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. 

more money fewer problems

Detroit teachers will finally get paid for their years of experience if agreement holds up with district

Ally Duncan, an elementary school teacher in Lake County, works with students on sentence structure. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Good news for Detroit district teachers stuck at a low pay level: The finance committee of the school board Friday recommended an agreement with the city’s largest teachers union to raise the pay of veteran teachers — and to bring in experienced teachers at higher salaries.

“This is a major step for the district to fully recognize experience,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said. “A lot of the adult issues have been put aside to focus on children.”

The changes will be for members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, the city’s largest teachers union.

For years, Detroit teachers have bargained for contracts that severely restricted the pay of experienced teachers who wanted to come into the district. As a result, new teachers can currently only get credit for two years of experience, regardless of how many years they’ve taught in other cities or in charter schools.

Vitti has called that restriction a major reason why it’s difficult to attract new teachers and keep existing ones. And with fewer teachers, classroom sizes start to balloon.

Detroit currently has 190 teacher vacancies, down from 275 at this point last year.

The committee also recommended giving a one-time bonus to teachers at the top of the salary scale, to recognize outside experience for current and future teachers, and to repay the Termination Incentive Plan as soon as this September.

The incentive plan took $250 from teachers’ biweekly paycheck and held it to pay them when they left the district when emergency managers were in control, but the money was never given back to teachers, said Ivy Bailey, the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers.

Teachers who have paid into the incentive plan from the beginning will receive $9,000. The teachers union made a contract with the district last year that stipulated the money be paid by 2020, but the new agreement would move the payment to this September.

Finally, a bonus — $1,373.60 — for more than 2,000 teachers at the top of the pay scale would be paid in December.

Potentially, some teachers receiving bonuses and who are eligible for the incentive plan payment would receive in excess of $10,000,

“The bonus for teachers on the top is focused on ensuring that we retain our most veteran teachers as we work on an agreement in the third year to increase, once again, teachers at the top step so they can be made whole after emergency manager reductions,” Vitti said.  “We can do that once our enrollment settles or increases.”

In all, the district proposes to spend a combined $5.7 million to pay current and future teachers for how long they’ve worked, $3.2 million on bonuses for veteran teachers, and $22 million on the incentive plan.

“This is something none of us were expecting,” Bailey said. “This is good for everyone. We already ratified a contract, so this is just extra.”

It’s a tentative agreement between the district and the Detroit Federation of Teachers, Bailey said.

If an agreement is reached and the school board approves it, the changes could give the district a new tool in trying to reduce the teacher shortage. It’s a major change for district teachers who saw their pay slashed by 10 percent in 2011. The new contract ratified by the union members last summer promised to increase teacher pay by 7 percent over three years but many teachers grumbled that it wasn’t enough to bring them back to where they were in 2011. 

The two groups are still in talks to “iron out the details,” Bailey said. Specifically, the union wants to make sure that district employees like counselors, therapists and college support staff also receive higher salaries commensurate with experience.

Detroit's future

Despite top scores in quality standards, Michigan’s early education programs neglect English language learners

PHOTO: Jamie Cotten, Special to The Denver Post
Josiah Berg, 4, paints a picture at Mile High Montessori, one of more than 250 Denver preschools that are part of the Denver Preschool Program.

Michigan’s 4-year-olds receive some of the highest quality education and care available in the country — that is, if your child can speak English.

Michigan was one of only three states to meet all 10 quality benchmarks designed by a national advocacy organization that released its annual State of Preschool Report this week. However, the state met only one out of 10 benchmarks for English language learners.

Four-year-olds enrolled in privately funded programs are not included in this data.

Enrollment and state spending per pupil stayed largely constant from the same report last year. About 30 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled — some 38,371 children — while state spending was steady at $6,356 per pupil.

Compared to the rest of the country, Michigan ranks 16th out of 43 states and Washington, D.C., in enrollment for 4-year-olds and allocates about $1,000 more dollars on per pupil spending than the average state.

These findings come from the State of Preschool 2017 report published by the National Institute for Early Education Research, or NIEER, at Rutgers University.

Three states — Alabama, Michigan, and Rhode Island — met all 10 of the institute’s benchmarks for minimum state preschool quality standards. Benchmarks included things like student-to-teacher ratios, teacher training, and quality of curriculum.

But the only benchmark the state met for English learners is permitting bilingual instruction in the state-funded preschool program. Michigan did not meet benchmarks for assessing children in their home language, allocating more money for English learners, or making sure staff are trained in working with students learning English.

Authors of the new report say supporting English learners is important, especially early in life.

“For all children, the preschool years are a critical time for language development.” said Steve Barnett, senior co-director of the institute. “We know that dual-language learners are a group that makes the largest gains from attending high-quality preschool. At the same time, they’re at elevated risk for school failure.”

About a quarter of early education students nationwide are English learners. Michigan does not collect data on the number of early education students who are English learners, so it’s unclear how many students the low quality of instruction impacts.

Chalkbeat Colorado’s Ann Schimke contributed to this report.