The Tyler Independent School District might have walked back its decision to shutter Head Start, but parents still want answers.
Last month, the Tyler ISD board of trustees gave the district the go ahead to end the federally funded Head Start program in order to take better control over curriculum and teacher training, but after significant community backlash, the district backtracked and announced it would keep the program. Parents and advocates of the program say that’s not good enough.
Dozens of community members and advocates came together Thursday to try and find answers during a panel about the state of Head Start hosted by the Tyler Loop at St. Louis Baptist Church.
Dr. Christy Hanson, Tyler ISD’s superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said the district initially made the decision after receiving an increase in state funding, with a portion set to be dedicated to full day pre-K.
The district has been looking for avenues to implement full day pre-K districtwide for the past several years, but funding was a major roadblock. District officials also expressed concern that the Head Start curriculum prevented them from being able to implement the same standards they have in pre-K classes.
After speaking with Head Start administrators at the federal level, district officials were told they could take control of the curriculum after all, which led to the decision not to shutter the program. Hanson said in an interview that when the district refers to curriculum, it goes far beyond just the books used in the classroom — it includes teacher training, professional development and more.
Over the past five years, as the district worked to move from 11 campuses on the state’s “Improvement Required” list to all campuses meeting state standards, the district rewrote curriculum at all grade levels to a higher standard than the state sets. Still, administrators say early childhood education is critical to seeing continued academic growth.
“We have an issue of wanting to have consistency so that every 4-year-old is getting the same high-quality experience,” Hanson said. “There has to be equity of educational experience for every child across the district.”
Data provided by the district through assessments created by the University of Houston’s Children’s Learning Institute showed that students in Tyler ISD’s pre-K programs, which included half-day, tuition-based and free classes, significantly outperformed students in Head Start.
However, the data showed that students in Head Start also began the year with lower results. The range of growth by the end of the year was much higher for students in the pre-K programs in areas tested, which included ABC names, ABC sounds, numbers, phonological awareness, math, social and emotional behavior and early writing skills.
The Tyler Morning Telegraph has requested statewide data averages and demographic breakdowns of Tyler ISD’s results from the Children’s Learning Institute in order to better interpret the data.
Daniel Sells, a parent and member of the Head Start Local Policy Council, said the program is now in a state of flux and families are concerned that with only a month until school starts, the district won’t be able to fix any damage caused by the decisions to shutter and then retain the program.
One of the biggest concerns he has is that the director of the program has resigned. The agenda for the July board of trustees meeting lists an action item on the resignation or retirement of Head Start Director Stacy Miles, who community members say already has accepted a position with the Region 7 Education Service Center. The Tyler Morning Telegraph reached out to Miles and Region 7 for confirmation on Friday, but did not receive a response by deadline.
“How do they expect to have the Head Start program without a director?” Sells said. “If they haven’t filled that seat yet, who is going to be in control?”
Sells is also concerned about other personnel, including teachers and caseworkers who might have left the district after the initial announcement.
Another lingering question centered on whether the Head Start program would remain at the St. Louis School campus on Walton Road or be moved to classrooms at neighborhood schools.
“What they never specified either is if the program is set up the same way as before,” he said.
Sells said parents he has spoken with have been unable to get answers from the district amid the confusion.
Hanson said she did not yet have information on the future of the St. Louis School, but that the district would be calling all parents who had applied.
Sells said that isn’t happening, and that parents are getting stuck in a loop being told to call Head Start and then to call the district administration office, with neither offering answers.
Community members also were concerned about how the program would function if it was not centralized as it has been.
“They don’t have a dedicated plan on how that infrastructure would be set up, carried out and implemented throughout the entire area,” Sells said. “They haven’t thought anything through. They thought they could get rid of the program discretely without everyone knowing about it and change things as they go.”
He worries that if significant issues arise from the program being thrown into flux, those problems could be used to justify shuttering the program in the future.
The Head Start program goes beyond the academic component of pre-K learning. It also includes what is referred to as “wraparound services,” which help families in poverty with a wide array of issues including financial planning and medical and dental assistance.
While the district said it plans to widen these programs through further development of nurses, counselors, family engagement specialists, constituent services and other community resources, it is unclear how they plan to do so.
“What we’re trying to do is find a win-win situation where students and families in significant poverty still get the benefits, but also get to benefit from the consistency,” Hanson said.
Christina Fulsom, founder and CEO of the East Texas Human Needs Network and one of the people advocating for the Head Start program, consistently has expressed her concerns about the continuation and expansion of the wraparound services.
During The Tyler Loop’s forum, Fulsom, who was a panelist, said it is unclear what vendors the district is working with to provide those services and if they have been notified of changes or have a capacity to take on more clients.
Head Start served more than 400 students during the 2018-19 school year. The district’s pre-K program comprised four classes last school year. The district estimates the new pre-K and Head Start mix will serve 600 to 650 children. However, officials expect more than 1,000 students will enter kindergarten and hope to continue to grow the pre-K program so that as many families as possible can take advantage of it.
Sells said he doubts the district can implement and expand these programs before school starts Aug. 19.
“The families want to know what to do, they want to know what steps they need to take, they want to know how the classes are going to be set up and who’s going to be the caseworkers and everything needed to continue the program as it has been,” Sells said.
Pre-K and kindergarten are optional in Texas, which the district said can be a significant contributing factor to students entering first grade behind their peers in terms of school readiness.
Parents also have expressed concern about funding and the confusion around what the district will be able to pay for locally.
Because lawmakers did not pass school finance reform until the very end of the legislative session, Tyler ISD has not yet presented its board with a first look at the 2019-20 budget. They have seen estimates for funding changes from House Bill 3, the school finance bill, and cost estimates for additional pre-K teachers, but the total cost of the new programs is unclear.
At the June board meeting, trustees were told additional personnel needed to expand pre-K to all campuses, with an average of two classrooms at each of the elementary schools, would cost $1.4 million. However, that was an estimate for increased personnel only, not the overall cost of the program.
The first look at finance changes from H.B. 3 show the district can expect to see an increase of $2.47 million for an early education allotment, and a total net increase of more than $7 million.
The July board of trustees meeting agenda has a discussion item for Head Start listed. Board meetings also include time set aside for public comment, typically 30 minutes, but the board has the authority to adjust that time to allow for more speakers.
Sells and other community members have said they’re having a hard time trusting the district and board to be transparent at this point.