Head Start

As a major provider of Head Start exits the program, hundreds of vulnerable Detroit families brace for change

PHOTO: Steve Palackdharry
Evangelina De La Fuente worries about the future of the Head Start her 3-year-old twin grandsons, Randy and Prince, attend. "The babies are secure and they’re happy and they’re well fed and they’re well cared for. It’s scary to think it could change," she said.

Hundreds of Detroit’s most vulnerable families just received some alarming news.

The Head Start centers they rely on for free, federally funded preschool, healthy meals and other services will be undergoing significant change and could potentially close.

Affected are the 420 low-income Detroit children who attend 11 Head Start centers operated by Southwest Solutions, a prominent Detroit social service organization. The organization notified families last week that, because of severe financial and logistical challenges, it will cease operations at its Head Start centers at the end of December and lay off its 122 Head Start employees.

The news is the latest upheaval to a Head Start program that has struggled to regain its footing in Detroit after years of deterioration and neglect. And social service advocates say they are worried that the problems that beset Southwest Solutions — which has had shortfalls in its financing for three years, a spokesman said — could also affect other Head Start providers in the city.

We know that the latest challenges are symptomatic of larger systemic challenges facing early education providers across the city and region,” said Katie Brisson, a vice president of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, which coordinates the work for a group of 10 philanthropic organizations that have partnered together to support Head Start. “Such challenges as facility shortages, financing gaps, and uneven care quality, among others, must be addressed if we want our youngest children to excel in elementary school and beyond.”

All of the Southwest Solutions Head Start programs will be transferred to other operators who could rehire existing staff, but their ability to smoothly pick up the added children and find classroom space for them is uncertain. That is adding stress to the lives of families already in crisis.

“They’re the only ones who’ve been able to help me,” said Rosanna Ramos, 40, a mother of three who said her children’s Head Start program supported her through a painful divorce.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Rosanna Ramos says staff at her children’s Head Start have been “the only ones who’ve been able to help me.” She fears coming changes could hurt her kids. “My children need the consistency of the same school to reiterate that we’re safe now.”

The staff at the Head Start, which operates inside the Escuela Avancemos charter school near Ramos’ southwest Detroit home, was there for her when she lost her job, when fire damaged her home, when her water was shut off, she said. Teachers got help for her son, Eliseo, now 5, when he developed behavioral issues and a stutter in the wake of a traumatic incident, she said. (He recently graduated from the program and started kindergarten.) A beloved teacher — Mr. Jason — worked with Ramos’ daughter, Elisabet, now 4, when she stopped taking naps as a toddler “because she felt vulnerable,” Ramos said.

“They’ve been like a second family to us,” she said. “We’ve had so many hardships and the school has supported us with the resources we need, with counseling and all-around understanding.”

Even if the program stays open, the thought that staff might change is highly distressing to her, she said. “My children need the consistency of the same school to reiterate that we’re safe now.”

Another parent, Evangelina De La Fuente, burst into tears at the thought that the Head Start her 3-year-old twin grandsons attend could close or change.

The school, inside a Salvation Army women’s shelter near Corktown, was an oasis for her family after her daughter, Christine, died shortly after giving birth and left De La Fuente to care for infant twins.

“We’re concerned and worried about what’s going to happen,” said De La Fuente, 55. “My health is not that great and this program is a lot of help for me … It’s become like a second home.”

De La Fuente says she’s been told that her grandsons, Randy and Prince, will likely still have a spot in a Head Start program but she worries about how they’ll cope with possible change.

“Our babies are used to their teachers,” she said. “They not only get an education here, they get attention, they get love, they get protection. For us, it’s hard to go back and trust another staff … We are very comfortable with our social worker, our director, our instructors. The babies are secure and they’re happy and they’re well fed and they’re well cared for. It’s scary to think it could change.”

Gabriela Alcazar, a family services worker at the Salvation Army Head Start, comforted De La Fuente as she cried while talking to a reporter.

“Continuity of care is one of the biggest tenets in social and emotional development,” Alcazar said. “We talk about intellectual and academic rigor but … [quality early childhood education] is teaching how to regulate your emotions and being able to participate in a classroom setting. That’s how you prepare children for school. That’s why continuity of care is so important and that’s basically being swept away from all of these children.”

