Head Start restart

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

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Teacher Brenda Tolbert worried about her students when her Head Start closed but students and their teacher have stayed together. There was no crying. None of that separation anxiety," she said.

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?’”

Scores of scores

Republican state board member says A-F school letter grades would hurt poor students, but lawmakers aren’t convinced

PHOTO: Amanda Rahn
Tom McMillin, a member of the state board of education, says A-F school letter grades will give the poorest schools the worst letter grades.

A representative of the state board of education spoke strongly against a House bill to evaluate school performance with an A-F report card, but charter supporters argued it was the best way to hold schools accountable.

In the second day of House testimony for the proposal, Tom McMillin, a Republican on the board who represents Oakland Township, strongly expressed his dismay.

“I can tell you which ones will be tagged D and F,” he said, pointing to a graph of the poorest schools. “The ones down here.”

The bill would give each school six letter grades based on student scores, academic growth, improvements made by English learners, graduation and chronic absenteeism rates, and the number of students who take state tests.

Charter leaders and advocates have expressed support for the A-F letter grades because they believe the system would allow parents to see quickly and easily which public schools, traditional or charters, are best-performing.

“One of our guiding principles is that accountability is critical, but the accountability system in Michigan is foggy at best,” said Jared Burkhart, executive director of the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers, which supports the bill. “We need to be able to look ourselves in the mirror and grade ourselves.”

The A-F ranking system has been a divisive issue, with others viewing it as too simplistic because it doesn’t necessarily take into account factors like poverty that would impact student performance.

The state board had voted against using letter grades last year because they felt grades didn’t show enough detail for parents. The state superintendent, who earlier had supported letter grades, submitted a system that was a dashboard of data. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos approved the plan at the end of last year. The dashboard was created to comply with federal education law.

Rep. Pamela Hornberger, a Republican representing parts of Macomb, wasn’t swayed by McMillin’s testimony. Leaving children “in failing schools and not providing the information to parents that’s easy and clear and concise is wrong.”

McMillin shot back: “It’s easy and clear because it’s arbitrary and it could be very wrong.”

The new proposal calls for a dual way of analyzing school performance. To help account for factors like poverty, in addition to letter grades, every school would also be labeled: significantly above average, above average, average, below average, or significantly below average. Schools would be compared with other schools of similar demographics.

Because letter grades do not fully take poverty into account, one of the six grades would be for student growth, a measure that has been used in other states because it has been called a fairer way of comparing a wealthy school to a poor one.

The bill would create a commission to figure out the details behind the A-F letter grades and labels, including deciding what demographic factors they will look at when comparing schools. If the bill is approved in committee and passed by lawmakers in both houses, commission members would be appointed this fall, and they would be tasked with implementing the new systems for the 2019 school year.

grappling with grades

Getting kids to class may be harder than some lawmakers think. A new study casts doubt on how big a role educators can play.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Students walk past a "basketball court" that showcases students with best attendance.

Michigan and other states are focusing more on how often students are absent as a factor in determining a school’s performance. But a new study calls into question whether that’s a good idea.

Two Wayne State University researchers, Sarah Lenhoff and Ben Pogodzinski, said in a report published last week, that when it comes to whether a child will get to class, some schools have more influence over attendance than others.   

Among factors that can influence attendance are how much families trust their teachers, whether the kids feel safe, and response to the school’s discipline policy.  

Michigan is one of 36 states that plan to use chronic absenteeism to measure school performance under the federal education law. But the Wayne State study indicates that it is unreliable to use attendance as an mark of quality to compare schools when the effect of these influences can vary so much.

The findings are problematic for policymakers who want to use chronic absenteeism to judge schools, since the researchers found that in some cases, chronic absenteeism was unrelated to how well the schools were run. Students are considered chronically absent if they miss roughly at least two days of class a month, the report says.

But if GOP lawmakers in Lansing get their way, rates of chronic absenteeism will be even more prominent in determining the success of Michigan schools.

A senate committee Thursday heard testimony for an A-F school grading system. Rep. Tim Kelly, a Republican representing Saginaw County, sponsored the bill that would give schools six letter grades. One of those grades is for high rates of absenteeism.

“We can’t keep making excuses, it’s transportation or this or that,” Kelly told Chalkbeat. “We can’t keep sticking our heads in the sand and acting like it doesn’t matter. And I understand there’s a lot of contributing forces.”

But, “overall, you show me a high absentee rate and I’ll show you poor performance for a school,” he said.

Democrats on the Senate Education Reform Committee like Rep. Adam Zemke and Rep. Stephanie Chang were concerned the bill lacked nuance about similar issues to the ones raised in the report.

The study comes several months after Michigan’s plan to comply with federal education law was approved by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Chronic absenteeism is one of the factors the state will consider when evaluating school performance.