Childcare crisis

As caregivers struggle to make ends meet, 28,000 Detroit children go without care

PHOTO: Crystal Jeter
Crystal Jeter runs Creative Hearts, a preschool and childcare center in the Brightmoor neighborhood on Detroit's westside

Crystal Jeter works 18 hours a day taking care of some of Detroit’s neediest children. She’s registered, experienced and in huge demand — and yet is barely getting by.

Jeter, 49, interprets her role as caregiver broadly. She buys clothes for children, braids toddlers’ fragile hair, resolves fights between parents, and even drives fathers to work when their cars conk out.

She doesn’t mind the work, she said, but her struggle to make ends meet in a state where reimbursement rates for childcare providers are among the nation’s lowest illustrates why the city faces a dire and growing shortage of registered caregivers for infants and children.

“I don’t know if anybody notices all I do, and I don’t expect a parade for it,” Jeter said. “I just want to pay my bills. Right now, I’m robbing Peter to pay Paul like everybody else.”

The financial demands of providing early education in Michigan have contributed to Detroit’s status as a “child care desert,” a place where access to quality early learning is limited or unavailable. The city is short licensed or registered early child care and education slots for at least 28,000 children ages birth to 5, according to IFF, a nonprofit community development financial institution.

In the 12 months through May, nearly 200 home providers like Jeter left the business — while just seven centers opened, the state reports.

That contributes to a critical long-term problem for Michigan. A growing body of research shows high-quality early childhood programs nurture brain development, enhance school performance and boost the likelihood of graduating from college and earning higher incomes. Quality early care also improves health in adulthood, researchers found.

Registered small-scale home care accounts for only 6 percent of Detroit’s child-care slots. But home care centers play an important role, because of their location in communities and their relatively low fees, providing quality care for low-income families. While much of home care and babysitting happens informally, a license and registration ensures minimum safety and quality care standards, and that children are learning rather than just being watched.

The economics squeeze larger child care centers as well, contributing to a shortage with worrisome consequences.

A look at Jeter’s experience explains why, and why Detroit’s child-care system faces a crisis.

After leaving her job as a teacher’s assistant last year, she plowed $11,000 into renovating her home to care for and teach children. She transformed her living room into a colorful play area-classroom-entertainment zone. She shopped for used kids’ furniture on Facebook Marketplace, found discount curriculum on Amazon and put sweat equity into her remodel.

Jeter transformed her living room into a colorful preschool classroom

Opening her Creative Hearts Childcare in March 2017, she advertised by spending $1 a day on Facebook ads to reach at least 1,000 people in her immediate area and touting round-the-clock availability for children ages 6 weeks to 12 years old. One day, she peered out the window and saw cars were lining up down the block.

“I was so overwhelmed, I just sat down and started crying,” she said. “I didn’t realize they were going to start coming like that. It was the 24-hour care they wanted.”

Deena Pringle of Romulus spotted the Facebook ad while she was in a desperate search to find affordable child care for her two daughters, ages 7 and 9. Some centers charge up to $365 weekly per child, but Pringle, an assistant school principal, needed affordability and reliability. Her former colleague Jeter, who also provides after-school care, offered both.

“I trust her,” Pringle said. “I know her character. I know her experience, and I wouldn’t want to leave my girls anywhere else.”

But being in high demand and making a living are not the same thing.

We know the system, as it’s created, doesn’t provide incentives or even cover the costs of business owners,” said Khalilah Burt Gaston, a program officer for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which has partnered with the Kresge Foundation to improve access and quality to Detroit child care programs as part of the Hope Starts Here initiative. (Both foundations also fund Chalkbeat).

“Even though child care providers love children, it is a business. When parents can’t cover the cost of care, and reimbursement rates are low, you have trouble breaking even.”

Jeter is reimbursed for the nutritious meals she serves

Jeter has learned that lesson. She’s found that running a business means more than educating and caring for children. It also means absorbing parents’ missed payments, sympathizing with their job losses and tolerating their erratic schedules. With 21 children coming at different hours, and being limited to six children at any given time, managing her tiny clients and their parents turns into a daily juggling act.

“They think if I’m 24 hours, it means they can come whenever they want,” Jeter said. “No. It does not work like that.”

She’s hired an assistant, and to help pay bills, she does graphic design and event photography on Saturday evenings and on Sundays, the only day Creative Hearts is closed.

“I want to do this work,” she said, “but it’s exhausting.”

