Head Start restart

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

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn

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?’”

Staying in school

Detroit students ‘making mistakes’ will get a second chance as district opens new alternative school

Detroit students whose discipline issues have proved too much for their schools to handle finally have a way to stay in school in the city.

Years after the district’s last alternative high school shut down, the Detroit school board on Tuesday voted to open a new school for students whose repeated violations of district rules could otherwise lead to a suspension or expulsion.

Located on the site of the former Catherine Ferguson Academy, the new school is part of a broader effort to overhaul discipline in the district, which meted out 16,000 suspensions last year. The movement to make schools less punitive followed concerns that zero-tolerance school discipline policies push children out of school and onto the streets.

Starting with the new school year, the rewritten code of conduct will require schools to show they’ve tried to improve a student’s behavior by means besides suspension, such as contacting a parent, before they can remove the student from school. The code also emphasizes restorative justice, a collection of practices that allows students to take responsibility for their actions and make amends.

The ultimate goal is to eradicate out-of-school suspensions entirely, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has said. In the meantime, the alternative school will give students a place to learn when their home school throws up its hands.

“When students are making mistakes, and they’re given out-of-school suspension and not returning to school, that leads to [higher] dropout rates and to disengagement,” Vitti said. He noted that students who are given long suspensions often never return to school.

The new school will operate much like any other in the district, with a principal and teachers. It will also get a team of specialists — a dean of culture, an attendance agent, a school culture facilitator, a social worker, and a guidance counselor — to take on the non-academic problems that can underlie bad behavior.

Students would be referred to the school after repeatedly disrupting their home school, Vitti said. They would be placed at the alternative school only with their parents’ approval; otherwise, they would not attend school during the suspension.

Students would spend between three and six months at the school, leaving only after discussion between the principal and the parent. They might attend until the end of a semester, then return to their original school or a different school.

While some middle schools offer an alternative-school program, it hasn’t been available to high schoolers in years. The last alternative high school in the district — Detroit City High School — closed in 2013. Another, Barsamian Preparatory Academy, closed in 2012.

Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a board member, welcomed the district’s return to an alternative school model.

“Every child in the city of Detroit deserves to be educated, no matter what the barriers are,” she said.

She blamed cost-cutting efforts by state-appointed emergency managers for the disappearance of alternative programs, which are fully staffed but tend to be smaller than mainstream campuses. When Barsamian closed in 2011, 56 students were enrolled.

School districts across Michigan use alternative school programs, in part because they offer more focused attention to high-need students, said Wendy Zdeb, president of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals.

Students in these programs “are more likely to have small class sizes, and they’re more likely to have a curriculum that’s tailored to them,” she said.

The new school is expected to start small as the new code of conduct goes into effect this fall, Vitti said

It will be called Catherine Ferguson Alternative Academy, after the school for teen mothers that previously occupied the space, according to a school board document. Several years after the school closed amid a wave of cost cutting, the name still holds some luster left from the media spotlight that focused on the school’s high attendance and graduation rates.

In response to a question from Misha Stallworth, a board member, Vitti said at a committee meeting last month that he hopes to add a program for teen mothers but has not yet identified a school to house such a program.

Certified — but ready?

Detroit schools will hire teachers without classroom experience, sparking debate

PHOTO: Eastern Michigan University
Eastern Michigan University's traditional teacher certification program is on the list of teacher pipelines for Detroit's main district. So are alternative programs with far fewer requirements. At an EMU hiring fair, teachers said they are having no trouble finding jobs.

Detroit’s main district is proceeding with a plan to hire teachers who are certified but have received no training in the classroom — adding an element of controversy to efforts to fill hundreds of teacher vacancies by the end of summer.

The board of education on Tuesday approved a hiring plan proposed by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, signaling that the district will lean partly on programs that offer so-called interim teaching certificates.

The move drew blowback from board members and parents, who argued that Detroit children deserve teachers who have been trained in the classroom.

