Wandering Detroit's child care desert as an English language learner: A parent's story

When asked about her "dream job," she hesitates. The young mother's confusion doesn't seem related to her being an English language learner or that we're having this conversation in her living room with the help of a translator who trades flurries of Spanish with the new Detroiter.

Carolina Cruz, 28, seems to struggle with the question because her goal of finding child care and steady work has little to do with dreaming. That's a luxury she's yet to consider. She tells our translator Mayté Penman, a Tech Town employee and native of Durango, Mexico, that she's looking for bilingual work but is flexible to try what's available in the community.

Cruz, her husband, and their two-year-old daughter emigrated from Colombia to Detroit nine months ago. With help from a friend, they came for opportunity and safety, leaving behind family and familiarity. Her husband, who also speaks little English, found work in construction. Before relocating, Cruz was in customer service. She says she wants to learn a skill set here that she can use to help others. With her warm welcome and infectious laughter, this isn't hard to imagine.

But, in a city where 22,000 children are waiting to access early care and education, Cruz has yet to secure affordable child care for her daughter Lauren. She's made calls and emails to private providers on Detroit's east side, where she and her husband rent a house from his boss. Her family needs a supplemental income to help them stabilize, she says, and she's eager for her and Lauren to socialize outside the home. But nearby providers with openings are charging $250 to $275 per week, a price that doesn't cover the actual cost of child care but is still unaffordable for the couple. It's a common dilemma for Michigan's families where child care expenses often exceed the rent or mortgage payment.

In early October, Cruz found Matrix Human Services online. The nonprofit's federally-funded Head Start program serves low-income children from birth to five years and their families at 16 centers throughout the city. It also partners with independent child care centers in Detroit to provide Head Start classrooms and goes into homes to support pregnant women and children with prenatal care and parenting skills. Due to the child care staffing crisis amid COVID-19, over 500 Detroit families are waiting for an opening with Matrix. 

Cruz discovered the wait when she visited Matrix's Manuel Reyes site in Southwest Detroit, where a bilingual staff member helped her fill out an application and get on a list at multiple locations. She says transportation will be tricky if a placement opens across town, but she's willing to figure it out. She's eager to secure a spot for Lauren in the free preschool program and is attracted to the organization's ability to connect with her in Spanish.

"We always have bilingual staff available as far as Spanish-speaking," says Oralda Madrigal, ERSEA Manager for Matrix Head Start. ERSEA stands for Eligibility, Recruitment, Selection, Enrollment, and Attendance. Her team regularly shows up at community events across the city to make parents aware of the health and education services Matrix offers.

"Anytime we have bilingual families who are not Spanish-speaking come to apply, we are reaching out to our resources, whether it's our staff we're pulling from or a third-party resource," she says. "We have made it our business not to have any families walk away with a feeling of, 'I was directed here, and then no one speaks my language.'"

She says Detroit families seeking services over the years have primarily spoken English, Spanish or Arabic. But the organization now sees an influx of languages, including French, mainly from African refugees staying at Freedom House Detroit. She says that more Spanish-speaking families are migrating to Detroit's east side, where Matrix hasn't traditionally needed to provide language options like in Southwest. Here, the organization shares its footprint with Starfish Family Services, which also has bilingual staff and offers translated materials.

As Detroit's largest Head Start provider, Matrix is working to increase its ability to serve non-English speaking families by offering higher pay for bilingual employees. The organization uses Bromberg, a local professional interpretation and translation service, to assess staff's language capabilities and ensure Matrix's services and documents encompass regional nuances and dialects to communicate clearly with parents. 

According to Matrix Head Start Program Director Cristal Claussen, 17 percent of the organization's 321 staff members are bilingual. They speak Spanish, Arabic, and French. Of ERSEA staff, family advocates, and record coordinators who communicate most with parents, 36 to 46 percent speak multiple languages, as do 17 percent of the teachers in Matrix classrooms. 