Jeter reaps about $3,000 in monthly in child care reimbursements, and receives $25 weekly per child from most parents who get state-subsidized child care. Parents with higher incomes pay more. She also charges a higher fee for after-school care.

At the same time, utilities run at least $500 a month and supplies — diapers, baby wipes and toilet paper — about $800 monthly. Although a nonprofit program reimburses some meal costs, Jeter finds herself spending out of pocket for what some clients don’t provide — a change of clothes or even a decent baby carrier.

The state uses a five-star rating quality rating system that pays more money — 25, 50 or 75 cents more per hour per child depending on the provider’s star rating — encourages improvement by offering higher reimbursement to those who upgrade their homes, improve their programs and earn college credits. But earning stars is not that easy, and for some, it’s not worth it.

“It’s a nightmare for some of them because it’s extremely hard,” said Monica Duncan, director of Early Childhood Services for IFF.

“They have to use their own personal dollars to get started and when they go up the [star] system, the reimbursements for providers is too low.”

Besides giving parents an at-a-glance rating, the star system also was designed to help providers measure their quality and success, said Kelly Kreider, senior director of the state’s Great Start to Quality program, run by the Early Childhood Investment Corp.

Duncan added, “Here, we have a quality provider, being an educated teacher herself, making sure the children have access to comfort in her environment, meaning how many times she takes them to the bathroom, using her heating and cooling system and the lighting she might use,” she said about Jeter. “She’s doing all these things, and all these things come at a cost.”

Jeter teaches with curriculum and offers a children’s library

The system also is difficult for center-based providers like Monique Snyder, who runs the five-star-rated Brainiacs Clubhouse, a child care center in the city’s northeast corner, which has a capacity of 48 children. Between meeting state quality standards and paying teachers enough to retain them, it’s difficult to make ends meet, she said.

“If I didn’t offer summer camps and do consulting work on the side, I wouldn’t be able to keep my doors open,” she said.

The Kellogg and Kresge foundations last year announced plans to spend $50 million on the 10-year Hope Starts Here initiative.

Besides helping to improve access and quality to child care in Detroit, the initiative includes building support for providers like Jeter, and the Kresge Foundation is partnering with IFF to develop at least three early childhood education centers in Detroit. Duncan said a design is in the works for the first center, and its location will soon be announced.

Meanwhile, child care advocates and philanthropists want more grants available to providers and are pushing to encourage policymakers to increase reimbursement rates.

That would be good for everybody, Jeter said.  

“They want you to reach five stars,” she said, “You can get there—if you have the money.”

Urgent repairs

Crumbling Detroit school buildings will cost $500 million to repair. It’s money the district doesn’t have

The water-damaged, mold-infested Palmer Park Preparatory Academy was closed for months while crews replaced the roof and made other repairs.

The buildings in Michigan’s largest school district have been so neglected and so poorly maintained for so long that a new review put the price tag for bringing them up to current standards at half a billion dollars — money the district says it doesn’t have.

“We would have to dramatically cut personnel to even put a dent in this problem,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told the school board’s finance committee during a meeting at the district’s Fisher building headquarters Friday morning. “And even then, we would not be able to make substantial improvement.”

The review, whose results one school board member called “tragically awful,” was conducted over the last several months by an architecture and engineering firm called OHM advisors. It assessed the condition of the 106 buildings that currently house district schools, including roofs, interiors, and systems like plumbing and electrical.

It found that nearly a third of school buildings are in an “unsatisfactory” or “poor” condition, while roughly a third are considered in good repair.

The review did not take into account 19 vacant buildings that the district owns and is responsible for securing and maintaining so that they don’t become a danger to the community.

That means that the “unbelievably frustrating” picture painted by the review “undershoots” the problem, said school board member Sonya Mays, the finance committee chairwoman.

What makes the situation even more extreme is the fact that the Detroit district does not have the same ability to borrow money for construction projects that other Michigan districts do.

When the state spent $617 million to create the new Detroit Public Schools Community District in 2016, the new law freed the new district from millions of dollars in debt that had hobbled the old Detroit Public Schools. But it put restrictions on the new district’s ability to borrow money.

Instead, the $617 million included $25 million for buildings improvements — including some pressing repairs that became national news that year when teachers walked out of their classrooms to protest building conditions, shutting down schools for days.

Vitti said much of that $25 million has been spent or is committed this year for projects like the the repair of the roof at the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, an elementary school that’s been closed for months since a leaky roof triggered a mold problem. Students at the school finished out the school year in a different building. 

