Littlest learners

Detroit has low-income families needing preschools — and preschools needing low-income families. They don’t always connect

PHOTO: Francesca Berardi

This story was reported by the Teacher Project, an education journalism fellowship at Columbia Journalism School dedicated to covering the issues facing public school families and teachers.

When Monica Hernandez moved to southwest Detroit last spring from California, she headed to her local Head Start center to enroll her two young children, who are 1 and 4. Hernandez, 21, wanted childcare so she would have time to go back to school and earn her GED. She also hoped that with Head Start—the half-century-old federal program that provides low-income pre-kindergarteners with free education, health, and nutrition services—she would help prepare her children academically and socially for kindergarten.

At the Head Start center at Harms Elementary School, Hernandez made an appointment to discuss enrolling her kids, but the meeting never happened. “They just kept postponing it, and then they never called me back,” she said. “I just gave up.”


At a time when cities and states across the country are trying to expand publicly funded preschool programs, the stories of Detroit families like Hernandez’ show how simply adding publicly funded seats for the littlest learners is not enough—particularly when it comes to low-income families who often have the most to benefit from quality early childhood education programs.

Of the roughly 30,000 low-income children below the age of five in Detroit, only about 3,900 are enrolled in a Head Start program. Funding for about 850 Head Starts slots goes unused. Some parents don’t know of the program’s existence; others struggle to navigate a complicated landscape of Head Start providers with impenetrable enrollment procedures. The experience in Detroit shows that serving more of the country’s youngest students depends not only on expanding access, but getting much better information to the most disconnected communities and parents. (Head Start is federally funded, but delivered by hundreds of local agencies that can be public, private, for-profit or non-profit.)

“The struggle to fill vacant seats is something you could not even imagine in other cities…where the waiting lists are interminable,” says Maria Montoya, who works for Excellent Schools Detroit, an organization devoted to helping families traverse Detroit’s education landscape.

Though Hernandez eventually found a spot for her children in another Head Start center run by an agency called Matrix, her initial problem—wanting Head Start seats and struggling to get them—is frustrating to many people working in that sector. Laura Lefever, who runs the Children’s Center, a Head Start program in northwest Detroit, has more seats available than pupils to fill them. “Where are the children?” she asks, staring at a chart showing the number of vacant seats in the center she oversees.

Lefever’s program is in a neighborhood with a large number of single, working parents in desperate need of childcare. Yet 10 of the seats at the Children’s Center haven’t been filled. “I am becoming a walking billboard,” Lefever says, pointing to her red T-shirt with the name of the school on it. “I carry flyers everywhere.”

The reasons for the Head Start vacancies are numerous, intertwined, and contain valuable lessons for a nation hoping to better serve its youngest students.

Many parents, particularly those who were underserved by the education system themselves, don’t understand the value of early childhood programs—or remain unaware of their existence. This can be especially true in states where even 5-year-old kindergarten is optional. “They don’t realize the impact early education can have, and the importance of learning how to support your children’s studies in the years to come,” says Lefever. “Head Start is not a parking space for babies but the beginning of a journey. It is for parents just as much as for children.”

While the research and policy world remains divided on the quality of Head Start, studies have shown that it can have a positive significant impact over the long term. Children who participate are more likely to earn a high school diploma and less likely to be convicted of a crime. While traditional Head Start programs serve kids once they turn three, Early Head Start enrolls younger children. Some Head Start centers in Detroit also offer Early Head Start, but parents tend to be even less aware of the programs for younger children.

Sheritta Dew might never have discovered Head Start if she hadn’t gone back to school herself. “When I had my first child I did not know about these programs,” said Dew, 21, who has a three- and a one-year-old, and is six months pregnant with a third child. But when someone at her GED center mentioned Head Start, Dew realized she had more options than keeping her children at home. They’re now enrolled at a Head Start center in southwestern Detroit, not far from the homeless shelter where the family lives.