"We also make sure the books and materials we buy, both for our classrooms and what we send home with our families, are in languages they speak in their home," says Claussen. "We have a strong respect and appreciation for the cultures our families identify within their homes and lives. We make sure our staff has the same cultural expectations when delivering services to our families. One of the things that makes us particularly good at this is that our staff really represents our community, so they can advocate for what communities need from us."

Cruz says bilingual communication is helpful for her as a parent, but if Lauren gets in a classroom, it's not critical that her teacher speaks Spanish. She wants her daughter to learn English while she is young. What she values most is finding affordable, loving care and her daughter growing in independence. 

Lauren burrows her head into her mother's chest. She's timid, Cruz says. The two spend every day at home together while her husband works. The couple has one car, and she has yet to learn to drive in Michigan, something she hopes to do soon. As her daughter's first teacher, she helps her practice her colors, numbers, letters, and vowels. Lauren draws and paints on a tablet and "cooks" in her play kitchen. Together, they watch videos online to help them learn English.

She's a sponge, absorbing all she can, Cruz says. She wants her daughter to have more opportunities to learn and engage with others. She says it will be good for both of them to venture outside their home environment. The hardest part of the transition from Colombia has been leaving their community and trying to get to know people here when they're relatively isolated. She has yet to connect with any Spanish-speaking communities or make friends. 

Cruz imagines working while Lauren goes to school, but if this doesn't happen soon, she may consider a night shift while her husband and their daughter sleep. Through her husband's boss, she met a woman who offers child care but paying out of pocket is an expense that's difficult to manage right now. Her family needs to focus their income on basics, she says, like furniture, appliances, food, gas, and rent.

Parent Family Community Engagement Manager Norma Galvan says getting plugged into the Matrix community is more than child care. The social service organization and its partners support families in need in many ways. This includes food and utility assistance, workforce development, emergency rent, legal aid, document translation, and help in the case of evictions, foreclosures, domestic violence, and deportation. She says her team of family advocates can assist non-English speaking parents like Cruz with job placement in the community. The organization also hires parents for substitute teacher positions and kitchen aides.  

But to serve more children and invite families into its support systems, classroom teachers are needed. Matrix has funding for 1429 children at its center-based programs, which are currently 65 percent enrolled. Its child care partnerships at independent centers are at 70 percent. The organization has 71 open teaching positions, one-third of its teacher workforce.

The government and the state have been generous with one-time monies, Claussen says, empowering Matrix to incentivize staff hires and retention. But there needs to be more funding to put the permanent pay increases in place that would make these positions a desirable career option, she says. Early educators are opting out of the workforce for jobs with higher pay, like retail and food service. Matrix has used portions of its unspent budget to increase staff wages temporarily. Still, she says that her early educators need to be on par with kindergarten teachers, a goal that has yet to happen.

The organization has created a pipeline of pre-K teachers from the inside to combat the workforce deficit. Parents are encouraged to enroll in a free six-month program to become accredited in early child care and fitted to make a living wage at Matrix or another Head Start program. 

As early education providers and advocates work to build and retain a workforce, parents wait. How long depends on the center, the age of the child, and the organization's unique staffing needs. Head Start also uses a point system to assess families' needs. By noting health challenges, single-parent households, special education requirements, and reliance on public assistance, organizations work to bring in the most vulnerable children. There are also points for dual-language learners like the Cruzes. When a Matrix center exhausts its waitlists, staff reach out to find families waiting for an opening at its nearby facilities.

"We try to make sure that our families have the most access to receiving services," Claussen says. "But you know, we are limited."

While she waits, Cruz dreams about support, independence, and community.

Due to water damage in their east-side rental, the Cruzes have relocated since this interview. They remain in Detroit. All conversation with Carolina Cruz was translated in person by Mayté Penman.
All photos were taken by Rosa María Zamarrón.

This entry is part of our Early Education Matters series, exploring the state of early education and childhood care in our region. Through the generous support of the Southeast Michigan Early Childhood Funders Collaborative (SEMI ECFC), we'll be reporting on what parents and providers are experiencing right now, what's working and what's not, and who is uncovering solutions.
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