Detroit Children and Families Lose Once Again

As Steve Neavling reported on September 9, “The City of Detroit chose not to apply for a $7.5-million grant that would have helped serve 1,500 low-income children through the education program Head Start, council members were told Thursday. Officials at the Department of Human Services, which is under an FBI investigation for misspending, said the city lacked sufficient licensed locations to handle an additional 1,500 children.

“We have had problems finding licensed facilities,” Head Start manager Virginia Burns-Saleem told the council. “We didn’t go after the grant because Detroit Public Schools said it was not going to provide space.”

It is unconscionable that Detroit officials would not do everything in their power to find facilities, either in Detroit, or working with partners in Wayne, Oakland or Macomb to serve their children.  Head Start provides a tremendous pre-school experience that has been shown to provide supports for children from impoverished families – supports that increase kindergarten readiness and lead to educational success.

Head Start is a federally funded program designed for children in low-income families to help prepare them for school. Children are eligible for Head Start if their families’ incomes are below the poverty line, or if they are eligible for public assistance.  Children in foster care, regardless of income, are also eligible. In addition to educational services, Head Start provides health and social services, and encourages parental involvement in all aspects of the program.  One rigorous national evaluation, the Head Start Impact Study, found gains for Head Start children in pre-reading, pre-writing, vocabulary and literacy skills.  Children assigned to participate in Head Start also had fewer behavior problems, better overall physical health, less hyperactivity, and more access to dental care than did children with comparable backgrounds who did not participate.  More positive effects were found for children who entered the program as three-year-olds than for those entering as four-year-olds.  Another study found that four-year-olds participating in Head Start did better in receptive language and phonemic awareness than four-year-olds of similar backgrounds who were wait-listed for the Head Start program.  Other studies find that children who attended Head Start are more likely to stay in school and have lower rates of grade retention in early elementary school.  Head Start participants are also more likely to be fully immunized and to have better access to health care.

Head Start programs also have benefits for the parents of the children attending.  In comparison to a group of families with similar backgrounds, parents of children attending such programs are more likely to report good health and safety practices than are parents of children not attending. First-year findings from the Head Start Impact Study also found that parents of children attending Head Start were more likely to read to their children frequently, less likely to use physical punishment, and more likely to engage in educational activities with their children.

The latest numbers for Detroit show that, as of 2009, 52 percent of Detroit children under 5 years of age – a total of 35,065 – met the poverty criteria.  One can add another 4,840 5-year olds (58 percent of their total).  Coming at it from the family side, 48 percent of Detroit families with children 5 and under are in poverty – 21,436 in total.

The work of Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Childrens’ Zone has documented the language deficiency that accompanies children from poor families and poor neighborhoods.  We cannot expect the Detroit Public School system to make up for these deficiencies when teachers must face classrooms numbering 25 – 35 children.  We fail our children when adults don’t do everything they can to make sure they have the necessary tools for success.

Detroit’s decision is setting a large numbers of its children up for failure.  When will we stop mouthing the words “our children are our future” and start acting the words.  When will we Walk the Walk instead of always Talking the Talk?