Dew’s three-year-old spent his first two years at home, where he didn’t have nearly as much exposure to educational activities. “I just regret that my son wasn’t here sooner, he could have learned a lot more,” she says. But after hard times in the past, Dew feels that her life is on an upswing. Staying at the homeless shelter means she doesn’t need to worry about where her family will find its next meal, and social workers are helping her to find an apartment. Most important, her children seem content and engaged. “They look happier since they started,” she said.


* * *

While parental reluctance and lack of awareness play a role in keeping Detroit’s Head Start centers underoccupied, a blurry enrollment process doesn’t help the matter.

The city administered the Head Start program for about half a century, from the 1960s to 2012. At that point, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced it no longer wanted the city to distribute the money because of longstanding issues, including mismanagement of funds. In 2014, control over the program was handed over to a variety of local organizations and nonprofits that now run the centers, a more typical model from a national perspective.

There are a number of different factors that determine Head Start eligibility, which can vary slightly from center to center, with some exemptions permitted. A child’s family income typically needs to be at or below the federal poverty guidelines of $16,000 for a family of two and roughly $20,000 for a family of three. Other factors that must be taken into consideration are homelessness, disability, and the English language proficiency of the family. But some others factors, like the age or the employment status of the parents, depend on local needs and context. In a neighborhood with a rapidly growing number of refugee youngsters, for instance, they might receive greater preference than they would in other areas.

Skeptics say this system not only confuses parents but allows for a fuzziness that less-than-scrupulous operators can exploit: turning away families they should serve by saying they don’t meet the enrollment criteria. Some center operators are far less responsive and helpful than Lefever.

The complicated, and not always transparent, enrollment process can be particularly detrimental for the most vulnerable kids: those with special needs. Head Start centers are required to enroll at least 10 percent of children with special needs, but according to parents and center operators some make it clear that they are not able to accept students with more severe disabilities.

Tina Edwards, the enrollment coordinator at the Children’s Center, recalls a three-year-old who had been in a car accident and couldn’t walk as a result. “Another school told her parents that they could not accommodate their need based on her handicap,” Edwards said. “We welcomed her here. One bad encounter can affect how families feel about the Head Start program as a whole.”

In order to win parents’ trust, engaging them is a priority. “One of the ways to address the enrollment issue is to empower parents, involve them in the process and ask them to spread the world about the program,” says Kaitlin Ferrick, director of the Michigan Head Start Collaboration Office. “The peer to peer review is always effective,” she adds. This is particularly true in Detroit, where many residents have grown to distrust official sources after decades of being underserved.

* * *

In a city where a population of roughly 700,000 is spread out over 140 square miles, geography and transportation form another barrier to access. Until recently children had to be enrolled in a center located in the zip code where they lived, which was not always the closest one to their home. They usually couldn’t switch zip codes unless all of the programs in their own area were full—something that happens very seldom in Detroit. However, new standards implemented earlier last month create more flexibility. While Detroit Head Start operators are still waiting to see if the new standards will help solve their problems, they do allow centers to more frequently enroll children in the zip code where parents work, not live if center operators can show they’ve made every effort possible to recruit families who reside in their zip code.

Parents often prefer sending their children to centers near where they work, especially those who don’t find a spot in a full-day program. Some travel more than an hour on buses with unreliable schedules to get to their jobs. “You really need to be unemployed, or have someone who helps you, in order to enroll your child for three hours a day” in a half-day program, says Melanie Ford, a 34-year-old mother of two.

After a “challenging” nine months spent trying to enroll her daughter in a quality and convenient Head Start center, she finally settled on one she disliked because it was the only one with an open full-day slot. (Full day programs typically run from 8 a.m. to 3 or 4 p.m.) “There were no many activities, children were not learning as they should,” she said, noting that staff members didn’t interact with the kids as much as she wanted. She was eventually able to move her daughter to another center in the same zip code where she learns a lot more. “She is always smiling now. But I tell you: You gotta be really consistent to enroll your kid in school.”