Alcazar is union representative for the Head Start workers who are being laid off. She expects that most of the affected workers will land other jobs given the teacher shortage that affects many preschools in Detroit, but she notes that Southwest Solutions employes are in a union, which is not necessarily the case for other Head Start providers. That means that even if they are offered a spot at their current schools, they could face reductions to wages and benefits.

The decision to walk away from Head Start wasn’t easy for Southwest Solutions, said spokesman Steve Palackdharry.

“I cannot tell you what a painful decision this is for our organization” he said. “The mission of Southwest Solutions has to do with trying to put low-income families on the path to success and when you think about trying to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty, early childhood education has to be a part of that process.”

But a complicated federal funding system for Head Start that requires providers to match some of the funds and the challenge of finding and renovating classroom space that meets state and federal regulations made it difficult for Southwest Solutions to continue operating the program, he said.

“We were suffering significant losses for three years,” Palackdharry said. “We have more than 70 different programs … We’re the lead agency on homelessness, mental health, the leading provider of affordable housing in Southwest Detroit … and if you’re bleeding money in one particular area, there are concerns in the organization that it’s starting to affect the viability of the many other programs.”

Southwest Solutions has been operating Head Start centers since 2014 when it was part of a group of local nonprofits that collectively took over management of the program. The city of Detroit had administered Head Start for years but the federal government under former President Obama put the Detroit program out to bid to trigger a fresh start after years of mismanagement and neglect.

Since taking over the program, the new providers have struggled to find enough classrooms that can be affordably brought up to code. That hurdle, along with the difficulty of finding enough teachers, has left hundreds of Head Start seats unfilled in a city where thousands of needy children and their families could benefit from the highly regarded program.

Getting classrooms open was one of the major challenges facing Southwest Solutions, Palackdharry said.

The agency was approved to enroll up to 606 babies, toddlers and preschoolers but currently has only 420 kids in its 11 sites, Palackdharry said. That means the agency has spent money trying to get classrooms licensed but hasn’t been able to collect funds for those classrooms since children haven’t yet been able to enroll.

The organization has also spent money on classrooms inside public schools only to lose them when the schools decided they needed the rooms back. This year, Southwest Solutions lost seven classrooms in Detroit Public Schools Community District schools. That includes three at Durfee Elementary-Middle School that were lost when the school’s building was sold to a community group, Palackdharry said.

Starfish Family Services, a social service agency that leads the collaborative of Detroit Head Start providers, is working to find new operators to take over the Southwest Solutions centers, said Ann Kalass, the chief executive officer at Starfish but the process is complicated. New providers will have to negotiate leases for classrooms, hire staff and consider the impact on their existing programs.

“Our goal is to have minimal disruption for the families,” she said. “At this point, I’m not comfortable saying there will be no disruption but we want families to know that … we’ve got all of our resources deployed in making sure that the sites are stable and that everything is there that families should expect.”

Kalass acknowledged that the challenges that hobbled Southwest Solutions could very well affect other providers but she said she hopes this setback will encourage government and community leaders to create better support systems for the program.

“This is really a reminder to all of us,” Kalass said. “There’s an opportunity in front of us to develop a plan that puts all of our best thinking on the table to have a strong sustainable system for kids.”

Head Start, “is an amazing program,” Kalass said. “We see really promising outcomes for kids when we offer them quality programs but it’s complicated work so we need to have all systems aimed in the right direction for kids.”

Local philanthropic organizations have already come together to help Head Start providers weather the changes in recent years, but the millions of dollars in support from the 10-foundation Head Start Innovation Fund wasn’t enough to keep Southwest Solutions in the program.

Brisson, the vice president of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, said there’s a lot of work left to do.

Participants in the Innovation Fund are working together, and each in their own unique ways, to build short-term and long-term solutions to ensure families continue to receive the early childhood education that they need and deserve,” she said.

This story was edited on November 8, 2017 to remove statements by a parent that were not fully verified. 

