharry said.

The agency was approved to enroll up to 606 babies, toddlers and preschoolers but currently has only 420 kids in its 11 sites, Palackdharry said. That means the agency has spent money trying to get classrooms licensed but hasn’t been able to collect funds for those classrooms since children haven’t yet been able to enroll.

The organization has also spent money on classrooms inside public schools only to lose them when the schools decided they needed the rooms back. This year, Southwest Solutions lost seven classrooms in Detroit Public Schools Community District schools. That includes three at Durfee Elementary-Middle School that were lost when the school’s building was sold to a community group, Palackdharry said.

Starfish Family Services, a social service agency that leads the collaborative of Detroit Head Start providers, is working to find new operators to take over the Southwest Solutions centers, said Ann Kalass, the chief executive officer at Starfish but the process is complicated. New providers will have to negotiate leases for classrooms, hire staff and consider the impact on their existing programs.

“Our goal is to have minimal disruption for the families,” she said. “At this point, I’m not comfortable saying there will be no disruption but we want families to know that … we’ve got all of our resources deployed in making sure that the sites are stable and that everything is there that families should expect.”

Kalass acknowledged that the challenges that hobbled Southwest Solutions could very well affect other providers but she said she hopes this setback will encourage government and community leaders to create better support systems for the program.

“This is really a reminder to all of us,” Kalass said. “There’s an opportunity in front of us to develop a plan that puts all of our best thinking on the table to have a strong sustainable system for kids.”

Head Start, “is an amazing program,” Kalass said. “We see really promising outcomes for kids when we offer them quality programs but it’s complicated work so we need to have all systems aimed in the right direction for kids.”

Local philanthropic organizations have already come together to help Head Start providers weather the changes in recent years, but the millions of dollars in support from the 10-foundation Head Start Innovation Fund wasn’t enough to keep Southwest Solutions in the program.

Brisson, the vice president of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, said there’s a lot of work left to do.

Participants in the Innovation Fund are working together, and each in their own unique ways, to build short-term and long-term solutions to ensure families continue to receive the early childhood education that they need and deserve,” she said.

This story was edited on November 8, 2017 to remove statements by a parent that were not fully verified. 

School and church partnership

Detroit district aims for faith-based partnerships for every school to support student needs

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti surrounded by religious and district leaders wearing new "Got Faith?" shirts.

Each Detroit public school might soon have its own church, synagogue, mosque, temple, chapel, or parish as a partner.

The district on Thursday announced an initiative to connect every district school with a faith-based community partner to help with academic support, student basic needs, and personal and career development, among other services.

The district is now trying to determine which schools have a defined partnership with a religious institution, but estimates that 25 to 30 percent of schools already do. Sharlonda Buckman, senior executive director of family and community engagement, said that the district hopes that, by the end of the year, every one of its 106 schools “has a religious partner working with them in tandem toward the goal of helping our children achieve.”

The program was announced at a press conference at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Midtown, attended by educators, school board members, and invited guests.

“It doesn’t surprise me when I look around the room and see our religious leaders, because you guys, for a long time, have been investing in our children and our people, and it’s been an informal effort,” Buckman said. “You’ve worked with a number of our schools across the district, so today we recognize that we don’t need to do it informally anymore — we need to make this a formal part of how we move this district forward.”

The district is not unique in its approach: church-school partnerships are common across the country and in the state. The national partnering organization Kids Hope USA is based near Holland, Michigan. Supporters believe that stronger faith-school ties will not only improve local support for schools, but also help provide vital services for children and a more stable personal and family foundation upon which learning could take place.

District leaders “cannot lift our children up to their full potential by themselves,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said at the press conference. “We need help in that work.”

The district is looking to the faith-based partners to provide services such as tutoring, coaching, chaperoning; deliver before and after school support; donate uniforms and other goods; and highlight teachers at their institutions through announcements and bulletins.

R. Khari Brown, a professor of sociology at Wayne State, said the faith community is already deeply ingrained in Detroit in a variety of ways.

“There are a lot of community centers that closed down over the years in the city, and most churches in the city provide some sort of programming,” he said. “They provide backpacks and school supplies, so [the partnership] makes sense.”

Religion is also a large part of the culture of many African Americans, he said, and a significant force in a district where 81 percent of the students were black in 2016-2017.

“Most African Americans want their churches to be involved on the ills that disproportionately affect black people.” he said.

While other communities might balk at such intermingling of church and state, Brown said he believes that it is a “non issue” in this case because the religious institutions are not receiving money from the district.

The ACLU of Michigan said it had no comment at this time but that the organization hopes to “continue to learn more” about the district’s initiative.

Vitti said a more explicit district-faith community partnership could provide both protection and support for Detroit’s children.

“What I’m talking about is developing a stronger safety net to ensure that what students are not receiving in homes, what students are not receiving in school, can be addressed through the faith-based community,” Vitti said. “When we go back to when the city was at its peak, we worked together as a team to lift children up. When children fell through the cracks, there was a safety net to catch them and lift them back up. That happened through the school system, through the churches, the synagogues.”

Vitti said the initiative is part of his larger effort to align schools and the community more closely. Since starting in his position as superintendent in May of last year, he has been pressing programs like the parent academy.

