Littlest learners

Detroit has low-income families needing preschools — and preschools needing low-income families. They don’t always connect

PHOTO: Francesca Berardi
Some Detroit families struggle to find available seats in Head Start programs — while programs struggle to find families.

This story was reported by the Teacher Project, an education journalism fellowship at Columbia Journalism School dedicated to covering the issues facing public school families and teachers.

When Monica Hernandez moved to southwest Detroit last spring from California, she headed to her local Head Start center to enroll her two young children, who are 1 and 4. Hernandez, 21, wanted childcare so she would have time to go back to school and earn her GED. She also hoped that with Head Start—the half-century-old federal program that provides low-income pre-kindergarteners with free education, health, and nutrition services—she would help prepare her children academically and socially for kindergarten.

At the Head Start center at Harms Elementary School, Hernandez made an appointment to discuss enrolling her kids, but the meeting never happened. “They just kept postponing it, and then they never called me back,” she said. “I just gave up.”

teacher-project

At a time when cities and states across the country are trying to expand publicly funded preschool programs, the stories of Detroit families like Hernandez’ show how simply adding publicly funded seats for the littlest learners is not enough—particularly when it comes to low-income families who often have the most to benefit from quality early childhood education programs.

Of the roughly 30,000 low-income children below the age of five in Detroit, only about 3,900 are enrolled in a Head Start program. Funding for about 850 Head Starts slots goes unused. Some parents don’t know of the program’s existence; others struggle to navigate a complicated landscape of Head Start providers with impenetrable enrollment procedures. The experience in Detroit shows that serving more of the country’s youngest students depends not only on expanding access, but getting much better information to the most disconnected communities and parents. (Head Start is federally funded, but delivered by hundreds of local agencies that can be public, private, for-profit or non-profit.)

“The struggle to fill vacant seats is something you could not even imagine in other cities…where the waiting lists are interminable,” says Maria Montoya, who works for Excellent Schools Detroit, an organization devoted to helping families traverse Detroit’s education landscape.

Though Hernandez eventually found a spot for her children in another Head Start center run by an agency called Matrix, her initial problem—wanting Head Start seats and struggling to get them—is frustrating to many people working in that sector. Laura Lefever, who runs the Children’s Center, a Head Start program in northwest Detroit, has more seats available than pupils to fill them. “Where are the children?” she asks, staring at a chart showing the number of vacant seats in the center she oversees.

Lefever’s program is in a neighborhood with a large number of single, working parents in desperate need of childcare. Yet 10 of the seats at the Children’s Center haven’t been filled. “I am becoming a walking billboard,” Lefever says, pointing to her red T-shirt with the name of the school on it. “I carry flyers everywhere.”

The reasons for the Head Start vacancies are numerous, intertwined, and contain valuable lessons for a nation hoping to better serve its youngest students.

Many parents, particularly those who were underserved by the education system themselves, don’t understand the value of early childhood programs—or remain unaware of their existence. This can be especially true in states where even 5-year-old kindergarten is optional. “They don’t realize the impact early education can have, and the importance of learning how to support your children’s studies in the years to come,” says Lefever. “Head Start is not a parking space for babies but the beginning of a journey. It is for parents just as much as for children.”

While the research and policy world remains divided on the quality of Head Start, studies have shown that it can have a positive significant impact over the long term. Children who participate are more likely to earn a high school diploma and less likely to be convicted of a crime. While traditional Head Start programs serve kids once they turn three, Early Head Start enrolls younger children. Some Head Start centers in Detroit also offer Early Head Start, but parents tend to be even less aware of the programs for younger children.

Sheritta Dew might never have discovered Head Start if she hadn’t gone back to school herself. “When I had my first child I did not know about these programs,” said Dew, 21, who has a three- and a one-year-old, and is six months pregnant with a third child. But when someone at her GED center mentioned Head Start, Dew realized she had more options than keeping her children at home. They’re now enrolled at a Head Start center in southwestern Detroit, not far from the homeless shelter where the family lives.

Dew’s three-year-old spent his first two years at home, where he didn’t have nearly as much exposure to educational activities. “I just regret that my son wasn’t here sooner, he could have learned a lot more,” she says. But after hard times in the past, Dew feels that her life is on an upswing. Staying at the homeless shelter means she doesn’t need to worry about where her family will find its next meal, and social workers are helping her to find an apartment. Most important, her children seem content and engaged. “They look happier since they started,” she said.