Even those working families who find “full day” programs may struggle with the limited hours—another deterrent to enrollment. Some may eschew Head Start and opt for private, home-based child care centers as a result.

Nobles has been working in Head Start programs since 1999 and has first-hand experience of how valuable early childhood education can be, having attended a Head Start center herself. She loves her job, yet sometimes she has to confront hard challenges.

According to a 2015 report funded by the Kresge Foundation, Detroit has 6,684 full-day, full-year licensed slots in schools and centers for children ages three to five— a number that meets only 29 percent of the demand. Roughly 16 percent of available child care in the city is comprised of family child care homes, most of it unlicensed. This type of private child care has played a historic role in Detroit communities where families have learned not to rely too heavily on government-run services. But it is not subject to any kind of inspection, even if partially subsidized through publicly funded vouchers.

“The collection of data on early childhood education in Detroit is still challenging, the Head Start program included,” said Kaitlin Ferrick. This can be true in many big cities, but Detroit, according to Ferrick, offers “an extreme example.” Competition among providers doesn’t make the data gathering any easier, with agencies sometimes competing for the same teachers, social workers and facilities.

There is some cause for hope. Ten foundations in the Southeast Michigan Early Childhood Funders Collaborative, which formed in 2010, have invested more than $50 million into the region’s early childhood programs since 2012. The fund has helped spur innovative, collaborative ways to help Detroit’s Head Start program expand its capacity and its reach, building a citywide enrollment system.

But if Detroit’s most vulnerable families miss the message, the new money will have far less impact. The city’s experience shows that the future of early childhood education in America’s low-income communities depends heavily on whether parents have the capacity and knowledge to take advantage of their available options — and, when necessary, clamor for something better.


New direction

Three years in, an ambitious experiment to improve the odds for kids at one elementary school is scaling back

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Tennyson Knolls students return to school after a ribbon-cutting ceremony on school grounds in September.

Blocks of Hope was once envisioned as a pint-sized version of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

The project would provide an array of educational and social services to young children and families living within the boundaries of one high-poverty Adams County school — in the process, changing not only the lives of individual children but also the community around them.

But after three years, the Westminster-based nonprofit that spearheaded Blocks of Hope is scaling back its ambitions.

While the project won’t disappear entirely, the nonprofit’s leaders say they’re no longer focusing services and staff so tightly on the school’s boundary zone and may eventually stop using the Blocks of Hope name.

“We’re starting to question whether it’s the right strategic direction for the organization,” said Karen Fox Elwell, the new president and CEO of Growing Home, which launched the project in 2014.

The shifting shape of Blocks of Hope — originally framed as a 20-year effort intended to change the trajectories of children 0 to 9 within the Tennyson Knolls Elementary School enrollment zone — is a disappointment for some advocates who’d hoped this “placed-based” approach would not only be successful, but also possibly serve as a model for other Colorado communities.

A raft of issues have prompted the changes, including greater-than-expected mobility among the school population, fundraising challenges, and the tension that came from devoting resources to the 2.25-square-mile project zone while also trying to serve the broader Adams County community.

“It was hard to find that balance to do both well,” said Fox Elwell, who joined Growing Home in January.

Organizers knew when they started that the community was changing, but gentrification pushed out families faster than they expected. About a quarter of Tennyson Knoll’s students left the school in 2015-16.

Leaders said that was one reason it was tricky to track child outcomes that would demonstrate the project’s impact — a hallmark of successful place-based work.

Fox Elwell said there’s more stability among residents in the Harlem Children’s Zone because of rent-controlled housing.

“So families are really staying in that community for years upon years,” she said. “With Blocks of Hope, it’s just not the case.”

Fox Elwell said the board and staff will determine the future of Blocks of Hope during the group’s upcoming strategic planning process starting in late spring.

