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Battle of the 'Starts' takes kids prisoner

Hundreds of Michigan 4-year-olds qualify for Head Start and Great Start, but are in neither preschool program, stuck in a no-man’s land between bureaucracies.

School leaders, state administrators and directors of Head Start and Great Start describe a sometimes personality-driven relationship between the programs that can run seamlessly, or can devolve into accusations of "poaching" students.

"In September, (when both programs are enrolling students), it can reach a boiling point," said a Michigan early childhood advocate familiar with both programs who was granted anonymity because he works closely with both programs. "Sometimes you have to remind them to take off their administrator hats and do what is best for the children."

Two programs, one big headache

Head Start is a federally funded program offering free preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds living in homes with incomes under the federal poverty line ($23,050 for a family of four).

Great Start is Michigan’s preschool program for at-risk children, offering pre-K classes for 4-year-olds in homes up to 300 percent of the federal poverty line ($69,150 for a family of four). Do you qualify?

Almost 43,000 low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds are enrolled in the two programs in Michigan. Children living under the poverty line qualify for both programs, which often have similar academic classes. Those children are supposed to be prioritized to Head Start, which has social services beyond pre-K for those children of greatest need. If Head Start is fully enrolled, children can be routed to GSRP for state-funded preschool.

It doesn’t always work that smoothly.

Some 4-year-olds stay on wait lists for one program when they could be enrolled in the other program, because of mandatory wait lists and, at times, turf battles.

By state and federal mandate, "every program has to be fully enrolled," explained Rich VanTol, early childhood program director for the Saginaw Intermediate School District. "So sometimes you get (Head Start and GSRP) programs competing for kids."

Great Start programs have been known to enroll children below the federal poverty line without referring them to Head Start, where they’d receive additional services, according to advocates familiar with both programs. Head Start programs have been known to not pass names of children back to GRSP even if Head Start classes are full.

"It’s a cycle," said the advocate. "It escalates."

Compounding the problem is a federal mandate that Head Start programs maintain a waiting list that will allow a class to replace students who drop out within 30 days. Each local Head Start program can decide on its own how many kids it needs on a waiting list, but those lists can be lengthy. In Kalamazoo County, for example, the Head Start program keeps about 300 kids on a waiting list – equal to 50 percent of its total classroom seats, said county Head Start Director Elizabeth Dancer.

How many 4-year-olds are stuck in this bureaucratic limbo? Nobody knows.

No one keeps track of how many children statewide are on Head Start waiting lists, or how many never make it off the list and are stuck without preschool all year.

Natalie Merryman, a Kenowa Hills GSRP teacher last year, recounted her frustration last year searching for enough at-risk students to open a second Great Start classroom in the district. According to Merryman, Head Start in Kent County declined to provide her names of children on their wait list – children who Head Start needed to fulfill a federal mandate, but who were not getting the benefit of preschool.

"I could have filled that afternoon class in a second," Merryman said. "You’d rather have them sitting on a waiting list than have them serviced in my classroom? We’re going to let them sit at home? How much 'Judge Judy' can one kid take?"

Allegan County, on the shores of Lake Michigan, has the lowest percentage of eligible 4-year-olds in taxpayer-supported preschool in the state. Yet even there, with three out of five eligible children unserved by any program, Head Start maintains a waiting list, said Erika Burkhardt, early childhood specialist for the Allegan Intermediate School District.

Burkhardt emphasized that she has a good working relationship with the Head Start program in her county, and that Head Start is willing to "pass along the names they can" above the amount they need for their waiting list. Still, for those on the waiting list, "it is so frustrating," she said.

'It's a systemic problem'

In poor neighborhoods of Holland, "there are anywhere between 100 and 200 students who qualify for Head Start, but who are on a waiting list," said David Nyitray, associate director of Ready for School, a nonprofit organization in the Holland-Zeeland area offering tuition assistance for preschool. "We have parents come to us and say they were on a wait list all of last year."

Nyitray is sympathetic to Head Start’s predicament. "It’s a systemic problem," he said. "If my funding were completely tied to making sure that our spots were filled, I would have a wait list, too."

Meanwhile, GSRP providers often don’t know until August or September how many seats they’ll get funding for from the state. And once they know the number of seats, they have to triage their list of kids to accept the most at-risk youths first.

"It’s a logistical nightmare for parents who qualify for Head Start, but they’re on a waiting list, and there’s this awesome state program, but they don’t know if there are enough slots," Nyitray said. "After being rejected a couple of times and being shipped around, there’s burn out in already overtaxed parents."

Sifting 3- and 4-year-olds

The solution isn’t as simple as just doing away with wait lists. In Kalamazoo County, for example, "we have some children who will sit on a waiting list all year," admitted Kalamazoo Head Start’s Dancer. But most of them are 3-year-olds who are not eligible for GSRP. "The 4-year-olds have a higher priority and most will get into a class at some point," Dancer said.

