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Amid Financial Collapse Detroit Builds a Promising Early Learning Model

Published:  October 7, 2013
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This guest post was written by Paul Nyhan, a journalist and early education expert. He writes about early education at Thrive by Five Washington.

In the next few months, guest blogger Paul Nyhan will provide a window onto four places around the country where federal grant programs, including Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge, the Social Innovation Fund, Investing in Innovation, and Promise Neighborhoods, are triggering changes in early childhood systems. In this post, the second in Nyhan’s series, he explores how Detroit is using a Social Innovation Fund grant to help improve early learning. The first post in the series was "Washington Races Forward In First Year of its Early Learning Challenge Grant."

Detroit may be bankrupt, but it is also home to an early learning model that was promising enough to win a Social Innovation Fund grant in 2011 to figure out just how effective it is.

It began five years ago, when the United Way for Southeastern Michigan started building its Early Learning Communities platform. The intent was to nearly double the percentage of low-income children ready for kindergarten in Detroit. But the effort had been slowed by challenges documenting which parts worked and by a lack of money to pay for expansion.

Then two years ago the group won a $4 million Social Innovation Fund (SIF) grant to do both. The grant allowed the United Way to be a middleman and a mentor. It started by awarding smaller grants to 11 non-profits that formed a web of nearly every aspect of early learning in the city, from family, friend, and neighbor child care to nutritional counseling. Then it helped these groups develop tools to measure, evaluate, and replicate what they were doing.

One group, for example, is measuring the effectiveness of an intensive approach to teaching home-based caregivers about what high-quality early education looks like and how to implement it. Using assessments that track caregivers’ knowledge about child development and teaching practices, the group should know within five years whether the approach led to more kids being prepared for kindergarten.

Across the 11 non-profits, the development of evaluation tools has been the hardest. The project had to forge partnerships between local non-profits, which knew how to deliver services, and top researchers, who knew how to evaluate what worked and what didn’t. This step toward sound evaluation is at the heart of the federal Social Innovation Fund, which strives to identify successful programs that can be shared locally and nationally.

The idea, said Jennifer Callans, who manages the Social Innovation Fund project for the United Way for Southeastern Michigan, is that “communities already know what needs to be done. The right people are in place. We just need to figure out what is working and how we need to leverage it for broader impact.”

During the first year, it took longer to develop measurement plans than some hoped. At times, researchers struggled to introduce rigorous analysis and high standards of data collection to non-profits accustomed to providing services first and asking how those services worked later. Smaller agencies struggled because many essentially were learning a new language of research and analysis.

This meant evaluation plans that were supposed to take three months stretched to six months, and in some cases more than a year. Making things even more complicated, some non-profits struggled to raise matching funds in an impoverished city where social agencies often seek help from the same funders.

“There were a couple of soul crushing moments,” Callans recalled. “Once we went through five revisions. I was on the phone with their evaluation team on a weekly basis convincing the subgrantee to stay with it, to keep going on.”

A year into the project all 11 of the original subgrantees were still in the program, in part, because the payoff could be huge. Rigorous evaluation is a door to identifying successful programs that can be replicated around Detroit, Michigan and the country.

If any place needs this door opened it is Detroit, where half the children live in poverty and less than half are ready for school when they start kindergarten. The city’s fourth and eighth grade public school students recorded the lowest scores in the country in math, science and reading on the 2009-10 National Assessment of Educational Progress test, according to the United Way’s SIF application. Reading scores were the lowest ever recorded by the test.

The grant’s idea is to lift those scores and educational achievement overall by focusing on 40,000 newborns, toddlers, and preschoolers in ten of Detroit-area’s poorest neighborhoods.

Now that some of the trials of the first year are over, the initiative appears to be taking off. Family coaches are working with parents. Detroit Public Television is sending HighScope curriculum videos to families. Breakfasts, lunches, and dinners are improving in homes and child care programs thanks to nutritional counseling. And child care experts will begin helping home-based providers in October. In each instance, meaningful data is being collected to evaluate which interventions are most effective.

“If it works…it just creates this amazing model for other communities,” said Kimberly Browning, a veteran early education researcher who is working with several grantees. 

Building Quality One Family, Friend, and Neighbor Provider at a Time

Of all the project’s initiatives, its effort to improve the quality of child care provided in homes of family, friends, and neighbors could have the biggest impact.

