$50M in Detroit early education aid announced

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Detroit — National philanthropic leaders announced a 10-year, $50 million plan to improve early childhood education and services in Detroit, which includes renovating early childhood facilities and building a state-of-the-art early childhood education center in one of the city’s neighborhoods in 2018.

Friday’s announcement came just as the city is losing a major partner in a Head Start program by year’s end.

Leaders of The Kresge Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation unveiled “Hope Starts Here: Detroit’s Early Childhood Partnership framework,” a plan focused on creating a stronger connection between early childhood, health and education; improving early childhood services and supporting the financial stability of those programs.

The leaders say the framework will place young children and families at the center of public policy and business decisions. The foundations, both based in Michigan, will collectively give $50 million to the endeavor.

“Achieving positive and equitable outcomes for Detroit’s children requires significant and sustained private and public investment,” said La June Montgomery Tabron, president and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. “We hope our three-year, $25 million initial commitment to strengthen networks for quality early childhood education and widen access for Detroit families will catalyze additional support.”

Kresge is also making a $25 million contribution over three years.

The framework was created after a one-year community planning process that involved more than 240 community members and experts, officials said.

Early childhood education, which focuses on children from birth through preschool, is not united under one single system in Detroit or Michigan, the way K-12 education is through state government. There are state and federally funded programs, such as Head Start, and state-licensed child-care center and home-operated centers in neighborhoods.

The initiative will focus on creating a central coordinating body to lead early childhood efforts, using one integrated data system to increase information sharing, improving facilities across Detroit, creating a team of advocates and aligning early childhood and K-3 systems.

“There is no system and the ecosystem is just large. It’s part of this process to make those connections. That network will be the connective glue around all of the various organizations working,” she said. “There will be resources to standardized systems, curriculum and structure so it can be a more fluid, connected eco-system.”

Some of the money will go toward investing in programs and initiatives that provide training and support materials for child care teachers and staff, and enhance staff salaries, benefits and incentives.

It will also establish a comprehensive health and developmental screening system and focus on supporting the first 1,000 days of a child’s life.

“Detroit must aspire to be a city that puts children first. Hope Starts Here is a powerful first step in that direction,” said Rip Rapson, president and CEO of the Kresge Foundation.

Rapson said the initiative will be a huge step forward from what the city has today in terms of the early childcare system.

“This will be a huge step forward. ... We have a non-system now, which is at odds with the effective delivery of service,” Rapson said.

Tabron says she envisions a guide for parents to be a “one-stop-shopping” tool where someone is connecting all of the information for them.

Detroit, home to 80,000 children under age 8, ranks near the bottom in child well-being, according to early childhood education officials, and more than 60 percent of Detroit’s children 5 and younger live in poverty.

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, spoke at the initiative’s announcement to say he supports its efforts to radically change how the city cares for and educates its youngest citizens.

Vitti, who came to Detroit in May to take over the district, said initiatives like this have failed in the past due to resistance to change. He wants this time to be different.

“Imagine our kindergarten teachers are actually collaborating with our early learning providers, sharing data. We are identifying children early on for special education services,” he said. “This work has to happen with the district. ... I am ready to break down the walls of territorialism that have prevented this work from happening.”

Friday’s announcement comes at a time when Southwest Solutions will be exiting the Head Start program at its centers in Detroit. Stephen C. Ragan, senior vice president at Southwest Solutions, said the nonprofit will withdraw from the Thrive by Five Detroit collaborative, which provides Head Start and Early Head Start services across the city of Detroit.

That means 11 Head Start centers operated by Southwest Solutions — attended by 420 low-income Detroit children — will not have services as of Jan. 1.

The Detroit social service organization notified families last month that because of “severe financial and logistical challenges,” it will cease operations at its Head Start centers and lay off its 122 Head Start employees.

In January, another provider or providers will assume operation of the program as determined by Starfish Family Services, officials said.

Ragan said it was a heartbreaking decision to close and he hopes another partner will pick up the program and offer services to students and jobs to workers in the neighborhoods where they currently operate.

“One of the challenges is our population is transportation challenged. It’s really important for them to have centers in their neighborhoods, especially with the immigrant population,” he said. “Having a classroom close to home is really important. When the classroom and site changes it creates problems around enrollment,” he said.

Ragan said operating Head Start programs is very difficult because it requires a large local match and approved classrooms for education.

“It became financially unsustainable. We were in this program for four years. The quality of the program is excellent. It’s heartbreaking for us that we can’t continue this,” he said.

Southwest Solutions exiting its Head Start program took many by surprise, Ragan said, and makes it clear help is needed on the early education front.

“A lot of people are hoping other grantees pick this up. A lot of people have entered and left Head Start because they can’t do it sustainably,” Ragan said. “I hope if there is any positive outcome is that it bring attention to this. It is a real need in the city. There needs to be a larger public component. This is a problem that cannot be solved by philanthropy alone.”