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.”

Lost in Translation

Detroit superintendent promises Spanish translators, other fixes for ‘broken’ system

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti addresses Spanish-speaking parents during a forum at Munger Elementary-Middle School.

One by one, the parents who stood in the library of a Southwest Detroit elementary school turned to the district’s superintendent and told him heartbreaking stories of a school system they say has failed them.

Speaking primarily in Spanish through a translator, the parents described miscommunications in schools where nobody knows their language.

One woman teared up as she described her struggle to find out what happened after her son was injured in school. Another said her son’s learning disability went undiagnosed for years while her pleas for help went unanswered. Others told of run-ins with principals, and of school security guards who didn’t realize how alarming it is for immigrant parents to be asked for identification when they come into their children’s schools.

The speakers were members of parent and community groups who had requested a meeting with Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to discuss a range of concerns for Spanish-speaking parents.

They walked away with a list of promises from Vitti who says there’s a lot the district can do to better meet the needs of these families.

“I want you to hold me accountable,” Vitti told the several dozen parents who were assembled for the community forum at Munger Elementary-Middle School on Monday afternoon. 

He then rattled off a list of measures he planned to take to address their concerns. Among them, Vitti said he would:

  • Establish a Spanish hotline that parents can call to get help from the district in their native language;
  • Ensure that every school with Spanish-speaking children has someone in the office who speaks Spanish;
  • Provide translation services to parents during meetings about the extra supports for children with disabilities;
  • Create a bilingual task force to address the needs of non-English speaking families;
  • Conduct an audit of school security guards to make sure the people stationed in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods are able to speak the language;
  • Develop a new parent identification process so that parents can access their children’s schools without being asked to present a government ID, making it easier for undocumented parents to participate in their children’s education; and,
  • Hire Spanish speakers for his communications staff to better spread district news through social media and phone calls.

Some of those items, like providing translators during meetings about special education, are required by law. Others, like establishing a hotline, seem like basic measures for a district like Detroit where more than 13 percent of students are Hispanic and 12 percent of students speak a language other than English at home.

But Vitti acknowledged that a lot of basic structures in the district are still being rebuilt after years of financial crises and oversight by state-appointed emergency managers.

“The commitment to do it wasn’t there,” he said.

Monday’s meeting came about, he said, because the district was regularly hearing from parents in Southwest Detroit about problems they were having.

“It was starting to become a theme and we felt we just needed to have one unified conversation and begin a momentum of more direct engagement with the community,” Vitti said.

Monday’s meeting was his first major sit-down with Spanish-speaking families since his arrival in Detroit last year. Vitti, who was there for two hours, promised to return for another meeting this fall to update the parents on the progress he’s made.

“Sometimes it’s hard for me to sit and listen to these stories because our school system has to do better for children,” Vitti told the parents as he finished listing the changes he said he would make. “I’m committed to doing better as a school system for all the parents here, but we have to do this together. Tell me what’s broken and tell me what’s wrong but also come with a solution and let’s all work together to make this a better district and a better community.”

Vitti also urged the parents to vote in the upcoming gubernatorial election adding that “it’s very clear who the candidate is who supports public education.”

Parents said they were grateful to have gotten an audience with Vitti and are hopeful that change will come.

“I’m still skeptical because the system is so broken,” said Maria Salinas who leads the Congress of Communities, one of the groups that organized the forum. “We’ve been given a lot of promises that didn’t come through” in the past … “but Vitti is giving us some hope.”

report card

Coming soon to Detroit (and only Detroit): Letter grades for schools that could lead to closures

PHOTO: Community Education Commission
Monique Marks, chair of a new mayoral commission, showed off the group's Detroit schools guide in an appearance on local television. Future editions of the guide will include letter grades for every school.

Every school in Detroit will soon receive a letter grade that could result in some persistently low-scoring schools being shuttered by the state.

Starting this fall, a new mayoral commission will begin hammering out the specifics of a state-mandated school grading system that could result in some schools getting As and many more getting Ds and Fs.  

Though some state lawmakers have been pushing for an A-F grading system that would apply to every school in the state, this report card will bring another wave of high-stakes scrutiny only to the city of Detroit, where education leaders already face considerable pressure to improve test scores.

That’s because the grading system — and the potential consequences of low grades — were among the strings attached to a $617 million state aid package that helped Detroit’s main district avoid bankruptcy in 2016.  It was one aspect of a comprehensive deal that drew the ire of Democratic lawmakers and Detroiters who universally opposed the new law in a tearful, late-night vote.

The law calls for Detroit schools that get multiple Fs to be closed. That means decisions about how much weight to give to attendance versus graduation rates, for example, could have far-reaching consequences for families in Detroit.