That policy in itself creates a bottleneck, said a frustrated Scott Menzel, superintendent of Washtenaw County Intermediate School District.

"We have one district where there are 40 3-year-olds on a waiting list in the Head Start program, but we do not have sufficient (4-year-old) enrollment to fill the Great Start Readiness slots for that same district," Menzel said. "Since Head Start serves 3- and 4-year-old students, it would be a real advantage to be able to enroll the eligible 4-year-old students in the GSRP program and provide Head Start to the 3-year-olds who are on the waiting list. The research indicates that two years of a high quality preschool experience can make a significant difference for the most at-risk students in terms of being prepared to succeed in kindergarten."

Some of those 4-year-olds, however, are on the wait list because their family is waiting for a spot in a specific Head Start class to become available. It may be the program nearest their home, or an older sibling may have had a great experience in the class.

And even if the families would be happy to switch to GSRP, in many districts, the state-funded preschool classes are just as packed as Head Start.

"It’s not the best system in the world, and I wish it was streamlined more," Dancer said.

Some of that streamlining is in the works in Kalamazoo County, where Head Start, GSRP and private providers agreed recently to using a common preschool application. Dancer hopes that a single, shorter application will help the programs coordinate efforts.

Reformers apply ideas

Several Michigan communities have developed relationships that help children do less waiting and more learning.

In Livingston County, Head Start and Great Start are run out of the same office, making coordination a snap.

"It’s a "one-stop shop," explained Candice Davies, director of Head Start and GSRP for the Livingston County Educational Service Agency. "They fill out an application, we tell them what program they qualify for and lay out their options for where they can attend -- ‘Here are two half-day programs, or over here is a full-day program.’ If they qualify for Head Start and the Head Start spots are filled in their community, we can fill out paperwork to offer a waiver from Head Start and place them in a state (funded) class."

In Pinckney, a Head Start class is next door to a GSRP class. The teachers have the same training; the curriculum and length of class are identical; and teachers are paid on the same scale. The classes often interact.

"Several kids qualified for Head Start, but classes were full, so they came over to GSRP, with the explanation that they would have to provide transportation," Davies said. "It’s seamless."

Livingston isn’t alone. Branch, Dickinson-Iron, Monroe, Muskegon and Saginaw intermediate school districts also run both preschool programs out of one office.

Saginaw goes one step further and offers "blended" Head Start and GSRP classes. In those classes, some students have preschool paid by the federal government in the morning, and by the state in the afternoon. It can be an accounting nightmare, but it’s a dream for at-risk children and their families, said Saginaw ISD’s VanTol.

"Overall, what we want to accomplish is maximizing the dollars, whether they’re federal dollars or state dollars, targeting kids who are most at-risk" VanTol said. "Behind the scenes, there’s more paperwork and red tape and more regulatory things we have to combat because sometimes the regulations aren’t the same. We haven’t perfected it. (But) families shouldn’t have to know how it’s funded. We have to figure out the funding. All they want is to have a high-quality preschool."

In the Holland-Zeeland area, community leaders banded together to provide preschool tuition to 17 wait-listed kids. A coalition of early childhood providers and advocates are working now to create a single application process for all programs, as well as a database accessible to all providers to assure that the neediest children are being served.

"I’ve been impressed time and time again by the people on the ground directing Head Start and GSRP," Nyitray said. "They don’t have to play ball and they decided to."

Pennsylvania emphasizes cooperation

Some states have taken steps to improve coordination between Head Start and state preschool programs. The Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts program is about the same size as Michigan’s GSRP, but has coordination with Head Start built into its organizational DNA. Every Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts provider must hold collaborative meetings with Head Start, said Tracey Campanini, Head Start collaboration director for the state. The state monitors those collaboration efforts, as well as keeping tabs on unused slots for both programs, so money can be quickly moved to where it’s most needed.

With close collaboration, "we serve additional children," Campanini said, "but we also can give families choices about which program best serves their needs."

In end, funding matters

A similar policy might help in Michigan, but it won’t solve what many early childhood education advocates say is one of the biggest hurdles: marketing.

What would help most is increased awareness of the preschool programs among families, Dancer said. It’s when one or both programs are struggling to fill their classrooms and meet mandates for waiting lists that tensions rise and programs begin "poaching" students.

When 40 percent of Michigan’s eligible 4-year-olds are in no taxpayer-supported program, there should be plenty of children for Head Start and GSRP.

"If we had families standing in line at all our programs, there wouldn’t be politicking," Dancer said. "When you’re dealing with families in crisis, at or below poverty line, they’re really not thinking about getting their child in preschool. They’re thinking I need to get my child fed. We need to get families to understand that education is a basic need, and there’s a program that can help them."

But marketing preschool to low- and moderate-income families takes money – money that up to now, the state has not been willing to provide.

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