“The $25 million is literally a drop in the bucket of what the overall need is,” Vitti told the finance committee.

He called for an urgent discussion to figure out which buildings should be repaired, which ones should be replaced, and which ones should be considered for closure.  

“What we’ve done in this review is at least define the problem,” Vitti said. “Now that we have solid data … we will have to think broadly and deeply” about what to do next.

Options could include returning to Lansing for additional help from the state or partnering with businesses or philanthropy to raise private funds for repairs.

Vitti noted that if nothing is done to repair these buildings, the cost of bringing them up to acceptable standards will swell to $1.2 billion by 2023.

If we don’t make a high level of investment, which frankly we do not have the revenue to do, this problem only compounds itself in the years to come,” Vitti said.

Scroll down to see the presentation Vitti gave to the finance committee, which includes specifics on which schools are most in need of work.

Enrollment push

‘The pressure is on everyone’ as Detroit’s main district advertises to attract more students

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit school board members stand with the students who will star in the district's summer ad campaign.

Detroit’s main school district has a new look.

Officials announced a new brand for the Detroit Public Schools Community District to real-live fanfare on Thursday, unveiling a new logo and tagline with a student brass band as backdrop.

After the announcement was made at Nolan Elementary School, students streamed out wearing blue tee shirts printed with the new logo, which depicts a rising sun.

“Students rise. We all rise,” reads the tagline, signaling that improvement  is coming to a district that is working to recover from decades of disinvestment and mismanagement.  Officials hope the campaign will bring Detroit families back to a district whose future depends in part on increasing enrollment.

That’s a sign of a new reality in public education, one that public relations professionals recognized around the time that policy shifts nationwide allowed more charter schools to open.

When school competition spread nationally, the phenomenon was especially pronounced in Michigan, where parents can enroll their children in charter schools or suburban schools that will accept them. State law puts few restrictions on where charter schools can be opened and who can open them.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the re-branding effort was inevitable in a state that fosters competition between school districts.  Vitti has criticized Michigan’s charter school laws, but has charged head-on into the battle to enroll students nonetheless.

“I think the pressure is on everyone,” Vitti said. “Students can move from one district to another. It’s incumbent on every school district and every school to go into a marketing mode.”

The district paid $100,000 for the $300,000 campaign, which was put together by BLVD Content and Real Integrated, marketing and strategy firms that have worked for Ford, the City of Detroit, The Henry Ford, and the Michigan Opera Theater. The firms donated about $180,000 worth of work, the district said, with the non-profit United Way chipping in about $20,000 through the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The brand includes television commercials and a new logo and tagline.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit’s main district has a new logo.

This is not the first time Detroit’s main district has used advertising to attract students. In 2010, the “I’m in” campaign won a top national marketing award. The old Detroit school district, which now exists only to pay off legacy debt, reported that 830 students enrolled as a result.

Nora Carr, former president of the National Association of School Public Relations, says schools are “borrowing a page from the private sector” by investing in brands. “Rarely mentioned a decade ago, branding is becoming part of the educational lexicon,” she wrote in a 2009 article.

While enrollment in Detroit’s main district has declined, it remains the largest in the state. That makes it easier to raise funds, but harder to implement a brand widely enough that it will become ingrained in parents’ perception of the district.

Many charter schools in the city are far smaller. Take The Detroit Achievement Academy, a 200-student charter school on the city’s northwest side. Kyle Smitley, the school’s founder, said in a text that she does the branding herself. “We don’t pay anyone externally,” she added.

District officials say the brand projects “a new beginning for traditional public education in Detroit.” His administration has set lofty academic goals, which it hopes to reach through an overhauled curriculum, but it remains too early to judge whether these efforts will move the district forward.

Boosting enrollment is a crucial piece of the puzzle. A plan unveiled earlier this month called for commercials on television, billboards and buses, part of an effort to bring back some of the roughly 30,000 students who wake up every day in the city and go to school in the suburbs.

The commercials will be based on a promotional video, also released Thursday, in which rapper Big Sean, a graduate of Cass Technical High School, speaks over images of actual Detroit students playing sports and studying. They build on a tradition of commercials that emphasize Detroit’s hard-knock reputation, with the rapper dropping lines like “we are a city that runs on ambition and grit.”

The video and other advertising materials can be seen on the district’s website.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the size of the contribution from United Way. The non-profit contributed $20,000 to the branding campaign.