June 10, 2014 at 10:36 pm

DPS blames technical difficulties after failing to apply for $4M in Head Start funds

Keith Johnson, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers (Clarence Tabb, Jr. / The Detroit News)

Detroit— Detroit Public Schools cited “technical difficulties” for failing to apply for Head Start funding for the fall, leaving the teachers union crying foul over the loss of the federal grant that serves low-income preschoolers.

The head of the Detroit teachers’ union said he is “livid” over Detroit Public Schools’ failure to apply for the estimated $4 million Head Start grant on time and the subsequent loss of about 950 federally funded preschool spots in 56 classrooms.

Keith Johnson, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said Tuesday he has known about the problem for months and has been reassured by district officials that alternative state funds will be used to keep the spots open this fall for the city’s low-income 4-year-olds.

“Someone didn’t do her job. I’m livid. In a district that is already financially strapped, we cannot afford to lose any funding we receive. It’s not like the deadline sneaked up on anyone. It’s not like they didn’t know. It simply didn’t get done in a timely manner,” Johnson said.

DPS appealed the decision, he said, but was unable to get funding. Johnson said the district plans to use funding from the Great Start Readiness Program, which is state-funded, and money from Wayne County’s intermediate school district to keep the preschool spots open and keep certified teachers in front of youngsters.

On Tuesday, DPS spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski said the application problem stemmed from “technical difficulties with uploading the information.” When faced with the loss, the district regrouped and focused on finding a solution to the funding gap, she said.

“We understand that we are in error,” she said. “We admit our mistake, but have put plans into place to ensure that no qualified student will be excluded from receiving a quality pre-K education.”

In a news release issued late Monday, the district said it was expanding the number of preschool spots in the district this fall. It did not mention the loss of Head Start funding, saying only that “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 did not lose capacity to provide spots, Zdrodowski said.

DPS said it plans to add more than 540 preschool seats in 34 new classrooms for the 2014-15 school year.

For 2013-14, DPS said it would operate 215 pre-K classrooms at 70 schools with a capacity for 3,530 young learners with funds coming from federal and state sources.

The year before, the district had a waiting list for preschool and had to turn away 521 students.

Head Start programs still will be available in Detroit at community organizations such as Matrix Human Services, Metropolitan Children & Youth, New St. Paul Tabernacle and Starfish Family Services.

Those organizations received $48 million as part of a federal pilot program, Birth-to-Five, announced in February.

The federal funding mix-up comes as Gov. Rick Snyder has placed a greater emphasis on early childhood education in Michigan.

The state added $65 million in 2013-14 for publicly funded preschool programs to help more disadvantaged children be better prepared for K-12 schooling. That year, the state funded 48,075 student slots with $174 million, up from 32,139 in 2012-13.

Preschool, typically tuition-based in Michigan, is free to those who meet the income cutoff — roughly $39,000 a year for a parent with one child, $59,000 for a family of four — with slots going first to the poorest children.

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