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?’”

New Arrivals

In a letter to Betsy Devos, Michigan officials highlight the plight of refugee students — and ask for testing waiver.

PHOTO: Warren Consolidated Schools
Students at Warren-Mott High School in the Detroit suburbs. Officials there say that many students are arriving at the school from refugee camps, including 11th graders who had no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Such students would currently be required to take a state English test during their first year in school.

To teachers who work with recently arrived refugee students, the problem is clear: Although their students will eventually learn English, their language skills at first aren’t comparable to those of native speakers.

They’re hoping federal education officials will come to the same conclusion after reading the state’s detail-rich request to delay testing new immigrant children in English.

Michigan is the second state to ask for a waiver from a federal law that requires children who arrived in the U.S. this year to take standardized English tests a year after arriving — even if they’re just being introduced to the language. The law also requires states to count such students’ scores in decisions about whether to close low-performing schools.

“We wanted to balance between presenting hard data and some anecdotes,” said Chris Janzer, assistant director of accountability at the Michigan Department of Education. “We’re hoping that the case we present, with some of the stories, will win us approval.”

The state’s request includes stories from the Detroit area, which is home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arabic speakers, including many newly arrived refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. This population is unique in more ways than one: It includes more than 30,000 Chaldean Christians who arrived after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the largest such population in the world outside Iraq. And many of its children must deal with the aftereffects of violent displacement even as they attempt to attend school in what is in many cases an entirely new language.

The state’s waiver request offers Hamtramck, a hyper-diverse city enclave in Detroit, as an example:

Hamtramck has many recent arrivals from war-torn regions in Yemen and Syria and has students from remote villages with no formal education background, as well as many others with interrupted learning. New students can have toxic stress and can even be suicidal, and often require wraparound services. Older students are also often burdened with the responsibility of helping their families financially, emotionally, and with childrearing.

Even the luckiest new arrivals would benefit if Michigan receives a waiver from parts of the federal Every Students Succeed Act, says Suzanne Toohey, president of Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“The intent of the waiver is for the most needy students, but it will help all students,” she said, adding that it typically takes 5-7 years for an English learner to catch up to her native-speaking peers.

With that in mind, Toohey says current federal requirements don’t make sense.

“It would be like an adult who is many years out of school, and who took French for two years of high school, going to France and trying to take a college course,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Following the same logic, Michigan officials are asking U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to put the brakes on federal requirements for testing recently arrived English learners. If the waiver request is approved:

  • In their first year in Michigan schools, those students wouldn’t be required to take the state English language arts exam.
  • In their second, they would take the test, but schools wouldn’t be held accountable for their scores.
  • In year three, the growth in their scores on the English exam would be factored into school ratings.
  • And in year four their overall score — known as proficiency — would be counted as well as their growth.

That’s still too soon to begin testing English learners, Toohey said, noting “the waiver is a start, but we haven’t gotten all the way there.”

Even so, the proposed change still faces substantial obstacles. New York’s request for a similar waiver was denied by the U.S. Department of Education in January. In its response, the department said it was holding New York to its responsibility to “set high expectations that apply to all students.” Janzer says his staff studied New York’s waiver and concluded that Michigan’s should include more details to humanize the situations of the affected students.

Michigan officials are currently working to incorporate public comments (there were seven, all of them supportive, Janzer said) into its request, which is expected to be submitted in the coming weeks. A decision isn’t expected from federal officials for several more months.

Whoever reads the 10-page document in Washington, D.C. will be confronted with details like these:

  • Lamphere Schools, of Madison Heights, MI, has received a significant influx of students from Iraq and Syria, and at least one elementary school’s student body is roughly 70 percent recently arrived students from these two nations. Lamphere reports that some students initially undergo temporary “silent periods,” a researched stage of second language acquisition, where children are watching and listening, but not yet speaking.
  • Warren Consolidated Schools, of Warren, MI, reports that they have many students from refugee camps, including students who are testing in 11th grade after having no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Warren Consolidated has received 2,800 students from Syria or Iraq since 2007.

Read the full document here. Most local details are on pages 7-9.

live stream

WATCH: Candidates for Detroit school board introduce themselves live

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroiters at IBEW 58 wait for candidates for school board candidates to address them.

The nine candidates for Detroit school board are gathering Thursday evening at IBEW 58 in Detroit to make their cases in advance of the November general election in which two seats are up for grabs.

The candidates have already introduced themselves in video statements, but this is one of their first chances to address the public in real time.

We’re covering the event — including a live stream the candidates’ opening statements, which should start around 7 p.m.

Click below or check out our Facebook page to see what they have to say. The candidate speeches begin at around the 12:00 minute mark.