The law specifies that 80 percent of a school’s grade must be based on test scores. It calls for the state’s school reform chief to develop the grades, but the task is being delegated to Mayor Mike Duggan’s Community Education Commission, which includes representatives of Detroit’s main district, charter schools, and the Michigan Department of Education.

The potential consequences of the grading system weigh heavily on commission chair Monique Marks.

“I can’t say I haven’t lost a couple of nights’ sleep,” Marks, who is also the CEO of the nonprofit Franklin Wright Settlements, told Chalkbeat last week.

But Marks says the commission’s role in creating the report cards gives Detroiters a measure of control over school grades that would otherwise be produced by state officials. In a written statement, she also pointed out that the lowest-performing schools will have three years to improve before facing closure by the state for low grades.

“Detroit’s schools will be rated by Detroiters,” Marks said in the statement. “We are in the early stages of building a common rating system that will help us determine the performance of our schools and identify opportunities for our schools to improve and grow. We will ensure everyone’s voice is heard as we develop a transparent process.”

Efforts by state leaders to close low-performing schools are not new. More than a quarter of Detroit schools are are already in danger of being shuttered because of the same law, which called for the state to use its top-to-bottom ranking system to shut down persistently low performing schools until a letter grade system could be created. That led the state to list 38 schools — including 25 in the city — for closure last year. Those schools, as well as 30 others that were later added to the list, were eventually given three years to improve, but the consequences for falling short remain unclear.

Grades for Detroit schools will come on top of Michigan’s existing school rating system, which already ranks every school in the state based on six factors that are rolled into a 0-100 point scale.

Advocates for school grading systems say public scrutiny pushes schools to improve and helps parents make smart decisions about where to send their children, but critics say most grading systems oversimplify the complex work of educating children. Test scores are highly correlated with economic factors so schools that enroll affluent children tend to have higher scores.

In Detroit, where more than half of children come from families that live in poverty, schools have routinely posted the lowest test scores in the state.

Education activist Helen Moore said the grades will only remind the world that many Detroit schools are struggling, and that any resulting closures would make matters worse. She said the policy has racial overtones, pointing out that American schools are more likely to be shut down if they serve more students of color.

“They’re going to grade the schools knowing what the grade was already, knowing it’s a trap,” she said. “We need more time” to improve schools in Detroit.

For years, the nonprofit Excellent Schools Detroit, which has now dissolved, graded every school in the city, but those grades didn’t come with consequences like closure. They were mainly designed to help parents choose schools. The citywide report did not paint a pretty picture: Just a fraction of the 145 schools that were graded in 2017 received a C+ or better, with the vast majority getting Ds or Fs.

The grades will have teeth this time around, but the commission will have some leeway to decide what the grades will be based on.

While the law specifies that test scores must account for 80 percent of each school’s score, it is up to Marks and the commission to decide, for instance, how much of the 80 percent is based on the percentage of students in a school who pass the state exam versus whether student scores improve from one year to the next.

The commission also must decide what should go into the remaining 20 percent of each grade. That could be attendance or graduation rates or the results of parent and teacher surveys.

For many schools, those factors could make the difference between a D and an F. Schools — both charter and district — could be closed by the state if they receive an F for three years in a row, with the law specifying that the state can only allow a school to remain open if closing it would pose an “unreasonable hardship” on students.

School closings have been shown to benefit students only if they wind up attending a better school instead — an especially tall order in Detroit’s school deserts.

Marks said the process will be “extremely delicate,” with the future of struggling schools hanging in the balance.

The commission includes Ralph Bland, who manages a network of six Detroit charter schools, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti of the city’s main district, and representatives of the state, the teachers union, and nonprofits.

The public will also be able to weigh in at monthly public meetings held by the commission. Since holding its first meeting this summer, the group established a school bus route in northwest Detroit and published a guide to the city’s schools.

The new school guide does not include any information about school quality or test scores but Marks said future editions will have that information and will include letter grades when they’re finalized before the 2019-2020 school year.

The commission will begin discussing the scoring process this fall after receiving recommendations from John Barker, a consultant who formerly worked as Chief of Accountability for Chicago’s public school district and who will continue to advise the commission throughout the next year, Marks said. Barker declined to comment, referring questions to Marks.

The commission’s next meeting is Monday, August 20 at 11 a.m. at the Northwest Activities Center.

Update: Aug. 11, 2018: This story has been updated to include an additional statement from Monique Marks, chair of the Community Education Commission, emphasizing that Detroiters will have a say in the creation of a state-mandated school grading system.