Building Better 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.”

Two for one

Schools in Pueblo, Greeley up next as state sorts out struggling schools

Charlotte Macaluso, right, speaks with Pueblo City Schools spokesman Dalton Sprouse on July 22, 2016. (Pueblo Chieftain file photo)

The Colorado Department of Education is expected Monday to suggest that five of the state’s lowest-performing schools, including one that was once considered a reform miracle, hire outsiders to help right the course.

The department’s recommendations for the schools — three in Pueblo and two in Greeley — are the latest the State Board of Education are considering this spring. The state board, under Colorado law, is required to intervene after the schools have failed to boost test scores during the last six years.

Like all the schools facing state intervention, the five before the state board Monday serve large populations of poor and Latino students.

A year ago, Pueblo City Schools was expected to pose the biggest test of the state’s school accountability system. A dozen of the city’s schools were on the state’s watch list for chronic poor performance on state standardized tests. However, most of the city’s schools came off that list last year.

Among the schools still on the list and facing state intervention is the storied Bessemer Elementary, where barely 9 percent of third graders passed the state’s English test last spring.

The school, which sits in the shadow of the city’s downsized steel mill, has been in a similar situation before.

After the state first introduced standardized tests in 1997, Bessemer was flagged as the lowest performing school in the state. District and city officials rallied and flushed the school with resources for students and teachers. Soon, students and teachers at the Pueblo school were being recognized by President George W. Bush for boosting scores.

But a series of leadership changes, budget cuts and shifts in what’s taught eroded the school’s progress.

Pueblo City Schools officials declined to be interviewed for this article.

The 17,000-student school district was preparing to make slightly more dramatic changes to improve things at Bessemer. Officials were going consolidate the school into just three grades, preschool through second, and send the older students to a nearby elementary school that is also on the state’s watch list. That school, Minnequa Elementary, is expected to face sanctions next year if conditions don’t improve.

But the district and its school board backed down after the community rejected the idea.

“With the input gathered, we determined that, at this time, changes to the grade reconfiguration were not in the best interest of the communities involved,” Pueblo Superintendent Charlotte Macaluso said in a press release announcing the changes. “We realize the sense of urgency and will continue to support our schools while closely monitoring improvement at each location.”

The decision to not reorganize the schools was made earlier this week.

Suzanne Ethridge, president of the Pueblo Education Association, the city’s teachers union, said the last-minute pullback was troubling. The district, she said, has held up staffing the schools until a final decision was made.

“I just hope we can get to a final plan and we can move on and get these schools going in the right direction,” Ethridge said.

According to documents provided to the state, district officials are expected to tell the state board they want to go along with what the state education department is proposing.

But some in the city are wary of involvement by outside groups because the district has been burned by outside groups in the past.

According to a 2012 Denver Post investigation, Pueblo City Schools had a three-year, $7.4 million contract with a New York-based school improvement company. The company was hired to boost learning at six schools. Instead, school performance scores dropped at five of the six schools.

“It wasn’t a lot of fun,” Ethridge said.

Other schools in Pueblo that will appear before the state board are the Heroes Academy, a K-8, and Risley International, a middle school. The state is recommending that Risley maintain a set of waivers from state law. The flexibility for Risley, and two other Pueblo Middle Schools, were granted in 2012.

The hope was the newfound freedom would allow school leaders and teachers to do what was necessary to boost student learning. That happened at Roncalli STEM Academy and the Pueblo Academy of the Arts.

But Risley has lagged behind.

Macaluso was the principal of Risley before being appointed superintendent last fall.

Like Risley, the state is recommending that two Greeley middle schools be granted waivers and hire an external manager to run some of the schools’ operations.

The state’s recommendation in part runs contrary to what a third party review panel suggested last spring. The panel, which visited all of the state’s failing schools, suggested Franklin be converted to a charter school. That’s because the school lacked leadership, according to the panel’s report.

Greeley officials say the school’s administration team, which has not changed, has received training from the state’s school improvement office, which has proven effective.

As part of the shift, Franklin and Prairie Heights middle schools will change the way students are taught. The schools will blend two styles of teaching that are in vogue.

First, students will receive personalized instruction from a teacher, assisted by digital learning software. Second, students will also work either individually or in teams to solve “real-world problems” on a regular basis.

“These schools have students with some important needs,” said Greeley’s deputy superintendent Rhonda Haniford, who helped designed the plan. “It’s more reason to have a personalized curriculum.”

The 21,000-student school district has already contracted with an organization called Summit to provide the digital curriculum and a cache of projects. The organization will also provide training for the school’s principal and teachers.

Haniford acknowledged that when struggling schools make major shifts it can be difficult, and sometimes student learning fall even further behind. But she said Summit is providing regular training for teachers and principals.

“The district made an intentional decision to support the turn around of these schools,” Haniford said, adding that she was hired last year as part of that effort. “This is one of my top priorities.”

chancellor chat

Chancellor Betty Rosa hits back on criticism that New York is abandoning education reform

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York has moved sharply away from innovative education reforms with “bewildering and humbling speed.” That’s what Robert Pondiscio of the conservative-leaning Fordham Institute wrote in an op-ed posted earlier this month on the organization’s website.

Here in New York City, he writes, Mayor Bill de Blasio is ushering in the “bad old days” by pumping money into struggling schools and relaxing school discipline.

At the state level, Governor Andrew Cuomo and other state officials, after trying to pack too many reforms into a short period of time, have largely backed away from education reform. That coupled with the growing opt-out movement and the departure of New York State Chancellor Merryl Tisch, Pondiscio wrote, spurred the end of an “era of high standards and accountability for schools, teachers, and those who train them—an era that never entirely gained traction in New York.”

New York State Chancellor Betty Rosa hit back Thursday with her own piece for the Fordham Institute, saying that she “could not disagree more.” She argues that focusing on high-stakes testing is not synonymous with having high standards — and that while her standards take a different form, they are no less rigorous.

For example, she cites the Board’s decision to jettison the controversial Academic Literacy Skills Test as part of teacher certification. While Pondiscio blasts the move, Rosa says New York’s certification process remains among the country’s most stringent. “We simply eliminated a costly and unnecessary testing requirement that created an unfair obstacle for too many applicants,” she writes.

Her op-ed is part of a broader push by the Board of Regents to articulate a new vision of accountability that moves away from a strong focus on New York state’s much-maligned 3-8 math and English tests. She and the Regents seem eager to convince critics that those changes do not, in the end, represent a watering down of the goals the state sets for its students.

“We need an opposite narrative,” Rosa said in an exclusive interview with Chalkbeat. She sees her job as not simply setting high bars, she said, but more importantly, “building the steps” to help students succeed.