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.

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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.”

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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.”

Achievement School District

Tennessee’s turnaround district gets new leadership team for a new chapter

PHOTO: TN.gov
Malika Anderson became superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District in 2016 under the leadership of Gov. Bill Haslam.

Tennessee is bringing in some new blood to lead its turnaround district after cutting its workforce almost in half and repositioning the model as an intervention of last resort for the state’s chronically struggling schools.

While Malika Anderson remains as superintendent of the Achievement School District, she’ll have two lieutenants who are new to the ASD’s mostly charter-based turnaround district, as well as two others who have been part of the work in the years since its 2011 launch.

The hires stand in contrast to the original ASD leadership team, which was heavy with education reformers who came from outside of Tennessee or Memphis. And that’s intentional, Anderson said Friday as she announced the new lineup with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“It is critical in this phase of the ASD that we are learning from the past … and have leaders who are deeply experienced in Tennessee,” Anderson said.

New to her inner circle as of Aug. 1 are:

Verna Ruffin
Chief academic officer

PHOTO: Submitted
Verna Ruffin

Duties: She’ll assume oversight of the district’s five direct-run schools in Memphis called Achievement Schools, a role previously filled by former executive director Tim Ware, who did not reapply. She’ll also promote collaboration across Achievement Schools and the ASD’s charter schools.

Last job: Superintendent of Jackson-Madison County School District since 2013

Her story: More than 30 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, director of secondary curriculum, assistant superintendent and superintendent in Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. At Jackson-Madison County, Ruffin oversaw a diverse student body and implemented a K-3 literacy initiative to promote more rigorous standards.

Farae Wolfe
Executive director of operations

Duties: Human resources, technology and operations

Current job: Program director for the Community Youth Career Development Center in Cleveland, Miss.

Her story: Wolfe has been city manager and human resources director for Cleveland, Miss., where she led a health and wellness initiative that decreased employee absenteeism due to minor illness by 20 percent. Her work experience in education includes overseeing parent and community relations for a Mississippi school district, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Leaders continuing to work with the state turnaround team are:

Lisa Settle
Chief performance officer

PHOTO: Achievement Schools
Lisa Settle

Duties: She’ll oversee federal and state compliance for charter operators and direct-run schools.

Last job: Chief of schools for the direct-run Achievement Schools since June 2015

Her story: Settle was co-founder and principal of Cornerstone Prep-Lester Campus, the first charter school approved by the ASD in Memphis. She also has experience in writing and reviewing curriculum in her work with the state’s recent Standards Review Committee.

Bobby White
Executive director of external affairs

PHOTO: ASD
Bobby White

Duties: He’ll continue his work to bolster the ASD’s community relations, which was fractured by the state’s takeover of neighborhood schools in Memphis when he came aboard in April 2016.

Last job: ASD chief of external affairs

His story: A Memphis native, White previously served as chief of staff and senior adviser for Memphis and Shelby County Mayor A.C. Wharton, as well as a district director for former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

A new team for a new era

The restructuring of the ASD and its leadership team comes after state officials decided to merge the ASD with support staff for its Achievement Schools. All 59 employees were invited in May to reapply for 30 jobs, some of which are still being filled.

The downsizing was necessary as the state ran out of money from the federal Race to the Top grant that jump-started the turnaround district in 2011 and has sustained most of its work while growing to 33 schools at its peak.

While the changes signal a new era for the state-run district, both McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam have said they’re committed to keeping the ASD as Tennessee’s most intensive intervention when local and collaborative turnaround efforts fail, even as the initiative has had a mostly lackluster performance.

“Overall, this new structure will allow the ASD to move forward more efficiently,” McQueen said Friday, “and better positions the ASD to support the school improvement work we have outlined in our ESSA plan …”

In the next phase, school takeovers will not be as abrupt as the first ones that happened in Memphis in 2012, prompting angry protests from teachers and parents and outcry from local officials. Local districts will have three years to use their own turnaround methods before schools can be considered for takeover.

It’s uncertain where the ASD will expand next, but state officials have told Hamilton County leaders that it’s one of several options on the table for five low-performing schools in Chattanooga.

transfer talk

This seemingly small change could make it easier for guidance counselors to send students to transfer schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A guidance counselor at Bronx Academy of Letters

New York City is planning to make it easier to refer students to alternative high schools — part of a broader effort to remove obstacles for students seeking admission to them.

The change will affect the city’s 52 transfer schools, which are designed to catch up students who have dropped out, are over-age or behind in credits. Guidance counselors at traditional high schools will be able to electronically recommend up to three transfer school options for students they believe would be better served in different settings.

That change might seem minor, but it is at the center of a wider debate playing out behind the scenes between the city’s education department — which has indicated that transfer schools are being too picky about who they admit — and transfer schools themselves, some of which worry the new policy could lead to an influx of students who have been pushed out of their high schools.

“There’s a significant fear from transfer schools that these will essentially be over-the-counter placements,” said one Manhattan transfer school principal, referring to a process through which the city directly assigns students who arrive after the admissions process is over, often mid-year. “It doesn’t necessarily make for a better fit for a student.”

Unlike most high schools in New York City, transfer schools admit students outside the centrally managed choice process. Instead, they set their own entrance criteria, often requiring that students interview, and meet minimum credit or age requirements. The schools themselves largely determine which students they admit, and accept them at various points during the year.

Some transfer school principals say this intake process is essential to maintaining each school’s culture, which depends on enrolling students who genuinely want to give school another try after dropping out or falling behind elsewhere.

But city officials have quietly scaled back the type of sorting transfer schools can do, banning them from testing students before they’re admitted, for example, or looking at attendance or suspension records. The transfer school superintendent also now has the power to directly place students if they are rejected from three transfer schools.

Given those changes, some transfer school principals are wary of the latest policy, which will allow guidance counselors at traditional schools to electronically “refer” students for up to three specific transfer schools, and requires transfer schools to track their interactions with those students.

The city says the new system will make it easier to find the right match between schools and students. It will “make the transfer high school admissions process easier and more transparent for students and families, while also ensuring better tracking and accountability,” education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement.

He noted the city is still working on implementation and the change won’t will happen before spring 2018. (The education department currently doesn’t have a way to track how many students are being recommended to transfer schools versus how many are actually accepted.)

Mantell could not say whether guidance counselors would need a student’s consent before electronically referring the student to a transfer school, and could not point to any specific policies on when it is appropriate for guidance counselors to refer students — though he noted there would be additional training for them.

Ron Smolkin, principal of Independence High School, a transfer school, says he appreciates the change. He worries about students who have fallen behind being told they “don’t qualify” for a transfer school, he said. “That’s why we exist.”

But other principals say it will make it easier for traditional schools to dump students because they are difficult to serve, regardless of whether they are good candidates for a transfer.

“There’s a greater risk of pushouts,” the Manhattan transfer school principal said.

Transfer school principals also worry about the consequences of accepting students who might be less likely to graduate than their current students — a potential effect of the new policy. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires high schools to graduate 67 percent of their students; those that don’t will be targeted for improvement.

Some transfer schools have called that an unfair standard since, by design, they take students who have fallen behind. The state has said transfer schools will not automatically face consequences, such as closure, if they fail to meet that benchmark, but it remains to be seen whether that entirely solves the problem.

One transfer school principal said the city’s desire to better monitor the admissions process makes sense, but won’t prevent schools from gaming the system — and is being implemented without adequate input from principals.

“Our voices haven’t been heard in this process,” the principal said, “and there are a lot of reasons to distrust.”