Cause for concern

U.S. education chief knocks ‘uneven’ Michigan charter schools but urges caution in school closings

PHOTO: EWA/Katherine Taylor

The Obama administration’s top education official urged Michigan school leaders to think through the consequences of closing potentially dozens of struggling schools in Detroit and across the state.

“The key question is: What are they being replaced with?” asked U.S. Secretary of Education John King in a Wednesday interview with Chalkbeat. “What are the opportunities that will be available to students instead?”

The secretary says Michigan has a poor track record for improving schools — and such poor supervision over charter schools that the privately-run, publicly funded schools do not offer a strong alternative to district schools.

“I worry a lot about the charter sector in Michigan, which has very uneven performance,” King said. “There are a lot of schools that are doing poorly and charter authorizers do not seem to be taking the necessary actions to either improve performance or close those underperforming charters.”

So as Michigan considers shuttering low-performing schools — and as Gov. Rick Snyder sorts through dueling opinions about whether a new Detroit schools law requires his office to close every school in the city that’s posted at least three years of low test scores — King called on state officials to improve struggling schools, rather than just close them.

“Frankly, the track record for Michigan on school improvement to date is not great,” he said. “The key question is: Will the state put in place quality opportunities for students, whether that involves closure as a step or not?”

Chalkbeat spoke with King as he prepares to visit the Detroit area on Friday to highlight a program at Warren’s Proper Tooling manufacturing plant that gives high school apprentices on-the-job experience.

He’s also planning to visit a high school in Flint to discuss school-based health programs in the wake of the water crisis there.

But while he’s in town, King said he plans to ask questions about the state of schools in Detroit.

“One of the reasons I wanted to come to Detroit … is to get a better understanding from folks locally of what the challenges are,” he said. “Certainly it appears that inadequate resources have been invested in many of the schools.”

King said he couldn’t comment on the federal civil rights lawsuit that was filed last month against Snyder and state education officials alleging that the poor state of Detroit’s district and charter schools amounts to a violation of children’s constitutional rights.

But he said the Obama administration supports “the principle that all students in a community deserve an education that prepares them for college and careers,” and noted that he doesn’t think Detroit children are getting that.

“I certainly worry when I see the academic outcomes,” he said. “There are many students who are not getting the preparation for college and careers that they need. I don’t think anyone can look at the academic outcomes in Detroit and not be worried about students and the future of the city.”

King’s comments about charter schools are bound to be controversial among advocates for the privately managed schools. Michigan charter-school supporters routinely point to charter school test scores, which on average are slightly higher than district schools in Detroit.

They note that charter schools do close for poor performance, including five that were shut down last year, and that the new Detroit schools law, which could force the closure of both district and charter schools in the city, also includes tougher requirements for charter school authorizers.

But King said he doesn’t think Michigan has same high standards for charter schools as states like Massachusetts, which he says do a better job of ensuring that the schools “deliver results in exchange for greater autonomy.”

“There are individual [Michigan] charter schools that do seem to be performing well,” he said. “But on the whole, I don’t think the sector had been adequately monitored and adequate steps have not been taken to ensure that charter schools are consistently a better option.”

As he prepared to visit both Detroit and Flint, King drew parallels between Detroit’s schools crises and the problems in Flint, where toxic lead levels that were in the city’s water for more than a year could lead to serious medical, mental, and cognitive impairments in as many as 27,000 children and their parents.

“Ultimately the challenges in Detroit and Flint are both part of deeper problems, in which I think government has not served its citizens as well as it should and hasn’t prioritized equitable outcomes for all communities,” he said. “How the Flint situation came to be and the slow response I think reflects a lack of concern for folks in Flint and it certainly is connected to a long history of issues around race and class.”

Allowing Detroit’s schools to become “under resourced,” he said, is part of the same issue.

“The specifics are different,” he said. “But there is a connection in terms of how invested is the state government in ensuring opportunities and civil rights for all citizens.”

In Flint, he said, “inadequate attention has been paid to protecting the people of Flint in terms of the water quality and inadequate attention has been paid to the children of Detroit in terms of ensuring quality educational opportunities.”

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”