The academy will provide parents with lessons on subjects like what to ask during parent-teacher conferences, how to create stronger readers, how to fill out FAFSA paperwork, and even how to print a resume. Vitti said most of all, it would empower parents to pursue educational goals for their children, even if they weren’t the best students themselves.

“Every parent knows education is important, but parents don’t know how to navigate the system often, and they feel hypocritical when they push their children when they know they didn’t do well in school,” he said.  

Vitti said he envisions a time when faith-based institutions could house some of the parent services.

He said he also sees the faith community working side by side with the district’s 5,000 role models initiative. The program is recruiting volunteers to work with middle and high school African American and Hispanic students, and plans to have sponsors in each school to work with students daily, taking them on field trips and providing an open line of communication.

getting in

Detroit district moves beyond test scores for admittance to elite high schools like Cass Tech and Renaissance

The Detroit school district is changing its application process for students hoping for a spot at selective high schools like Cass Technical High School.

Detroit’s main school district is changing the way it decides which students gain entry to the city’s elite high schools.

Students applying to Cass Technical High School, Renaissance High School and two other selective high schools will no longer be judged primarily on the results of a single exam.

Instead, an admissions team comprised of teachers and staff from the schools, as well as administrators in the district’s central office, will use a score card that gives students points in various categories.

Students can get up to 40 points for their score on the district’s high school placement exam, up to 30 points for their grades and transcripts, up to 20 points for an essay and up to 10 points for a letter of recommendation. Students already enrolled in the district will also get 10 bonus points that will give them an edge over students applying from charter and suburban schools.

That is a change over past years when  students with the highest test scores largely got automatic admissions to their top-choice schools. Other factors like grades, essays, student interviews, and letters of recommendations were typically only considered during an appeals process for students who didn’t make the first-round cut.

“You can imagine that there was a great deal of subjectivity to that, and if you’re a student who might not be a good test taker, you were at a disadvantage,” said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who, as a dyslexic, said he was not a strong test-taker in school.

“I can empathize with that gifted student whose intelligence is not always identified by a standardized test,” he said.

Vitti said he hopes the new process “will have more of a quality control … It’s a consistent process to ensure that we’re being equitable and fair when students are being enrolled in these schools.”

The district’s decision to reduce the role of testing in admission decisions mirrors a trend across the country where college admissions offices are increasingly moving beyond SAT and ACT scores to give more weight to grades and other factors in admissions decisions.

Cities like New York and Boston are reviewing their use of test-based admissions for their elite high schools in the face of an onslaught of criticism that the tests discriminate against students of color and students who come from poor families and reinforce already prevalent segregation in the districts.

“Tests tend to favor kids who come from backgrounds and whose families have the wherewithal to focus on test prep,” said Bob Schaeffer, the public education director at FairTest, an organization critical of schools’ reliance on test scores to make crucial decisions.

In addition to changing the admission criteria for Detroit’s selective high schools, the district is also for the first time requiring all district 8th-graders to take the exam. In the past, only students who applied to the top schools took those tests.

“Not every school emphasized the exam application process, so it would be dependent on an individual parent’s ability to navigate the system,” Vitti said.

Only about half of the district’s 8th graders took the exam last year. Data provided by the district show that several schools had just a handful of students take the test while others had dozens of test-takers. (See the full list of test-takers from district schools here.)

Vitti hopes that requiring 8th graders to take the test and encouraging more of them to write essays and gather letters of recommendation to apply will help prepare them to apply to college four years later.

“We’re creating a culture of college readiness,” he said.

The district is also using the exam to survey students about their career ambitions and plans to make high school programming decisions based on their answers, Vitti said, adding that high schools will also use the exam results to determine which students could benefit from advanced classes and which ones need more help.

Some parents and educators say they welcome efforts to make the application process more equitable.

Hope Gibson, the dean of students at Bethune Elementary-Middle School on the city’s west side, said students were excited when the school encouraged them to apply to the selective schools.

“They feel like we believe in them,” she said.

The changes, however, have put some families on edge as they worry about how the new approach will affect students’ chances at landing a spot in their first-choice school.

Aliya Moore, a parent leader at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, a K-8 school that typically sends roughly half of its graduates to Cass and Renaissance, said parents had trouble getting information about the process and have been frustrated with Vitti and the school officials he brought to Detroit with him from his last job running schools in Jacksonville, Florida.

“I don’t like these new people coming here and criticizing our old ways,” said Moore, who graduated from Cass Tech in 1998 and has a daughter enrolled there now. “The district is now full of changes. Some are good, but some are like, if something is not broken, why are you trying to fix it? We support Dr. Vitti. We have nothing negative to say. But when you come in and you just totally dismantle what was, even if it was working, we don’t understand that.”

Among Moore’s concerns is the district’s use of  a new test this year, which makes it more difficult for the school to help students prepare. Also, this year’s test is being administered online while prior tests were on paper.

Vitti said the district is using a new test this year because last year’s exam wasn’t an option.

“The license expired years ago and the district was illegally using it,” he said.

The new test will be online, he said, though students with disabilities and other students whose parents request it will be allowed to take the test on paper.

The Detroit district now has four examination schools including Cass, Renaissance and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. The district this year converted Southeastern High School into an exam school after Southeastern returned to the district from five years in the Education Achievement Authority, a now-dissolved state-run recovery district.