Littlest learners

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

PHOTO: Francesca Berardi

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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

Pre-K payoff

Who benefits from Head Start? Kids who attend — and their kids, too

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

Early childhood education benefits more than the kids who participate — it also helps their kids, even decades later.

A new study of Head Start, the large federally funded pre-kindergarten initiative that started in the 1960s, found that the children of kids who participated were substantially more likely to graduate high school and attend college, and less likely to commit crime and become a teen parent.

It’s the latest signal that a substantial investment in early childhood education, particularly when paired with well-funded K-12 schools, can have long-lasting benefits — and offers a striking extension of that research into a second generation.

“Our findings indicate that societal investments in early childhood education can disrupt the intergenerational transmission of the effects of poverty,” write researchers Andrew Barr of Texas A&M and Chloe Gibbs of Notre Dame.

Since the study focuses on the effects of Head Start as it existed decades ago, it’s unclear if today’s program would have the same positive effects. Still, the research is relevant to the nationwide debate on whether to expand, maintain, or reduce spending on early childhood education.

The program currently serves about 40 percent of three- and four-year-olds in poverty nationwide.

Critics of Head Start have pointed to evidence that test-score boosts from the program fade in early grades, and some have advocated cutting the program entirely. But the latest study, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, adds to previous research showing that Head Start can lead to major benefits in adulthood.

To determine the effects of Head Start, the researchers looked at children whose grandmothers did not have a high school diploma and whose mothers lived in counties where the program first launched. In order to isolate the effect of the program, Barr and Gibbs compared children of mothers who grew up in places where Head Start was initially rolled out to those who did not have the option to attend; the researchers could not directly measure whether someone actually enrolled.

The study finds that disadvantaged women who had access to Head Start seemed to benefit from the program in ways that helped their children down the line. Because of the program, crime in the second generation fell by 15 percentage points and high school graduation increased by 12 percentage points. Rates of teen parenthood dropped by nearly 9 percentage points and rates of college attendance rose by 17 percentage points.

The study does not examine the income of those second-generation beneficiaries, but the authors point out that a number of the outcomes, like graduating college high school or avoiding crime, are associated with avoiding poverty.

It’s not entirely clear why the program had such big effects years later. The mothers benefitted directly from Head Start — including in the form of higher adult earnings and greater educational attainment — and this may have translated in a number of ways to their children. Other research has shown that increases in family income improve children’s well-being and academic achievement.

The findings also suggest that previous estimates may miss the true cost-effectiveness of Head Start by failing to account for its effects across multiple generations. If investing in the program now reduces poverty later, that saves society money — potentially including resources spent on Head Start.

Still, changes in Head Start, and in America, make it unclear whether the program will have similar effects today.

Head Start was originally intended to provide comprehensive support to students and families, including health services. That goal remains, but Gibbs says the program now focuses more on improving kids’ cognitive skills, and that students entering the program are likely much less disadvantaged than they were 50 years ago. Alternatives to Head Start may also have changed in quality over the last several decades, and home environments for students not attending pre-K may have, too.

But her finding, Gibbs says, “is a proof of concept that an early childhood program can in fact have important anti-poverty implications in the second generation.”

Wanna go outside?

Less plastic, more trees: New effort seeks to reinvent preschool playgrounds and capture kids’ imaginations

This play structure at Step By Step Child Development Center in Northglenn will go away under a plan to create a more natural and engaging outdoor play space.

Michelle Dalbotten, the energetic director of a Northglenn child care center called Step by Step, doesn’t like her playground.

Sure, it’s spacious, with a high privacy fence bordering an adjacent strip mall parking lot. It’s also got a brightly colored play structure surrounded by lots of spongy rubber mulch.

But Dalbotten and her staff have long noticed that the kids get bored there. They clump together in the small shady area or on a few popular pieces of equipment. Sometimes, they start throwing trucks off the play structure or shoving their friends down the slide.

Something about it just doesn’t work.

Recently, Dalbotten found a solution in the form of a new grant program called the ECHO initiative, which aims to reinvent more than 100 preschool and child care playgrounds across Colorado over the next few years. Think mud kitchens, looping tricycle trails, vegetable gardens, stages, shady reading nooks and dump truck construction zones.

The idea is to create outdoor spaces that capture kids’ imagination, connect them with nature and keep them active in every season. Such efforts grow out of a recognition in the education field that healthy habits start early and boost learning.

The current preschool playground at Step by Step is covered by rubber mulch.

Step by Step staff members had talked many times about their stagnant play space. But it was hard to envision anything different until they attended a design workshop with experts from ECHO, a partnership between the National Wildlife Federation, Qualistar Colorado and the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University.

“We knew we were missing the boat somewhere because (the children) weren’t super-engaged and we had a lot of behavioral issues,” Dalbotten said. “But we just couldn’t see past it, I guess.”

For child care providers, it’s a common challenge, said Sarah Konradi, ECHO program director with the regional office of the National Wildlife Federation

“This is a very new idea to a lot of folks,” she said. “It’s hard to sort out as a layperson.”

ECHO, borne out of a decade of research from the Natural Learning Initiative, will hand out $355,000 in grants over the next three years. The initiative prioritizes centers that serve children from low-income families or other vulnerable populations.

Fourteen centers — Step by Step and Wild Plum Learning Center in Longmont are the first two — will get $10,000 awards for serving as demonstration sites willing to host visits for other Colorado providers.

Leaders at Step by Step say kids and teachers often congregate in the limited shady spots.

Around 100 other centers will receive ECHO’s $5,000 seed grants and expert assistance to revamp their outdoor spaces.

Such transformations can have a big impact on children who may spend thousands of hours a year at such centers, said Nilda Cosco, director of programs at the Natural Learning Initiative.

“When we do a renovation of the outdoor learning environments as we call them — not playgrounds — we see increased physical activity … more social interactions among children … less altercations,” she said.

“The teachers have to do less because the children are so engaged. There is so much to do.”

ECHO, which stands for Early Childhood Health Outdoors, is the latest iteration of a program Cosco started a decade ago called “Preventing Obesity by Design.” That effort revamped outdoor space at about 260 child care centers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.

Cosco said such makeovers can ”prevent obesity by counteracting sedentary lifestyles. Children walk more, exercise more, are conversant with healthy eating strategies.”

Dalbotten and her staff have big plans for their play areas, which sit behind a plaza that houses a bingo hall, Dollar Tree and Big D’s Liquor store. They’ll get rid of the colorful play structure and the rubber mulch in favor of a more natural look. There will be trees, shrubs, small grassy hills and a winding trail leading to a wide array of activity areas.

This porch will get new lighting, fencing and foliage to make it a more attractive outdoor space at Step by Step.

The center’s smaller toddler playground will get a similar reboot and its tiny yard for babies — mostly bare except for a couple low-hanging shade sails — will be expanded to include a shaded deck where teachers can sit or play with babies. A barren concrete porch on the side of the building will be remade into a cozy activity area decorated with bird houses, planter gardens and butterfly-attracting foliage.

At the recent design workshop Dalbotten attended, ECHO leaders displayed photos from other centers around the country that have gone through outdoor transformations. She saw one that stuck with her.

“There were kids everywhere,” she said. “It was super cool looking. I was like, ‘Oh look, we can be that. We can have kids everywhere.’”

PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The play space at Johnson Pond Learning Center in Fuquay-Varina, NC, after a makeover.
PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The outdoor play space at Spanish For Fun Academy in Chapel, Hill, NC, after a makeover.