Teva Sienicki, the former president and CEO of Growing Home and the project’s original champion, said significant evidence supports the place-based strategy that underpinned Blocks of Hope, but didn’t want to second-guess the decisions of Growing Home’s current leaders.

“I really do wish them the best,” said Sienicki, who left Growing Home last summer.

Even at the outset of the project,  Sienicki acknowledged that changing demographics and funding challenges could alter the long-term course of the project. Still, she was optimistic, projecting a gradual expansion that would bring two to three other elementary schools in the Westminster district under the Blocks of Hope umbrella, and increase the number of employees dedicated to the project from two to 70.

In addition to improving family functioning, the project’s goal was to boost school attendance, kindergarten readiness, and third-grade reading scores, and reduce the number of children referred for special education services. This year, 85 percent of Tennyson Knolls students are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, a proxy for poverty.

One of the essential ideas behind place-based efforts like Blocks of Hope and the Harlem Children’s Zone is to flood a carefully defined geographic area with services in the hopes of touching a critical mass of residents, usually around 60 percent. By reaching such a large proportion of a population, proponents say such efforts create a kind of tipping point that pushes the whole community to adopt the norms and aspirations of those who receive services.

But Blocks of Hope never got close to that tipping point.

While certain components of the project, such as backpack and school supply giveaways, reached a large number of families, others, such as parent programs, never got above 15 percent, said Fox Elwell.

Aside from high mobility, the fact that many students ride the bus to Tennyson Knolls — instead of getting dropped off by their parents — made it harder to connect with parents than organizers anticipated.

The nonprofit’s limited budget was also a factor. Spending on the project was originally set at $250,000 annually, with eventual plans to reach $3 million if it expanded to other schools.

The nonprofit’s actual spending on Blocks of Hope has been around $100,000 a year, said Fox Elwell. In addition, a grant that Growing Home leaders hoped would pay for an evaluation of the project never came through.

“There were some incredible hopes to grow the budget and deeply invest in the community,” she said. “And maybe it was more challenging to fundraise than we anticipated.”

There are still several Blocks of Hope programs at Tennyson Knolls this year, including backpack giveaways, holiday gift and meal help, and two parenting classes. The school also houses a boutique with used children’s clothing and gear.

An after-school tutoring program was discontinued after last school year because it wasn’t effective, leaders said. Another program aimed at grandparents raising grandchildren was slated to launch this spring, but will not because school leaders felt they had too much going on.

A community organizer originally hired to work with Blocks of Hope families to advocate for affordable housing has expanded her territory to include other neighborhoods.

“There’s a lot of need just a little bit south and a little bit east of those (school) boundaries,” said Leslie Gonzalez, a Growing Home board member.

Residents in some of those areas began to assume they were no longer eligible for any of the nonprofit’s services as Blocks of Hope ramped up. That wasn’t true, but the project sent some “unintended negative messages,” she said.

Despite looming questions about the future of Blocks of Hope, leaders at Growing Home and Tennyson Knolls say the project has helped families, sparked welcome changes to the nonprofit’s case management strategy, and built community at the school.

Tennyson Knolls Principal Heather McGuire, who is the school’s third principal since Blocks of Hope began, said the project helped get parents involved at school, whether attending PTA meetings, taking Blocks of Hope classes, or attending “coffee with the principal” meetings.

She credits the project with giving rise to the school’s tagline, “We are TKE,” a reference to the school’s initials.

Gonzalez said, “We don’t view Blocks of Hope as a failure necessarily … Even though there were a lot of challenges, a lot of good came out of it, too, and we were able to meet even more families in that community we serve.”

safe haven

Colorado could get its first 24/7 child care facility for families in crisis

PHOTO: Jamie Grill | Getty Images
Mother rubbing forehead while holding baby son.

Last fall, Lisa Rickerd Mills, a medical social worker in Grand Junction, worked with a single mother who needed inpatient mental health treatment.