 

* * *

While parental reluctance and lack of awareness play a role in keeping Detroit’s Head Start centers underoccupied, a blurry enrollment process doesn’t help the matter.

The city administered the Head Start program for about half a century, from the 1960s to 2012. At that point, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced it no longer wanted the city to distribute the money because of longstanding issues, including mismanagement of funds. In 2014, control over the program was handed over to a variety of local organizations and nonprofits that now run the centers, a more typical model from a national perspective.

There are a number of different factors that determine Head Start eligibility, which can vary slightly from center to center, with some exemptions permitted. A child’s family income typically needs to be at or below the federal poverty guidelines of $16,000 for a family of two and roughly $20,000 for a family of three. Other factors that must be taken into consideration are homelessness, disability, and the English language proficiency of the family. But some others factors, like the age or the employment status of the parents, depend on local needs and context. In a neighborhood with a rapidly growing number of refugee youngsters, for instance, they might receive greater preference than they would in other areas.

Skeptics say this system not only confuses parents but allows for a fuzziness that less-than-scrupulous operators can exploit: turning away families they should serve by saying they don’t meet the enrollment criteria. Some center operators are far less responsive and helpful than Lefever.

The complicated, and not always transparent, enrollment process can be particularly detrimental for the most vulnerable kids: those with special needs. Head Start centers are required to enroll at least 10 percent of children with special needs, but according to parents and center operators some make it clear that they are not able to accept students with more severe disabilities.

Tina Edwards, the enrollment coordinator at the Children’s Center, recalls a three-year-old who had been in a car accident and couldn’t walk as a result. “Another school told her parents that they could not accommodate their need based on her handicap,” Edwards said. “We welcomed her here. One bad encounter can affect how families feel about the Head Start program as a whole.”

In order to win parents’ trust, engaging them is a priority. “One of the ways to address the enrollment issue is to empower parents, involve them in the process and ask them to spread the world about the program,” says Kaitlin Ferrick, director of the Michigan Head Start Collaboration Office. “The peer to peer review is always effective,” she adds. This is particularly true in Detroit, where many residents have grown to distrust official sources after decades of being underserved.

* * *

In a city where a population of roughly 700,000 is spread out over 140 square miles, geography and transportation form another barrier to access. Until recently children had to be enrolled in a center located in the zip code where they lived, which was not always the closest one to their home. They usually couldn’t switch zip codes unless all of the programs in their own area were full—something that happens very seldom in Detroit. However, new standards implemented earlier last month create more flexibility. While Detroit Head Start operators are still waiting to see if the new standards will help solve their problems, they do allow centers to more frequently enroll children in the zip code where parents work, not live if center operators can show they’ve made every effort possible to recruit families who reside in their zip code.

Parents often prefer sending their children to centers near where they work, especially those who don’t find a spot in a full-day program. Some travel more than an hour on buses with unreliable schedules to get to their jobs. “You really need to be unemployed, or have someone who helps you, in order to enroll your child for three hours a day” in a half-day program, says Melanie Ford, a 34-year-old mother of two.

After a “challenging” nine months spent trying to enroll her daughter in a quality and convenient Head Start center, she finally settled on one she disliked because it was the only one with an open full-day slot. (Full day programs typically run from 8 a.m. to 3 or 4 p.m.) “There were no many activities, children were not learning as they should,” she said, noting that staff members didn’t interact with the kids as much as she wanted. She was eventually able to move her daughter to another center in the same zip code where she learns a lot more. “She is always smiling now. But I tell you: You gotta be really consistent to enroll your kid in school.”

Even those working families who find “full day” programs may struggle with the limited hours—another deterrent to enrollment. Some may eschew Head Start and opt for private, home-based child care centers as a result.

Nobles has been working in Head Start programs since 1999 and has first-hand experience of how valuable early childhood education can be, having attended a Head Start center herself. She loves her job, yet sometimes she has to confront hard challenges.

According to a 2015 report funded by the Kresge Foundation, Detroit has 6,684 full-day, full-year licensed slots in schools and centers for children ages three to five— a number that meets only 29 percent of the demand. Roughly 16 percent of available child care in the city is comprised of family child care homes, most of it unlicensed. This type of private child care has played a historic role in Detroit communities where families have learned not to rely too heavily on government-run services. But it is not subject to any kind of inspection, even if partially subsidized through publicly funded vouchers.

