Months after ‘scary’ disruption, Detroit Head Start programs get new management, make room for additional kids

The alarming news last fall set off a frantic rush to solve an urgent problem.

Southwest Solutions, a major social service organization, had unexpectedly announced in November that it would no longer operate its 11 Head Start centers in Detroit because of financial difficulties.

That meant 420 vulnerable Detroit children faced losing access to the free, federally funded preschool program that not only educates low-income children, but provides them with hot, healthy meals, and supports their parents.

“It was scary,” said Evangelina De La Fuente whose twin grandsons attended a Head Start program run by Southwest Solutions inside a Salvation Army women’s shelter in Southwest, Detroit.

But a little more than two months later, De La Fuente’s grandsons are in a new program about two miles away. They’re surrounded by many of the same teachers and classmates they knew from their former school and De La Fuente says she’s pleased with their new situation.

“They are great and I am happy,” she said. “It’s a very organized program.”

The happy outcome for De La Fuente and other families was the work of social service providers, state officials, and charitable foundations who all came together to quickly try to repair the damage from Southwest Solutions’ departure from Head Start.

The disruption was the latest crisis for a program that provides critical services to some of the city’s neediest children but has struggled to recover after years of deterioration and neglect in Detroit. Head Start supporters say they’re hopeful that the response to this issue speaks to the program’s ability to address systemic challenges.

The response to the Southwest Solutions news was led by Starfish Family Services, the lead agency that coordinates a large Head Start collaborative called Thrive by Five Detroit. Starfish quickly brought social service agencies together to find new managers for Southwest Solutions’ Head Starts.

Although four sites were closed in the process, Starfish CEO Ann Kalass said Head Start providers not only created enough programs for the children who were displaced, but classrooms were added to serve even more, enough to eventually enroll 600 children.

“We were really pleased that we were able to figure out a plan as quickly as we did,” Kalass said.

Of the 11 Head Start sites that Southwest Solutions had been operating, seven have remained open and are now controlled by new managers, following a hurried effort to negotiate new leases and secure new licenses.

Starfish is operating some of the sites itself. Others will be run by other agencies including Development Centers, Focus: HOPE and two new Head Start providers, The Order of the Fisherman Ministry and American Indian Health & Family Services.

Kalass said she believes the new providers will help bring new children into Head Start, including Native American children who have been getting other kinds of support from American Indian Health & Family Services.

The Southwest Solutions sites that closed include the one at the Salvation Army that De La Fuente’s grandsons attended.

Those classrooms were transferred to a new Head Start program at the Covenant House Academy Southwest, a charter school that serves non-traditional and older high school students.  

Starfish tried to keep the Head Start children in the same classroom groups they were in before. It hired some of the same teachers to provide as much consistency as possible.  

One of those teachers, Brenda Tolbert, said when she first heard Southwest Solutions was pulling out of Head Start, she was not only concerned about her own job security but about the children.

“I was worried about how they would adjust to somebody new in the middle of the school year,” she said.

But when the children arrived at their new school in early January, they saw the familiar faces of their teacher and classmates.

“Everybody came in, they looked in the door, they saw me and they came on in like it’s their regular room,” Tolbert said. Tolbert even went back to her classroom at the Salvation Army to gather up some of the children’s favorite toys so there’d be some familiar playthings in the new classroom.  

Tolbert said she was happy at the old site — and made more money at Southwest Solutions because she was both a teacher and a program manager there. But the new facility offers larger, well-lit classrooms, she said, and she hopes to have career opportunities with Starfish that will bring her pay back up.

The new site also doesn’t have the heavy security that the Salvation Army facility had.

Because the Head Start was inside a homeless shelter, Head Start staff had to greet visitors at the door and escort them into the building. Parents at Covenant House can be buzzed into the building.

“It’s a regular school,” De La Fuente said. “Everything is open. You can come anytime you want. There are no restrictions.”

The new site has also been embraced by the staff and students at the Covenant House Academy, which serves students ages 16 to 22, giving them a chance to earn their diplomas through online coursework.

Covenant House has a total of four Academies in Michigan including three in Detroit and one in Grand Rapids. Of the 150-200 students who attend the school in Southwest Detroit, 20 are parents to young children who need childcare. Having a Headstart program in the building allows them to continue their educations, said Covenant House Superintendent Michael Krystyniak.

Covenant House had cut ties with a different Head Start program two years ago, Krystyniak said.

The charter school had been working with Southwest Solutions to try to reopen the Head Start last fall when news broke that the agency was getting out of early childhood education. When Starfish stepped in, the agency was able to quickly get the center renovated and licensed in time to open in early January.

“We’re grateful,” Krystyniak said. “We all know that if mom graduates from high school, the chances of that baby graduating just went up tremendously.”

In addition to the Covenant House site, Starfish is opening new classrooms that will eventually serve 128 students in a building on Cecil Street. That building has long had a Head Start program run by Matrix Human Services on the first floor. The Starfish classrooms will be on the second floor. They’re scheduled to open next week and the two programs — Matrix and Starfish — will now operate separately in the same building.

Among students that Starfish hopes will enroll are children who had attended the Southwest Solutions Head Start in the old Phoenix Academy building, another site that has closed.

The rush to get the new sites up to code and fully licensed has been challenging, said Katherine Brady-Medley, the Head Start program director at Starfish.

“You just get to the point where you put your head down and you run as hard as you can,” she said.

Normally, getting a site licensed and opened takes six months or longer, she said, but organizations came together to speed up the process, including working during the holidays. State officials helped fast-track licensing.

Kalass said charitable foundations stepped up with funds — $400,000 — to help pay for things like moving expenses and applying for licenses.

“This is just a really good lesson about people pulling together,” Kalass said. “We’ve just tried to look at this as ‘How do you turn a challenge into an opportunity?’”