The mayor's role

Duggan’s schools commission has already brought charter and district leaders to the table. Here’s what else it can do (and what it can’t)

Mayor Mike Duggan plants to appoint Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to a commission that will focus on issues facing students in district and charter schools.

For the first time in years, Detroit’s mayor will have a small hand in shaping education in the city.

A new commission, whose nine members will be appointed by Mayor Mike Duggan, will include representatives of the main Detroit school district and charter schools, whose competition for teachers and students has made them reluctant to come to the same table.

The group will focus on services that have fallen between the cracks in a city where decisions about transportation and after-school programming are made by dozens of unaffiliated charter schools in addition to the main district.

The commission will run a new bus route that will transport students to both district and charter schools on Detroit’s northwest side — a controversial proposal that got official approval from the Detroit school board this week.

It will lead an effort to grade city schools, taking over for the advocacy group Excellent Schools Detroit, which dissolved last year. The rating system has the potential to dramatically impact the fortunes of schools whose survival depends on their enrollment figures.

And it will serve as a conduit for philanthropic dollars that could lead to other cooperative programs between district and charter schools typically wary of working together.

The mayor’s involvement is politically delicate in a city where years of state intervention in local schools have left voters wary of outsiders overruling the elected school board.

The school board’s decision to support the effort was controversial, with critics at a public meeting this week arguing that the board was giving up too much authority to the mayor.

But Vitti argued successfully that the district is carefully limiting its involvement in the effort with an eye toward preserving local control. He pointed to guidelines for the commission that insist, in bold print, that it “will not encroach” on work being done by existing school operators in Detroit.

Following the board’s approval, Vitti will be among the mayor’s appointments to the commission, which will also include parents and educators from both district and charter schools, a teachers union representative, and community leaders (see below for a full list).

The commission plans to meet eight times a year, and will voluntarily submit to state open records laws, according to its guidelines. It will not begin meeting until Duggan has formally appointed directors to the commission. It’s not clear when that will be.

But as plans for the commission emerge, equally important is what’s missing.

It won’t have the power to hold district and charter schools to performance standards. It won’t be able to determine which schools in the city open and close, and — crucially for a city where many neighborhoods lack access to a quality school — it won’t decide where new schools are located.

Earlier proposals, including one for a powerful central body called the Detroit Education Commission, would have done all of those things, placing substantial school oversight responsibilities in the hands of Detroit’s mayor for the first time since mayoral control of schools ended in 2005. Following a fierce lobbying effort, state lawmakers rejected the plan in 2016.

That was a defeat for advocates who have long pushed for an organization that can bring cohesion to the city’s schools. They argue that the proliferation of school options in Detroit and elsewhere is creating problems for families in low-income, urban districts. Detroit has plenty of schools, but large swaths of the city lack a quality option, and some families must make extreme sacrifices to navigate the system.

Other cities with high concentrations of charter schools have created centralized school agencies. In New Orleans and Washington, parents can go to a single agency to learn about individual schools and enroll their children.

The intent of the Detroit commission is similar, but its scope has been constrained by fierce opposition from both ends of the ideological spectrum.

On one side, those criticisms have not dissipated. Vitti sought to reassure board members on Tuesday that the commission won’t undermine local control.

“A rating system is inevitable, and this allows us to create a rating system with Detroit stakeholders, not led by a process in Lansing,” he said.

That argument was enough to win over most the board, but not everyone was convinced. Voters “elected a board that would work with them,” said LaMar Lemmons, one of the “nos” in a 5-to-2 vote. “I am vehemently opposed to giving away our authority.”

Lemmons also opposed the Detroit Education Commission when it went before the state legislature in 2016. “The mayor should not have anything — absolutely anything — to do with the schools,” he said Tuesday.

He was joined in that view in 2016 by Betsy DeVos, now the U.S. Secretary of Education, whose school choice advocacy groups donated $1.45 million to state legislators in a matter of weeks to forestall what they viewed as a new layer of charter school oversight.

This time, however, charter advocates didn’t show up to oppose the pared down commission.

“We all need to work together on how schools are evaluated,” Dan Quisenberry, president of a charter organization, the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said. “Transportation? Yes, please.”

But he cautioned against the “other extreme,” in which official oversight powers would be handed to the mayor’s office.

