jaw-dropping

Federal Head Start reauthorization puts city's status in jeopardy

Chancellor Dennis Walcott prepares to read to a group of 4-year-olds at the Bank Street Head Start center in November. (GothamSchools)

New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) is at risk of losing a $190 million grant, after the federal government included it on a list of 132 substandard Head Start agencies across the country this week.

Head Start is the half-century-old federal preschool program for low-income children. ACS, among the oldest and largest Head Start agencies in the country, did not meet the “quality thresholds” set by the federal Office of Head Start, according to a list made public Tuesday by the Administration for Children & Families, which oversees the program.

Educators and advocates said the announcement could mean major upheaval for ACS, which serves 120,000 children and families in New York City and oversees contracts for 250 Head Start centers.

“It would have a huge impact,” said Nina Piros, director of early childhood programs for University Settlement, which runs two Head Start centers on the Lower East Side under a contract with ACS. “If ACS does lose its grant, then delegate agencies will be out of business, to put it mildly,” she added, referring to the centers that contract with ACS.

“There’s a lot of jaws that dropped,” said Steven Antonelli, administrative director of the Head Start program at the Bank Street College of Education.

The potential loss of funding could disrupt a new initiative, EarlyLearn NYC, which is meant to streamline funding and improve the quality of the city’s early education programs. This fall, the city required all of its childcare programs, including the Head Start centers it oversees, to reapply for funding. But now that the city itself must reapply for its federal grant, “the implications could be pretty dramatic,” said Nancy Wackstein, executive director of United Neighborhood Houses of New York, a multi-service agency based in the city.

“If they don’t control the allocation of Head Start funds, then that would mean that they could not implement the EarlyLearn model,” she said.

ACS is not the only large Head Start agency, known as a super-grantee, whose funding is threatened. The Los Angeles County Office of Education, which bills itself as the largest Head Start agency in the nation, was also included on the list, along with nonprofits and school districts in 38 states. Virginia has the greatest number of agencies that must reapply for their federal contracts, with 11; Ohio has 10, and New York isn’t far behind, with nine.

The agencies on the list serve nearly 148,000 children, according to the Administration for Children & Families.

The announcement is part of a new Obama administration initiative to increase quality by forcing Head Start programs that don’t meet certain standards to “re-compete” annually for their grants.

Head Start has faced criticism in recent years over the quality of its programs, and a federal study last year found that academic gains made by children in the program disappear in elementary school. Many Head Start grantees have received federal funding for decades with little turnover in providers, except when serious safety or financial concerns have arisen.

“Providing robust, open competition for Head Start funding will not only provide opportunities for new organizations to offer services, but it also increases the number of low-income children in high-quality care,” Yvette Sanchez Fuentes, the director for the Office of Head Start, said in a statement.

Officials at both ACS and the Los Angeles County Office of Education said the reasons they had been included on the list had nothing to do with the quality of their programs, however. In ACS’s case, the federal government, in a 2009 audit, flagged the program for “administrative deficiencies” that had to do with healthcare insurance for workers at Head Start centers.

In Los Angeles, interim Head Start director Keesha Woods said that the Office of Head Start had audited the agency in search of fraud last year. Although no fraud was discovered, the agency was cited for “inconsistencies” in how its two dozen subcontractor agencies filled out paperwork.

W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, questioned the method that the federal government used to measure the quality of agencies. “I think the weak point really is that they’re not using direct measures of children’s gains as one of the criteria for deciding who needs to be re-competed,” he said.

Michael Fagan, an ACS spokesperson, said the agency would reapply for its grant: “We remain proud of the Head Start services we provide to children and look forward to being successful in the process.”

It’s unclear who might apply to compete with large agencies like the ones in New York and Los Angeles. More competition could provide openings for companies like New York City-based Acelero Learning, the first large-scale for-profit to run Head Start centers.

Steven Antonelli of Bank Street said the competition could provide opportunities for smaller agencies, like his own, to apply directly to the federal government for funding. Although he said the competition could create chaos as local agencies seek funding under the EarlyLearn NYC program while also trying to get their own federal grants, the news is “exciting,” he said.

“We’ve wanted to have a direct grant for a long time,” he said. “This is a huge opportunity.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

 

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.