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?’”

more money fewer problems

Detroit teachers will finally get paid for their years of experience if agreement holds up with district

Ally Duncan, an elementary school teacher in Lake County, works with students on sentence structure. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Good news for Detroit district teachers stuck at a low pay level: The finance committee of the school board Friday recommended an agreement with the city’s largest teachers union to raise the pay of veteran teachers — and to bring in experienced teachers at higher salaries.

“This is a major step for the district to fully recognize experience,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said. “A lot of the adult issues have been put aside to focus on children.”

The changes will be for members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, the city’s largest teachers union.

For years, Detroit teachers have bargained for contracts that severely restricted the pay of experienced teachers who wanted to come into the district. As a result, new teachers can currently only get credit for two years of experience, regardless of how many years they’ve taught in other cities or in charter schools.

Vitti has called that restriction a major reason why it’s difficult to attract new teachers and keep existing ones. And with fewer teachers, classroom sizes start to balloon.

Detroit currently has 190 teacher vacancies, down from 275 at this point last year.

The committee also recommended giving a one-time bonus to teachers at the top of the salary scale, to recognize outside experience for current and future teachers, and to repay the Termination Incentive Plan as soon as this September.

The incentive plan took $250 from teachers’ biweekly paycheck and held it to pay them when they left the district when emergency managers were in control, but the money was never given back to teachers, said Ivy Bailey, the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers.

Teachers who have paid into the incentive plan from the beginning will receive $9,000. The teachers union made a contract with the district last year that stipulated the money be paid by 2020, but the new agreement would move the payment to this September.

Finally, a bonus — $1,373.60 — for more than 2,000 teachers at the top of the pay scale would be paid in December.

Potentially, some teachers receiving bonuses and who are eligible for the incentive plan payment would receive in excess of $10,000,

“The bonus for teachers on the top is focused on ensuring that we retain our most veteran teachers as we work on an agreement in the third year to increase, once again, teachers at the top step so they can be made whole after emergency manager reductions,” Vitti said.  “We can do that once our enrollment settles or increases.”

In all, the district proposes to spend a combined $5.7 million to pay current and future teachers for how long they’ve worked, $3.2 million on bonuses for veteran teachers, and $22 million on the incentive plan.

“This is something none of us were expecting,” Bailey said. “This is good for everyone. We already ratified a contract, so this is just extra.”

It’s a tentative agreement between the district and the Detroit Federation of Teachers, Bailey said.

If an agreement is reached and the school board approves it, the changes could give the district a new tool in trying to reduce the teacher shortage. It’s a major change for district teachers who saw their pay slashed by 10 percent in 2011. The new contract ratified by the union members last summer promised to increase teacher pay by 7 percent over three years but many teachers grumbled that it wasn’t enough to bring them back to where they were in 2011. 

The two groups are still in talks to “iron out the details,” Bailey said. Specifically, the union wants to make sure that district employees like counselors, therapists and college support staff also receive higher salaries commensurate with experience.

Detroit's future

Despite top scores in quality standards, Michigan’s early education programs neglect English language learners

PHOTO: Jamie Cotten, Special to The Denver Post
Josiah Berg, 4, paints a picture at Mile High Montessori, one of more than 250 Denver preschools that are part of the Denver Preschool Program.

Michigan’s 4-year-olds receive some of the highest quality education and care available in the country — that is, if your child can speak English.

Michigan was one of only three states to meet all 10 quality benchmarks designed by a national advocacy organization that released its annual State of Preschool Report this week. However, the state met only one out of 10 benchmarks for English language learners.

Four-year-olds enrolled in privately funded programs are not included in this data.

Enrollment and state spending per pupil stayed largely constant from the same report last year. About 30 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled — some 38,371 children — while state spending was steady at $6,356 per pupil.

Compared to the rest of the country, Michigan ranks 16th out of 43 states and Washington, D.C., in enrollment for 4-year-olds and allocates about $1,000 more dollars on per pupil spending than the average state.

These findings come from the State of Preschool 2017 report published by the National Institute for Early Education Research, or NIEER, at Rutgers University.

Three states — Alabama, Michigan, and Rhode Island — met all 10 of the institute’s benchmarks for minimum state preschool quality standards. Benchmarks included things like student-to-teacher ratios, teacher training, and quality of curriculum.

But the only benchmark the state met for English learners is permitting bilingual instruction in the state-funded preschool program. Michigan did not meet benchmarks for assessing children in their home language, allocating more money for English learners, or making sure staff are trained in working with students learning English.

Authors of the new report say supporting English learners is important, especially early in life.

“For all children, the preschool years are a critical time for language development.” said Steve Barnett, senior co-director of the institute. “We know that dual-language learners are a group that makes the largest gains from attending high-quality preschool. At the same time, they’re at elevated risk for school failure.”

About a quarter of early education students nationwide are English learners. Michigan does not collect data on the number of early education students who are English learners, so it’s unclear how many students the low quality of instruction impacts.

Chalkbeat Colorado’s Ann Schimke contributed to this report.