Expected appointees to the Community Education Commission include Vitti, district teacher Marsha Lewis, charter school operator Ralph Bland; charter school teacher Rachel Ignagni; at least one parent of a child attending school in the city of Detroit; and Nate Walker of the American Federation of Teachers.

The remaining slots are expected to go to activists and non-profit leaders, including Monique Marks of Franklin-Wright Settlements; Tonya Allen of the Skillman Foundation; Teferi Brent of Detroit 300/Goodwill Industries; and Sherita Smith of Grandmont-Rosedale Community Development. All will be unpaid.

pink slips

One Detroit principal keeps his job as others get the ax. Next year’s challenge? Test scores.

PHOTO: Brenda Scott Academy
Students at Brenda Scott Academy will have the same principal, Eric Redwine, next year.

Educators and staff from a Detroit middle school took the microphone on Tuesday evening to save their principal’s job. Addressing the school board, they listed off Eric Redwine’s virtues, arguing that recent problems at the school can be attributed to its transition from state to district management.

And the board listened. Redwine, principal of Brenda Scott Academy, kept his job in a narrow 4-to-3 vote. He was the only one to survive among more than a dozen other administrators — and three other principals — who either lost their jobs or were reassigned to new ones.

The vote came amid a quiet year for “non-renewals,” shorthand for losing one’s job. In previous years, every administrator in the district was forced to re-apply for their job every year, a tactic designed to give state-appointed emergency managers flexibility in the face of an unstable financial situation. This year, by contrast, only 16 administrators — including four principals — were notified by the superintendent’s office that their contracts would not be renewed, as Superintendent Nikolai Vitti seeks to bring stability to a district still recovering from repeated changes in management.

The principals were singled out for their school management, Vitti has said — not because of how students performed on tests. Test scores will be a major factor in principal contract renewals next spring for the first time under Vitti, part of the superintendent’s effort to meet his promise of boosting test scores.

Seven of the 16 administrators who received “non-renewals” asked the board to reconsider the superintendent’s decision. But in a vote on Tuesday evening, only Redwine survived. He’ll remain as principal of Brenda Scott Academy, according to board member LaMar Lemmons.

The other officials were not named, but Chalkbeat confirmed independently that the district did not renew its contracts with principals Sean Fisher, of Fisher Magnet Upper Academy, and Allan Cosma, of Ludington Magnet Middle School. Vitti previously attempted to remove Cosma, then agreed to offer him a job as assistant principal at Ludington.

At an earlier meeting, Cosma’s employees gathered to vouch for his work. On Tuesday, it was Redwine who received vocal support.

Redwine himself argued publicly that the problems identified at his school by administrators — teacher vacancies and school culture — could be attributed to the school’s transition from a state-run recovery district back to the main district. The recovery district, called the Education Achievement Authority, was created in 2012 to try to turn around 15 of the most struggling schools in the district but the effort was politically unpopular and had limited success. Most of the schools were returned to the main district last summer when the recovery district was dissolved. The only exceptions were schools that had been closed or converted to charter schools.

“I’ve never been told your job is in jeopardy, never been presented a corrective action plan,” Redwine said. “I ask that you reconsider your decision.”

Of the 12 schools that returned to the district last summer, most still have the principals who were in place during the transition last summer. A few got new principals this year after their predecessors left and at least one other former recovery district principal was moved earlier in the year.

Many school leaders reported that the transition was very difficult. It occurred at a time when Vitti was new and still putting his team into place in the central office, making it challenging for principals of the schools to get information they needed about the new district.

When Marcia Horge worked for Redwine, she appreciated his openness to classroom experimentation and his schoolwide Sunday night email, which laid out a game plan for the week ahead.

Then the recovery district folded, Brenda Scott Academy rejoined the main district, and Horge found herself facing a steep pay cut. Rather than accept credit for only two of her 17 years of teaching experience, she left for the River Rouge district. But now, with the Detroit district planning to fully honor teacher experience starting this fall, Horge is contemplating a return to work for Redwine.

“He’s open to our ideas,” she said. “You can go to him. And when there’s a need, he steps in and makes sure we’re communicating.”