The problem was child care. The woman had no one to watch her two small children during her stay and bowed out of treatment.

It’s exactly the kind of scenario a group of advocates hope to prevent with a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week child care facility for families facing emergencies or periods of high stress.

The center, to be called the Grand Valley Crisis Nursery and set to open in late 2018, would provide free care for children 0 to 5 years old for periods ranging from a few days to 30 days. The idea is to give parents a safe place to leave their youngest children when they’re facing a crisis — a period of homelessness, an emergency medical procedure, domestic violence, or the threat of job loss. It’s meant to prevent child abuse and neglect and keep kids out of the foster care system.

While there are around 70 crisis nurseries nationwide, the one planned for Grand Junction would be the first of its kind in Colorado. It could pave the way for a new type of state child care license and perhaps crisis nurseries elsewhere in the state. The project is unfolding amidst a broader push in the western Colorado community to improve child and family outcomes by dramatically expanding child care options over the next three years.

Kaleigh Stover, a former pharmaceutical sales representative who moved to Grand Junction from Sacramento last summer, is leading the charge on the crisis nursery. Prior to her move, the 26-year-old volunteered at the Sacramento Crisis Nursery, which runs two of five crisis nurseries in California and, like many such facilities, relies heavily on volunteers to care for the children.

“I’m like that girl in the grocery store who will offer to hold your baby,” she said. “I have a soft spot for babies and moms and helping those people who are experiencing hard times.”

When she first arrived in Grand Junction, Stover called around to several nonprofit organizations and was surprised to learn there wasn’t a crisis nursery in town.

She said local advocates told her, “We don’t have anything like this … but we need it.”

Child abuse cases — and hotline calls about suspected child abuse — have steadily risen over the last few years in Mesa County. The western Colorado county also faces numerous other challenges: higher than average rates of child poverty, foster care placement, and teen pregnancy.

The community’s transience also means that parents of young children often arrive without a circle of family and friends to help out in a pinch, said Rickerd Mills, a member of the crisis nursery’s board.

That can mean parents leave their kids in the care of people they don’t know well or enlist older siblings to watch them.

In addition to providing licensed overnight care for young children, crisis nurseries have case managers who work to connect parents with community resources and get them back on their feet.

While there are a host of typical housing, job, and medical problems that prompt parents to use crisis nurseries, parents with a child care problem outside the usual list won’t be turned away at the Grand Valley center, Stover said.

“We let families define the crisis,” she said, adding that parents using the center would be required to check in with case managers regularly.

Over the past six months, Stover has steadily made progress on the nursery — holding a community town hall, recruiting board members, and finding a local nonprofit to serve as the nursery’s fiscal sponsor. She’s currently in the process of finding a location for the nine- to 12-bed center and will soon begin fundraising.

Stover expects the first-year costs to be around $455,000 if the group purchases a building, with operations costing $150,000 in subsequent years. About 80 percent of the nursery’s funding will come from individual and corporate donations and 20 percent from grants, she said.

In what might be the nursery project’s biggest victory so far, Stover got a preliminary nod in February from the state’s child care licensing advisory committee, which agreed to consider giving the crisis nursery a waiver from state licensing rules.

If the waiver is granted, it could set the stage for a new kind of child care license in Colorado — a cross between a typical child care center license, which doesn’t allow 24-hour care, and a residential child care facility license, which allows 24-hour care but doesn’t permit care for children under 3 years old.

“Having a new license type is kind of nightmare, but it changes the whole state if we can make it happen,” Stover said.

Ebony White Douglas, program manager at the 22-year-old Sacramento Crisis Nursery, praised Stover’s persistence in pursuing the project. She said she routinely consults with people in other states interested in launching crisis nurseries and has seen many such projects sidelined because of complex licensing logistics or daunting fund-raising requirements.

Rickerd Mills said she was heartened to hear about the positive reception from the state’s licensing advisory committee.

“I think it just goes to show the need in this community and the state,” she said.