School Choice

Scores of Michigan schools to be shuttered based on test scores they were told wouldn’t count

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Dozens of Michigan schools could get some tough news Friday as school closures loom

More than 100 low-scoring Michigan schools — including dozens in Detroit — could start classes next month likely doomed to close in June.

In a move that is bound to shock parents and educators across the state, the School Reform Office is moving ahead with an aggressive plan to close every school in the state that posted rock-bottom test scores for the last three years — even though Michigan’s education department promised schools that last year’s test scores wouldn’t be held against them.

Closing so many schools might not be popular, said Dan LaDue, assistant director for accountability for the School Reform Office, which Gov. Rick Snyder took over last year in an effort to increase pressure on low-performing schools.

But he says too many Michigan schools aren’t doing their jobs.

“Anytime you talk about closure, that’s going to upset people,” LaDue said. “But we’re not here to make everybody happy. We’re here to hold adults responsible for the performance of students.”

Read our latest story about the school closure plan. And sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more Detroit school news. 

LaDue says his office plans to give notice this fall to every Michigan school — district and charter — that ranked in the bottom 5 percent on state exams in 2014, 2015, and 2016. The schools will have close their doors in June, with exceptions granted only in circumstances where closing a school would pose an “unreasonable hardship” to students, such as if the school is in a neighborhood without better alternatives.

That sweeping closure plan will come as a surprise to many schools: The Michigan Department of Education said it would not use the results of the 2015 M-STEP to mete out serious consequences to schools.

Michigan changed the exam it gives to students in 2015 when it replaced the longstanding MEAP exam with the M-STEP, which is aligned with tougher new Common Core standards. Because of the nature of the new test, the department committed in an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education, to hold off on penalizing schools for poor results until at least 2016.

That’s why the state education department did not release its annual top-to-bottom schools ranking in 2015.

But the School Reform Office, where LaDue works, is no longer a part of the Michigan Department of Education. Snyder signed a controversial order in 2015 that yanked the reform office out of the education department, which is overseen by the state superintendent and state Board of Education, and put it under his own direct authority. The move was a strong signal that he didn’t think the education department had been assertive enough about holding schools accountable for poor performance.

So while the education department promised not to penalize schools for their 2015 exam results, LaDue says the School Reform Office is required by state law to release an annual list of the state’s lowest-performing schools.

In the next couple of weeks — “before or after Sept. 1,” LaDue said — the SRO plans to release a list of schools whose 2015 test scores put them in the bottom 5 percent of state schools. The SRO plans to use the same methodology for the 2015 list that the state education department has used for school rankings in the past, despite the test changes.

The department plans to release a top-to-bottom ranking for 2016 later this fall based on exams that were given last spring. Then, LaDue says the School Reform Office will identify schools that were in the bottom 5 percent for three years in row: on the last year of the MEAP and the first two years of the M-STEP.

Every school on all three lists will get letters telling them to plan for closure in June. They’ll stay open only if the “unreasonable hardship” exception kicks in.

Exactly how many schools will get these letters is unclear. But there were more than 100 schools on the bottom-five list in 2014, the last time it was published (see that list here). More than 40 were in Detroit.

Natasha Baker, the reform office director, told the Free Press that the total number of schools closed will ultimately be “nowhere near 100 schools” but that schools that have been identified for improvement for many years should not remain open. Read our story about why officials now say they won’t close as many schools as they could. 

“I’ll be very blunt here,” LaDue said. “Most of these schools that we’re looking at have been identified for improvement not just … two or three times but 8, 9, 10, 15 times.”

The state could give these schools more time to try to improve, LaDue said. “But how many more kids are going to be allowed to go through that school and graduate and that diploma really doesn’t mean anything?”

Part of the reason for the rapid closure timeline is a new law that Snyder signed in June as part of the $617 million rescue package for the Detroit Public Schools district.

The new law requires the reform office to develop an A-F school grading system that will eventually be used to close schools. But until that system is in place, the law requires the reform office to close all Detroit schools — including both district-run and charter schools — that are on the bottom-five list for three years in a row, except for those where closure would cause an unreasonable hardship.

And if the School Reform Office has to close schools in Detroit, LaDue said, it sees no reason to stop at the city’s borders. “We want to be fair to all districts and all kids,” he said.

But even in Detroit, the SRO’s rapid timeline is bound to stun communities and educators who thought they would have more time to turn their schools around. They note that the new law wasn’t specific about which three years should be used to make closure decisions and assumed, based in part on the education department’s promise, that closures would wait until Michigan has three years of data from the same exam.

“In such an important decision as closing schools, I would think we’d want to develop a coherent accountability system and assess schools on that system over a period of time before making that decision,” said Veronica Conforme, who heads the Education Achievement Authority, a state recovery district that took over 15 of Detroit’s lowest-performing schools in 2012.

Most of the schools in the EAA were on bottom-five list in 2014, the last time the list was published, including some of Detroit’s most storied high schools such as Mumford and Pershing.

Conforme says she believes the changes she made when she took over the EAA two years ago will boost scores with a little more time. But she might not get the chance to prove that.

“I think we’ve implemented a lot of positive strategies that I think will bear fruit this year and into next year,” Conforme said. “But … turnaround takes a long time.”

Chalkbeat reached out to the U.S. Department of Education to ask if using 2015 data to close schools would violate the state’s agreement with the federal government. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education said the agreement expired earlier this month as the agency continues to shift away from the old No Child Left Behind Act and move toward the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The Michigan Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment last week, but John Austin, the state board of Education President, said he has concerns about the way the reform office is proceeding.

