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. 

Getting ready for school

Kindergarten ‘boot camp’ aims to ready young Detroit children — and their parents — for school

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
In this counting exercise, twin brothers, Rafael and Nicholas Gonzalez, prepare to stack pretend scoops of ice cream on their cones.

In a back room of a church on the city’s near east side,  Abraham and Magaly Gonzalez attended a summer camp with their 5-year-old twins. Six other children from the church’s child care center were seated around a rectangular table lit by fluorescent overhead lights, working on exercises to teach them colors, numbers, and shapes.

“They have to learn more,” Magaly Gonzalez said, explaining that the couple has been working with the boys, Rafael and Nicholas, at home using books and videos, “and we have to learn more to help them.”

This was their second session in the Detroit main district’s newly launched Kindergarten Boot Camp, a four-week summer program led by district staff that focuses on the basics children need to start school. The Gonzalezes sent their sons to preschool when they were 4 years old. But the couple was so excited about what their boys learned in an earlier camp that they came to the People’s Missionary Baptist Church, a community site, to help them learn more: how to count to 20, spell and write their names, and recognize letters and shapes.

Although school readiness is not a new notion for educators, in the past couple of years, the summer programs for children who are about to start kindergarten have become a national trend, said Robin Jacob, a University of Michigan research associate professor who focuses on K-12 educational intervention.

“They are a fairly new idea, and they are important,” said Jacob, who researched more than a dozen similar programs that recently have sprung up from Pittsburgh to Oakland, Calif., many targeting children who had no prior preschool education.

A full year of preschool is the best way to get children ready for kindergarten, she said, “but we know there are kids who fall through the cracks and it’s important to catch those children, and preschool doesn’t always include parents so they learn how to help their children at home.”

A growing number of districts and schools have added the programs, recognizing that they last only a few weeks, are relatively inexpensive, and keep students engaged during the summer months, she said.

These early lessons are important for children and their parents, said Sharlonda Buckman, the Detroit district’s assistant superintendent of family and community engagement, because officials too often hear from teachers that children don’t know how to sit in their seats, line up, or hold a pencil.

Even when they’ve gone to preschool, she said, some children still have trouble,  because kindergarten requires more discipline and structure than preschool. The children’s parents often don’t know how to prepare their children for kindergarten and lifelong learning.

That’s why the district’s program requires parents like the Gonzalezes to attend the boot camp sessions with their children.

“People automatically assume Kindergarten Boot Camp is about the kids,” Buckman said. “For us, it’s about the parents.”

About 100 parents attended the classes this summer in nine elementary schools and the church to build on the belief that “parents are the child’s best teacher,” Buckman said.

Parents also are involved in programs sponsored by Living Arts, a nonprofit arts organization, that is offering a range of programming in Detroit through Head Start to help preschool children and their parents get ready for the first day of school.

“Our movement, drama and music activities encourage children to learn how to be part of a line to transition to another part of the day such as going outside, the bathroom or a circle,” said Erika Villarreal-Bunce, the Living Arts director of programs. “The arts help children understand this new space they’re in is not like things were at home, and helps children learn to function in those spaces.”

Although not all camps require parent involvement, they offer similar lessons to prepare children for kindergarten.

In suburban cities such as Southfield and Huntington Woods, the Bricks 4 Kidz program uses models made of brightly colored bricks to teach preschool children letter recognition, patterns, colors, counting, and vocabulary. Maria Montoya, a spokeswoman from the Grand Valley State University, the largest charter authorizer in Detroit, said she wasn’t aware of any similar summer kindergarten readiness programs. They also did not receive grant funding for the pre-kindergarten initiative.

The best of them teach basic academics, instruct children in a classroom setting, and engage parents in student learning, Jacob said.

“Educators have thought about school readiness for a long time, but understanding how important that summer transition period can be is something that people have started to think about more carefully recently,” she said. “Summertime is a key time where kids can be learning.”

Regina Bell, a W.K. Kellogg Foundation program officer, said the foundation funded Detroit’s Kindergarten Boot Camp because of the importance of focusing on the earliest years of life to ensure students’ success in K-12 and beyond.

“Part of this is recognizing that most of the the human brain is developed by the age of 5, and when you think about early learning opportunities, those are the foundation for the future,” she said. “It is that foundation that really takes children into the K-12 system.”

Kindergarten Boot Camp, funded by a $3 million Kellogg grant, is only one part of the Detroit district’s efforts to increase parent involvement to improve student attendance, discipline issues, and test scores. The three-year grant also funds the Parent Academy and teacher home visits. (Kellogg is also a Chalkbeat funder).

As for Abraham Gonzalez, the twins’ father, parenting and teaching children doesn’t come naturally. So he says the early learning opportunity for his sons is essential for them — and their parents, although they spent a year in preschool at the Mark Twain School for Scholars in southwest Detroit.

“We are trying our best to teach these kids,” he said, and it’s even more challenging teaching them when Spanish is their first language.

Now, he said, the boys’ are getting so proficient at English, they understand more than their parents.

“They are understanding what the people tell them,” he said. “Sometimes, we don’t.”

School funding

Poll: Most residents want Michigan to change the way it funds schools

PHOTO: (Photo by Ariel Skelley via Getty Images)
Members of the School Finance Research Collaborative are calling for equitable school funding so all Michigan students get the education they deserve.

Most Michigan residents believe the state’s current method of funding schools is both insufficient and unfair.

Those were the findings of a new statewide poll that was conducted in June by the School Finance Research Collaborative, a prominent group of Michigan educators, policymakers, and business leaders that has called for major changes to the way schools are funded.

The poll of 600 Michigan residents found that 70 percent believe the state’s schools are underfunded, and 63 percent think they are not funded fairly.

“The results of the poll should really be a wake-up call for policymakers on both sides of the aisle, and to anyone seeking elected office,” said Wanda Cook-Robinson, a School Research Collaborative member and superintendent of Oakland Schools. “They need to listen to the Michiganders and use the school finance research collaborative study as a road map for a new, fair schools funding system.”

The poll follows a report the collaborative released in January, which recommended sweeping changes to the way schools in Michigan are funded. Instead of sending schools the same amount per student, the report recommended providing schools with additional funds for students who are learning English, living in poverty or facing other challenges.

The group spent nearly two years and about $900,000 producing the report but it did not get much immediate response from Lansing. The education budget signed by Gov. Rick Snyder this summer included increases to school funding, but made no changes to the funding formula.

Michael Addonizio, a professor of Education Policy Studies at Wayne State University and a member of the collaborative, said the poll offers another reason why lawmakers should pay attention to the issue.

“It’s time for a new school funding system that meets the unique, individual needs of all students, whether they are enrolled in special education, living in poverty, English language learners, and [whether] students attend school in geographically isolated areas of the state,” he said.

Details about the survey including the specific questions asked are below.