At a time when parents, educators and state officials are pushing to make sure every Michigan child has access to quality preschool, almost 1,000 low-income Detroit 4-year-olds may not get free, federally-funded classrooms because Detroit Public School officials botched the paperwork.
DPS failed to complete the application process for the Head Start preschool program on time. The result: Head Start classrooms are being shuttered across the city, with the district promising to offer 4-year-olds other programs funded by Michigan taxpayers instead.
During the 2013-14 school year, DPS had more than 900 Head Start students in about 56 classrooms, public records show.
Sen. Bert Johnson, D-Highland Park, called DPS’ mistake reprehensible and doubted lawmakers would favor funding more state preschool in Detroit, considering DPS screwed up a chance at federal money.
“I think it renders us functionally obsolete as a school district as it relates to the most vulnerable students,” Johnson added.
Four-year-olds from low-income Detroit families still will be able to enroll in Head Start classes offered by community agencies in the city, according to the regional office of the Administration for Children and Families, which oversees Head Start. It was not immediately clear whether there will be enough classes for the Detroit children who would have gone to DPS, where preschool is taught by certified teachers.
“The application from Detroit Public Schools was not among the eligible applications received on time,” said Kenneth Wolfe, spokesman for the ACF. “Therefore, it was not evaluated by the panel of experts.”
Head Start will be offered by four local Detroit agencies that won $48 million in federal grants, Wolfe said.
The Head Start grant announcements were made in February, but word spread last week when some DPS schools were told to tag and send back any preschool furniture or equipment that was purchased with Head Start funds.
District claims options expanding
Keith Johnson, the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers union, called the error by DPS “a sin and a shame.”
“It’s really unfortunate in a district that can’t afford to lose a dime,” Johnson said. “How do you not get your I’s dotted and T’s crossed, knowing early childhood is a focal point in our district?”
Asked why DPS failed to meet the Head Start deadline, the district released a statement on Monday saying DPS is actually expanding preschool. DPS did not answer questions regarding the Head Start application snafu, but described it as a program limited to poor students. About 82 percent of DPS students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch.
“DPS will no longer be including Head Start, which qualifies children based solely on their meeting poverty level requirements, in its early childhood education program offerings,” the district said in a written statement.
Last year, DPS had 3,363 children in early childhood programs, about 900 of them in Head Start. Despite losing the Head Start funds, the district plans to add 540 seats in 34 new classrooms using funds from the state’s Great Start Readiness Program and federal Title I funds.
DPS officials did not explain how losing more than 900 Head Start seats and adding 540 Great Start and Title 1 seats amounted to an increase in early childhood offerings.
“Research clearly shows that providing children with early childhood education programs is essential to their personal growth and future academic success,” Jack Martin, the state-appointed DPS emergency manager, said in the news release. “DPS remains committed to providing these critical programs to as many Detroit children as possible.”
State officials did not return calls seeking confirmation that DPS’ expanded preschool will be funded by additional state Great Start funds. But extra funding needed to cover Detroit preschool children, who would have been in the federally funded Head Start program if not for the paperwork snafu, will mean less money for students elsewhere in the state.
LaMar Lemmons, the school board president and vocal critic of the emergency management process, called the DPS mistake further proof that the state is doing a poor job managing its largest school system.
“I think this is a deliberate and systematic dismantling of the Detroit Public Schools system,” Lemmons said. “That, or gross incompetence that is harming our school district and our city.”
Martin reports to the Michigan Department of Treasury. Terry Stanton, spokesman for treasury, was unfamiliar with the DPS Head Start application process, but said he would look into the matter.
A long history with Head Start
Head Start has served over 30 million children across the country since 1965, growing from an eight-week demonstration project to full-day classes. Services include home visits, parenting workshops, English language classes as well as social services and medical referrals.
Those outside-the-classroom services will not be available to children who would have been in Head Start but now will be in Great Start.
Last year, Head Start made a change in Detroit. The government chose five communities nationwide, including Detroit, to participate in a pilot program called Birth to Five. Birth to Five combines programs for expectant families with Early Start services for babies and Head Start preschool services.
The Head Start providers in the selected five cities had to compete for funding due to deficiencies found during prior monitoring reviews. Each applicant submitted a single application to provide a continuum of care in a Birth to Five Head Start program.
In February, four Detroit agencies were awarded a total of $48 million for the Birth to Five pilot that will start in the fall of 2014: Matrix Human Services, Metropolitan Children & Youth, New St. Paul Tabernacle, and Starfish Family Services.
Debra Spring, director for Vistas Nuevas Head Start programs in southwest Detroit that are operated by Matrix Human Services, said she believes the city will have enough seats – a mix of Head Start and Great Start - to accommodate all preschool children in the fall.
“Our hope is that people will look at a program that best fits their needs,” she said.
This fall will likely be the first time ever that DPS will not participate in Head Start, Johnson said.
Push to expand preschool
The DPS bungle comes as the state pushes an effort to offer more preschool.
Gov. Rick Snyder and a host of legislators supported a large increase in preschool funding last year – $65 million, the highest increase among any state in the nation. The money was meant to open classrooms for some of the 30,000 Michigan 4-year-olds who qualified for Great Start but were not enrolled.
The federally funded Head Start program can lead to extra costs for a district because it offers more services to the neediest children, including children who meet risk factors of poverty as well as those with special needs. Head Start provides funds for preschool for students whose families are at or below the poverty line. Great Start funds students whose families earn up to 2.5 times the poverty rate.
Any child who would qualify for Head Start, would also be eligible for either the Great Start Readiness and/or Title I Pre-K programs that DPS will offer, according to DPS.
Unlike some other Head Start providers in the city, DPS’ teachers are paid union wages and typically certified. It is unclear whether DPS will retain all of its Head Start teachers next school year. DPS “believes” those teachers “will likely be absorbed into the planned expansion of the Great Start Readiness and Title I-funded classrooms.”
Johnson, the president of the teachers union, said DPS exhausted its appeals options in the Head Start application process, but should not have found itself in such an “inexcusable” position.