For one thing, he said, it’s not wise to close schools unless “we’re creating high quality alternatives.” For now, he said, “the alternatives being offered by charter schools are not consistently high quality.”

Second, Austin said he’d rather see schools get some help turning things around than see them closed down.

“The SRO’s approach to date has not brought resources and real assistance to educators in schools that would give them a shot at being successful with their students,” Austin said. “To talk about shutting them down before having had the right support is certainly not the way to proceed.”

Next up: Here’s why Michigan is unlikely to close all of its lowest-performing schools this year

Politics & Policy

Indianapolis school board members make an unusual school visit — halfway around the world

PHOTO: Courtsey: Kelly Bentley
Kelly Bentley posted a photo of herself and Thai students on Facebook. The students hosted American teens enrolled in a study abroad program IPS could join.

When Indianapolis Public Schools board members visit schools, it’s usually a short trip across town. But the latest site visit took them a little farther afield — about 8,500 miles.

IPS board president Mary Ann Sullivan and member Kelly Bentley traveled to Thailand earlier this month to visit a study abroad program that could soon be available to students in the district.

Thrival Academy, which is designed to give low-income high school students the chance to study and travel internationally, aims to launch as an IPS innovation school in 2018. If the Indianapolis school gets board approval, it will be the second Thrival site. This year, the group is piloting the program in partnership with Oakland Unified School District in California.

Indianapolis has a rapidly growing selection of innovation schools, which are considered part of the district but are managed by outside nonprofits or charter operators. With its study-abroad focused program, Thrival is one of the most unusual ideas put forward.

It’s so unusual that Bentley and Sullivan wanted to see the program in practice.

During a four-day visit, they stayed at the camp where Oakland students lived, visited sites where the teens did home stays, and learned about the academics that are offered during the three months that high schoolers in the program spend in South Asia. They also had the chance to talk with students from Oakland about their experience.

“These were kids that, some of them had never, ever been away from home,” Bentley said. “I think it is a life-changing experience for these kids.”

PHOTO: Courtesy: Kelly Bentley
A camp where Thrival students stayed in Laos.

The trip was paid for by the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that partners with IPS to support innovation schools and that funds a fellowship that Thrival’s founder, Emma Hiza, won to start the school.

In addition to the board members, the Mind Trust sent the IPS chief of operations, and Aleesia Johnson, who oversees innovation schools for the district, had previously gone to scout the program. Other board members were also invited to go, but declined because the trip was on short notice, said Sullivan.

Almost as soon as Bentley and Sullivan shared photos and tidbits from the trip on Facebook, critics of the Mind Trust’s influence in Indianapolis schools began raising questions about the Thailand trip.

Brandon Brown of the Mind Trust said the group wanted board members to have a chance to see the program because it is so unusual — not in an effort to sway their votes.

“Because we are sending students halfway across the world,” he said, “we thought it would’ve been irresponsible for them not to go see it.”

PHOTO: Courtesy: Kelly Bentley
A garden near the camp where students stayed in Thailand.

The camp did not charge Bentley and Sullivan for their stay, Hiza said, so the group’s main costs were their plane tickets.

But accepting an international trip to see a school they will eventually vote on could make it appear that the board members are not impartial, said Kristen Amundson, president of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

“I would just have advised them not to do it,” she said. “I’m not questioning anybody’s integrity. I’m not questioning anybody’s motivation. … It’s the perception.”

For their part, Bentley and Sullivan say they won’t make final decisions on whether to support the school until the details of the Indianapolis program are ironed out. But they now have a greater understanding of Thrival’s model.

The trip gave them insight into the program that it would’ve been hard to get without seeing it in practice, said Sullivan, such as how Thrival integrates academics into study abroad.

“It’s a really big jump for IPS to get involved in something like this,” she said. “Some of the questions I think that we had and will have were answered much better by actually seeing and meeting the students, the teachers, the people on the Thailand side.”

Story booth

A Detroit student speaks: Her charter school promised college tours and art classes. They didn’t exist.

Detroit high school senior Dannah Wilson says a charter school broke promises it made promises to her family.

When Dannah Wilson decided to enroll in a charter school on Detroit’s west side, her family was drawn by the promise of programs like college tours and art classes.

In reality, however, those programs didn’t exist.

“We were made promises by the administration that weren’t kept,” said Wilson, who is now a high school senior at another Detroit charter school.

But when parents and students tried to complain, they discovered that the college that authorized the school’s charter, Bay Mills Community College, was in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a five-hour drive from Detroit.

Wilson had been the “poster child” for the school, she said, her face plastered on billboards and brochures for the school.

“I willingly gave,” she said. “But did not receive a quality education in return.”

Wilson discussed her challenges navigating Detroit schools in a story booth outside the School Days storytelling event at the Charles H. Wright Museum last month.

The event, cosponsored by Chalkbeat and the Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers, featured Detroit parents, educators, and a student telling stories on stage about schools in Detroit.

The event also invited other Detroiters to share their stories in a booth set up by Chalkbeat and the Skillman Foundation. (Skillman also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

Last week, we featured a teacher sharing the tragic reason why her students don’t always come to class. This week, we’re featuring Wilson, who is part of a family whose children have collectively attended 22 different schools in Detroit in search of a quality education.

Watch Wilson’s story below, and if you have a story to tell about Detroit schools — or know someone who does — please let us know.