“The collection of data on early childhood education in Detroit is still challenging, the Head Start program included,” said Kaitlin Ferrick. This can be true in many big cities, but Detroit, according to Ferrick, offers “an extreme example.” Competition among providers doesn’t make the data gathering any easier, with agencies sometimes competing for the same teachers, social workers and facilities.

There is some cause for hope. Ten foundations in the Southeast Michigan Early Childhood Funders Collaborative, which formed in 2010, have invested more than $50 million into the region’s early childhood programs since 2012. The fund has helped spur innovative, collaborative ways to help Detroit’s Head Start program expand its capacity and its reach, building a citywide enrollment system.

But if Detroit’s most vulnerable families miss the message, the new money will have far less impact. The city’s experience shows that the future of early childhood education in America’s low-income communities depends heavily on whether parents have the capacity and knowledge to take advantage of their available options — and, when necessary, clamor for something better.

 

early intervention

Meet Colorado’s resident expert on early childhood mental health

Jordana Ash, Colorado's director of early childhood mental health

Jordana Ash holds a job that doesn’t exist in most states.

She’s Colorado’s director of early childhood mental health — a position created three years ago within the state’s Office of Early Childhood. A local foundation paid Ash’s salary for 18 months and then the state took over.

The addition of a high-level state job dedicated to the mental health of young children was a win for advocates, coming at a time of growing awareness about the long-term impact of childhood trauma. Ash said her role helps infuse both the Office of Early Childhood, where her unit is housed, and other state agencies with programs and policies focusing on child mental health.

Before coming to the Office of Early Childhood, which is part of the Department of Human Services, Ash ran a mental health consultation program in Boulder for 13 years.

We sat down with Ash this week to discuss her background, the state’s work on early childhood mental health and her thoughts on the recent defeat of state legislation that would have limited early childhood suspensions and expulsions.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What sparked your interest in early childhood mental health?
My first job out of graduate school was in Alameda County, California and I was a child welfare worker. I didn’t have a lot of life experience at that time. I didn’t have children of my own. I didn’t know a lot about child development. But what I could really do is listen to families. We met families at the hardest times.These were families whose children were removed for suspicion of abuse or neglect.

Everybody has a story and if you spend time listening, you will hear about their hopes for their child, things that bring them joy in parenting. To me, it’s about the stories and what parents do every day to try to do better for their kids.

Can you put into context Colorado’s work on early childhood mental health compared to work in other states?
Colorado is really in a unique position compared to other states. My position was created three years ago with philanthropic dollars (from the Denver-based Rose Community Foundation, which is also is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat) looking to get a position in state government completely focused on early childhood mental health.

There are very few states that have a position of leadership in state government with (early childhood mental health) being their primary focus. Minnesota has a similar position, Connecticut has a coordinator position. A couple of states are coming along. Other states have recognized that it’s a wise investment to have a position where you can really institutionalize some of those important changes and policies for statewide reach.

Can you talk about the major efforts your unit is working on now?
Our two main initiatives are the mental health (consultant) program and Colorado Project LAUNCH. (See this story for more about Project LAUNCH.)

We are (also) studying the effects of parent adversity on child well-being. We were (also) selected to receive three years of technical assistance on infant and early childhood mental health consultation. We’re hoping that helps us finalize our system of consultation in Colorado so we are a premier program that other states look to.

Last year, the state doubled the number of early childhood mental health consultants available to help child care providers and preschool teachers manage challenging behavior. How is it going?
Our state-funded program of 34 full-time positions is one of the largest (in the nation). We’re working really hard on developing Colorado’s system of mental health consultation so it’s consistent — for state-funded positions, for positions funded by philanthropy for programs that have their own hired consultants — so everyone is working toward the same standard of practice.

Can you share an anecdote about how mental health consultation works?

I can think of a situation where a consultant provided support for a cook at a child care center. Her child was enrolled in the program. This was a 3-year-old with a lot of challenging behaviors. At first, (the mother) was really nervous to talk to the consultant. She confused the role of the mental health consultant with something like social services and wondered if she was going to be judged or somehow scrutinized about her parenting. She had never had contact with any kind of mental health service before.

In getting to know the consultant not only did she find some new ways to interact with her child so that he could be more successful in the classroom and at home, but she also had her first experience with a mental health professional. It reduced the sense of stigma (around) getting mental health help.