A nine-person non-profit with nearly 20 years of experience working in the North End of Detroit, Vanguard Community Development Corp., leads this project, the only one of its kind in the city and possibly Michigan. Over the next three years, its team will explain child development, improve interactions between teachers and children, and reduce stress among 400 caregivers. And they will do a lot of this by mentoring providers in early literacy, a focus of the SIF grant.

They already helped one teacher who thought preschoolers could only learn early writing skills by filling out worksheets. She handed out homework that asked children to find the letters of their names from a box at the bottom of a page. The head of the family, friend, and neighbor (FFN) project, Mignon Murray, taught her a more developmentally appropriate exercise, where children pick letters, cut out of magazines, from a bucket and glue those letters on a sheet of paper.

“The concept was the same, but the process was much different,” Murray said.

Evaluating this type of help is critical because even though FFN child care is the most common type of care, outside of parents, there is little research on the effectiveness of efforts to improve it, according to Vanguard’s evaluation plan.

But, Murray wants to do more than raise quality in family, friend, and neighbor care in Detroit’s North End and Central neighborhoods. She wants to fundamentally change how providers there view their work.

“That informal level of caregiving is where we could see kind of a shift of what people think of what it means to care for a child,” Callans said. “As opposed to ‘Oh, I am babysitting.’ That is where I think we can have huge impact.”

Murray knows she can have an impact because she has been doing that for the last five years.

Two years ago, for example, Murray visited a home-based child care in the shadow of the General Motors plant in Southeast Detroit. The owner kept a 42-inch television on all day and the telephone rang constantly.

“She wanted to do the right thing. She wanted to come and get the training,” Mignon recalled, referring to the provider. But, “she wasn’t really doing anything with the kids.”

The children were smart enough to anticipate when “Dora the Explorer” came on, but it became clear that their daily routines weren’t helping them develop early literacy skills they would need in kindergarten. The director didn’t even want children to use Play-Doh because she worried it would ruin her carpets. She also didn’t think the preschool-age children were old enough to start writing. And she didn’t see the connection between the two. Murray, who has held every position in child care from assistant teacher to owner, explained to the woman that the children “can’t write because their hands are not strong enough.” Murray pointed out that by using Play-Doh, she could help children build the fine motor skills that help them write their name.

Two weeks later, Murray and the owner had overhauled the child care.

“By the time I finished she had her living room set (with) divided spaces, Murray said. “She had the toys in a closet. She had a schedule so the kids could predict what the routine would be…She had story time and lunch time,”

Now, Murray wants to do the same thing with hundreds of other family, friend, and neighbor providers in Detroit. After spending the last year developing an evaluation plan, her team of eight will start knocking on doors and walking through neighborhoods this fall, looking for collections of toys in backyards and other signs of in-home child care.

“The goal is to create a model of training focused for family, friends, and neighbors that does not really exist in Detroit,” Murray said.               

The Challenge of Evaluation and Replication

If the family-friend-and-neighbor project holds the most potential, developing rigorous evaluation plans for 11 non-profits holds the greatest challenge. Many of the non-profits have never conducted large-scale evaluations. While these groups may have collected data, it was not the level of detail and quality required by the Social Innovation Fund.

In fact, simply creating a control group – an essential building block of an evaluation – runs counter to the nature of some social services groups because it means people do not get help, Michael Tenbusch, vice president for educational preparedness at the United Way for Southeastern Michigan, said.

“They see a need and they want to answer it,” Tenbusch said. “That is where their heart is.”

But, a SIF grant asks non-profits to embrace control groups and all of the other steps of an evaluation because that is where replicable solutions are. They are asked, for example, to add administrative staff to manage reporting, not just program staff to deliver services.

A key lesson from the first year: Hire experienced staff because the evaluation process is often not intuitive, project staff added.

"Hire folks who are really good evaluators, who have a lot of experience, who have federal experience,” said Browning, who is one of those evaluators. “There is a language that is being spoken and the people on the ground need help understanding and speaking that language.”

In the grant’s first year, evaluators invested a lot of time helping subgrantees understand this language, so that in the next three years these groups could identify what strategies were preparing children for kindergarten.

The SIF grant is also elevating Detroit’s early learning work nationally and locally. The grant connects Detroit-based groups with national experts and resources. Those connections, and the status of winning a federal grant contest, in turn, give these groups credibility in the neighborhoods where they work.

Despite Detroit’s financial decline, the city’s early education prospects are rising.

“Early childhood can be kind of marginalized,” said the United Way’s Callans. The grant “is the game changer for our region.”

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