“I don’t think the alternative route teachers are nearly as prepared as the traditional route,” LaMar Lemmons, a school board member, told Chalkbeat. “It will increase the academic disparity, as you have less qualified and less experienced teachers.”

Online, where much of the debate over district hiring practices took place, some parents worried that teachers with interim certificates would be unprepared to manage a classroom.

“So your first day of teaching will be your first day ever in front of children?” Cynthia Jackson, a Detroit parent, wrote on Chalkbeat Detroit’s Facebook page. “You don’t think that’s going to be a problem?”

For others, the news that the district will consider candidates with alternative certifications was a call to action. Nikki Key, a Detroit parent who has a master’s degree in business, commented on Facebook that the teacher shortage has her considering a career in education.

“I’ve seen what is being offered to our children, trust me … my lack of classroom time is not your problem,” she said. I actually am one of the ones that want to do the job that no one else is signing up for.”

The hiring plan approved Tuesday calls for district officials to undertake a wide-ranging search, recruiting candidates from other school districts, from traditional schools of education, from historically black colleges — and from alternate certification programs.

These state-approved programs require little more from prospective teachers than a bachelor’s degree. One such program is Teachers of Tomorrow, a controversial for-profit entity that provides prospective teachers with an interim teaching certificate, after they complete only 200 hours of online instruction.

District officials are holding out hope that teachers who haven’t trained in a classroom will nonetheless be an improvement over the uncertified substitutes who currently occupy the district’s more than 200 vacant teaching positions. Vitti has said that the district would prefer to hire traditionally certified teachers exclusively, but that the realities of supply and demand make that impossible for now.

Among those following the debate was Dan Finegan, a 25-year-old Michigan native with a master’s degree in social work. He is among Teachers of Tomorrow’s inaugural cohort.  Finegan expects to start work as a Spanish teacher in the Detroit Public Schools Community District this fall.

Is he ready to teach? He says yes, but he mainly credits the year he spent volunteering as a tutor in Detroit schools. And he worries that others certified through Teachers of Tomorrow, which offers no student teaching opportunities, won’t know what to expect in the classroom.

“I would not feel ready if I had not worked” previously in Detroit schools, he said.

Finegan had nearly finished his master’s degree by the time he decided against a career in social work. He thought he’d prefer working as an educator and City Year Americorps, a non-profit that places volunteers in Detroit schools as tutors and classroom assistants, gave him a chance to test that theory.

PHOTO: Dan Finegan
Dan Finegan’s experience as a volunteer tutor in Detroit schools convinced him to sign up for Teachers of Tomorrow.

It didn’t take long for the students at Bethune Elementary-Middle School to convince Finegan that he should move to Detroit from the suburbs and become a Spanish teacher in the district. There was only one problem: He wasn’t certified to teach.

So when Teachers of Tomorrow gave a presentation to City Year volunteers, Finegan signed on. He considered other certification programs, but they were much more expensive, and Finegan was already saddled with student loans.

(Prices of alternative certification programs, which have fewer requirements than do traditional certification programs, vary widely. Wayne State’s Dream Keepers program charges current substitute teachers roughly $25,000 for two years of in-class support and training. A program at Schoolcraft College that offers night courses in Livonia costs about $10,000. Teachers of Tomorrow’s online program charges upwards of $5,000, but most of that  is due only after graduates find a teaching job.)

He completed the online coursework in about six weeks and passed the content-area exams to teach English and Spanish. He says he began hearing right away from schools who were turning to online Spanish courses because they couldn’t find a Spanish teacher to meet the state’s graduation requirements in world language.

After witnessing the effects of the teacher shortage in Detroit schools during his time with City Year, Finegan decided he would help fill the gap. He signed a provisional contract with a district school, a non-binding indication of that school’s intent to hire him.

With some additional training and a good review from their principal, educators with an interim teaching certificate can become fully certified after three years on the job.

“After my year of experience, it just became clear to me that I wouldn’t be happy in another district,” Finegan said, adding: “I want to show that I’m experienced, and I’m dedicated, and I’m qualified.”