She found that she could get a better position at the child care center because her child was successful in his classroom. She wasn’t having to take him home because of his problems.

What advice do you have for child care providers or early childhood teachers who are at their wits’ end over a child’s challenging behavior and haven’t accessed a consultant? Take a deep breath. We want to understand that that child is telling us something. We might not understand what that behavior means but it’s our responsibility as adults to help figure that out.

We really encourage providers to access a mental health consultant or other support right away when they’re starting to be puzzled or concerned about a child’s behavior. It’s much easier to intervene if you have new ideas sooner in the process.

The role of child care providers and teachers is critically important. So we are not in a position to judge or to evaluate what you’ve done. We’re in a position to partner with you and help you provide the best care you can.

To locate an early childhood mental health consultant, providers can call 303-866-4393.

What advice do you have for parents who know their child is acting up at preschool or child care and worry they could get counseled out or kicked out?
Reach out and connect directly with your child care program about the problem before you start feeling like your child may be at risk of being suspended or expelled. That partnership between parents and providers is the most powerful part of a solution.

I would also say you can talk to your child’s primary care physician as a start. Maybe there’s a developmental concern your physician can help figure out and that’s gonna be a really important piece of the puzzle.

Connecting with a mental health consultant in your area is a really good solution to start looking at the causes of those challenging behaviors and to start putting in place some interventions while other tests or other assessments are being done.

For help locating a mental health consultant, parents can visit: http://www.coloradoofficeofearlychildhood.com/ecmentalhealth

What are your thoughts on the bill killed during Colorado’s 2017 legislative session that would have limited suspensions and expulsions in preschool and kindergarten through second grade?

The fact that the bill made it as far as it did meant lots of people were invested, were having great conversations about this problem in a way we never (had) before. Stakeholders were for the first time …. considering issues of disproportionality and implicit bias in a way that was a first. We had never had that kind of visibility to the early childhood time period and this very complex issue that affects children’s trajectories way into their school years.

Would you like to see a similar bill pass next year?
As an office, we’d be super interested in whatever’s put forward.

Early education

Colorado gets good marks on preschool access for 3-year-olds, not so much on funding

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Preschoolers play dress-up on a recent morning at Fairview Elementary in the Westminster school district.

While Colorado ranks near the back of the pack for state preschool funding, it gets relatively high marks for providing preschool access to the state’s 3-year-olds, according to a report released Wednesday by the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Colorado ranked 11th for 3-year-old access among 33 states offering preschool to 3-year-olds. The state-funded Colorado Preschool Program, which is for children with certain risk factors, served about 5,400 3-year-olds and about 15,700 4-year-olds last year.

PHOTO: NIEER
This chart shows the percentage of Colorado children served by state-funded preschool over time.
PHOTO: NIEER
This chart shows how Colorado’s per-pupil preschool funding has changed over time.

Colorado ranked 24th of 44 states for 4-year-old preschool access in the state-by-state report, slightly worse than last year. Seven states, including Colorado’s neighbors, Wyoming and Utah, don’t fund preschool at all.

Besides gauging preschool funding and access, the new report revealed that Colorado meets five of 10 benchmarks designed to judge preschool quality. Last year, the state met six of the benchmarks, but several benchmarks changed this year in what the research institute described as an effort to raise the bar.

State officials said that observers should take Colorado’s middling benchmark score with a grain of salt because while the state didn’t get credit for having certain standards enshrined in state policy, the standards are widely practiced by school districts that participate in the Colorado Preschool Program. One example is the benchmark that calls for vision, hearing and health screenings of preschoolers — Colorado didn’t check that box, but most districts conduct the screenings.

Two other benchmarks that Colorado doesn’t meet include a requirement for lead teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and assistant teachers to have a Child Development Associate credential.

Cathrine Floyd, program director for the Colorado Preschool Program and Results Matter Program at the Colorado Department of Education, said the degrees are highly encouraged by the state but not required. That’s because some state-funded preschool slots are offered at community-based preschools that would not be able to afford to pay teachers if they all had higher-level degrees, she said.

Among the five benchmarks Colorado meets on the revised list are two related to class size and staff-student ratio, one related to teacher training, one related to state early learning standards and one related to preschool curriculum.

Floyd and her colleagues described the annual report from the well-regarded National Institute for Early Education Research as a good starting point for conversation, but said the state’s annual Colorado Preschool Program report provides more detail and context about Colorado’s progress.