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A $50 million initiative to improve early childhood education services in Detroit will kick into high gear in the next 12 months as leaders focus efforts on addressing the city’s massive shortage of spots for children while expanding existing centers.

There are 55,000 children younger than 5 in Detroit and the city needs 23,000 additional licensed child care seats to ensure every child has a quality, early care experience, according to leaders with the Hope Starts Here Initiative.

The initiative is a 10-year plan funded by two Michigan foundations and has the support of Mayor Mike Duggan and Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. Its goals are to create stronger connections between early childhood, health and education; improve early childhood services; and support the financial stability of those programs.

Starting in early 2018, officials with the Kellogg Foundation say half of their $25 million investment in the initiative will be committed over the next 12 months to improve the quality of existing early education in the city.

“That includes professional development for providers, work around facilities improvement and around helping increase the quality of back office functions,” said Khalilah Gaston, a program officer for Kellogg.

Officials with the Kresge Foundation will be investing their $25 million over the next five years with a focus in 2018 on facilities improvement and building the first of up to three early childhood education centers in the city.

The first center will be built in one of many high-need neighborhoods outside the downtown, foundation officials said. The foundation would not disclose the location. It also won’t be running the center.

“2018 will be a big year for us as it relates to our first center. Our hope is this center is more than early child-care slots. We know Detroit has a gap, and we want to address that, but more than that, we want the concept of the whole child to be the center of this center,” said Neesha Modi, program officer for Kresge.

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 centers 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.

Since the initiative’s announcement in November, officials in Duggan’s office have been assessing the wide range of early childhood programs that already exist at the federal, state and local levels to better understand the gaps that exist, said Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff.

“And to define the best role for city government to take going forward and how that should be funded,” Wiley said.

Detroit Health Director Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, who sits on the initiative’s stewardship board, said the health department is working to expand an integrated model of child-centered health services, including health-based “hubs” with immunizations; a Women, Infants and Children program; vision, hearing and lead testing.

“The health department is also redefining the way early child-care facilities are inspected, by developing a new database system, expanding health-based inspection criteria, and engaging and educating families around what to look for in a child-care facility,” Khaldun said.

Gaston said Vitti is looking at the stock of schools and making decisions over the next two years on what early education programs or facilities could be feasible there.

“We need more facilities, and we know DPSCD has buildings. Once he can assess his stock, we will know more then,” she said.

Gaston said there are 440 child care providers serving 20,000 children in Detroit.

In 2018, the initiative will roll out a grant program for informal providers to buy supplies or take a field trip, Gaston said, which will help identify more providers.

A report released in late August by Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, labeled Detroit a “child care desert,” a city with limited child-care service. It estimates 59 percent of children younger than age 5 reside in neighborhoods with a scarcity of child-care providers.

But Detroit resident Ana Garza was able to find a place near her home in southwest Detroit.

Garza enrolled her 3-year-old son, Sergio Vazquez, into a Head Start program run by Matrix Human Services, the city’s largest provider of Head Start programming after learning of the program from her mother-in-law.

She said she hopes the program will build his self-esteem.

“Sergio is very shy. I wanted him to get along with other children,” she said. “He is an only child at home, and so I wanted him to be able to communicate with other people and get along with other children and know how to act around other people.

“Now every morning, he wants to come to school. Every time he comes in, he is excited. He always greets his teachers with a smile.”

Sustainable funding is a major challenge, early childhood education providers say.

Last month, Southwest Solutions announced it will be exiting the Head Start program at its centers in Detroit. The nonprofit is withdrawing from the Thrive by Five Detroit collaborative, which provides Head Start and Early Head Start services across the city of Detroit, because of budget constraints.

However, Starfish Family Services and four other partners collaborated in recent weeks to take on the programs, Starfish CEO Ann Kalass said.

“We were able to move very quickly,” she said. “We can see a path to having a good plan for families.”

Of the 11 sites run by Southwest Solutions, seven will remain at the same location with a new provider, Kalass said. Four will close, and three new sites will be added.

Operating Head Start programs is difficult because it requires a large local match and approved classrooms, said Brad Coulter, CEO of Matrix.

Matrix serves 1,927 children and their families in 24 Head Start centers across Detroit. Coulter said there are 6,000 publicly funded Head Start slots in Detroit and the need is closer to 10,000-20,000.

Current funding models require early education centers to blend funding from state and federal resources, Coulter said. The funding comes with a lot of rules and strings, such as raising 20 percent of Matrix’s budget, Coulter said.

“Myself and a few of the other providers are really trying to figure out a sustainable funding model for Head Start. Other options include more blending of state GSRP funding, enhanced support from the foundation and corporate communities (such as Hope Starts Here), plus alternative revenue streams such as special taxes or surcharges,” Coulter said.

“It all depends on which stakeholders want to participate and how. What we do know is the Detroit Head Start programs may not be sustainable in the long run under the current funding model of only relying on the federal grants.”

One of the programs Starfish is picking that was dropped by Southwest Solutions is setting up inside a building where Matrix already has a Head Start program.

“It is a little unusual because we are sort of competing for the same kids. But in the scheme of things, it’s what needs to be done,” Coulter said.

Sharlonda Buckman, senior executive director for family and community engagement for Detroit schools, said the district runs its own preschool program — it has about 100 classrooms districtwide — and will be a partner in the initiative through its new Parent Academy.

“We believe in this work. We are already invested,” Buckman said. “Part of the gap centers around supporting parents and how important those early investments really are and how they get off to a great start in school.”

Whether the district will add more early education classrooms has not been determined, she said.

“We are trying to be comprehensive in how we build a bridge between pre-K and 12th (grade),” she said.

jchambers@detroitnews.com

The Hope Starts Here Initiative is holding a “Community Conversation” to discuss the opportunity of a coordinated advocacy network.

The event is from 6-8 p.m. Jan. 11 at the Greater Grace Temple at 23500 W. Seven Mile Road in Detroit.

Child care will be available on site. Call 313-242-7385 for more information.

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