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Week in review: Too many candidates, not enough information

Attendees at last night's CitizenDetroit School Board Candidate Forum hear from candidates Sonya Mays and Ryan Mack in a "speed dating round" on how they would ensure transparency and robust community engagement if elected. (Courtesy CitizenDetroit)

With 18 days until polls open in Detroit, local schools advocates are starting to turn their attention to who will serve on the board of the new Detroit Public Schools Community District. This will be the city’s first school board with any real power (though not complete power) following years of state-appointed emergency managers. But with more than 60 candidates on the ballot, voters might have trouble figuring out whom to support.

"Am I supposed to know these people? Nothing came in the mail about these people here."Maulana Horton, Detroit voter

 

Read on for some guidance, plus the rest of the week’s headlines. Thanks for reading!

Sifting the ballot

In the race to select the first seven-member Detroit school board, endorsements have started rolling in from the Detroit News, the Michigan Chronicle, and the state teachers union.

Candidate forums are being held around town including one that was expected to draw hundreds of Detroiters last night. And news organizations plan to publish reports soon to help voters sift through their options.

Not all of the candidates are doing their part, however. Only 25 of the 63 candidates filled out the candidate questionnaire on the district’s website. When a pair of TV reporters selected 20 candidates to investigate, they found that only seven had campaign websites (one of which didn’t work).

The Free Press hasn’t endorsed in the school board race yet, but the paper is urging voters to support a tax hike that will steer an additional $385 per student to schools in Detroit and other Wayne County districts. Only district schools will benefit, however, which has charter school advocates grumbling.

The Wayne County proposal is identical to one that voters rejected in 2014 and could be a tough sell. For more information on how the Wayne measure will affect Detroit schools, the district posted answers to several questions.

In Detroit schools:

  • In the New York Times, a law professor writes that the federal right-to-read suit filed by Detroit students will be “the opening chapter in a long legal saga.” The question, he says, is whether “a state can constitutionally provide a vast majority of its students with an excellent or at least adequate education while a minority of students receive an education that denies them the chance to acquire … minimum skills.” He adds: “The simple fact is that these schools are a disgrace.”
  • Graduation rates are up in Detroit. But one critic notes that those numbers aren’t very useful. “We are graduating kids who are illiterate and who can’t read their diploma,” he said.
  • A report from a local advocacy group calls for an expanded focus on preschool and other efforts to support children before they fall behind in school. “Our systems are underdeveloped and disconnected,” contends the report.
  • An author and education reformer asserts that Detroit needs a “home-grown education leader and change agent.”
  • An advocate for teacher quality argues that the solution to Detroit’s teaching shortage isn’t welcoming uncertified teachers, as some have suggested, but higher standards.
  • A parent blogger explains why she chose to keep her children in Detroit Public Schools.
  • A local college president is calling for a community-wide push by parents, teachers and residents to “keep the focus on the children” and fix Detroit schools.
  • Five hundred area high schools learned about plumbing, masonry, and carpentry at a Construction Academy event this week.

Across the state:

  • Public spending on private school students is up 51 percent from three years ago.
  • State lawmakers are pushing back on a federal proposal that would require Michigan to prove it spends the same amount on schools that get federal poverty funding as those that don’t. New federal laws are designed to make sure that states aren’t using those federal funds as an excuse to shortchange high-needs schools.
  • Forty-five Michigan schools picked up grants to upgrade their cafeterias and kitchens.

In other news:

  • Members of a Detroit high school’s cheerleading squad have been suspended after a fight was captured on video.
  • The Michigan Supreme Court will convene at a local school.

More from Chalkbeat:

  • Here’s what it feels like when you’re in charge of testing in a Colorado school district and your daughter wants to opt out.
  • Tired of waiting on state test results, one urban school system is considering giving its own exam.
  • Memphis school officials have kicked off a series of community meetings to prepare to close or merge schools.

Week In Review

Week in review: Some Detroit schools are saved. Others get bad news

As parent Britney Love learned that the Woodward Academy would be closing, the school was still advertising enrollment for next year.

When I walked into the parking lot of the Woodward Academy charter school this week, I expected to talk with parents about their efforts to find new schools. I had already spoken with the state education department, the school’s authorizer and a charter school organization about plans to close the school and had no reason to think the closure was a secret. Somehow, though, the school had not yet notified parents. And the ones I met were alarmed.

 

“They told me it wasn’t closing. [The principal] told us that like three weeks ago, me and my kids’ father, we had a meeting with her … [Now] I don’t know what to do because my other school of choice was Starr Academy, and I heard they’re closing too. I may have to change my work schedule and everything now.”

— Britney Love, mother of a Woodward Academy first-grader

 

The episode is just the latest turmoil in a city where education seems to be defined by constant change and persistent threats. The news comes, ironically, the same week that two dozen Detroit schools that had been threatened with closure by the state were officially spared by a new partnership agreement but the closing threat for district schools won’t be gone for long. Students in other Detroit district schools are taking tests this month that could land their schools on next year’s closure list if their scores don’t improve.

Read on for more on these stories, the latest updates on the Detroit new superintendent and the rest of the week’s Detroit schools news. Also, we’re continuing to feature the stories of Detroiters talking about our schools. If you have a story to share, please let us know.

In Detroit

  • The Woodward Academy is one of at least three Detroit-area charter schools that are expected to close in June. Families just finding out now that they need a new school are already at a disadvantage because deadlines to apply to many of the city’s top-rated schools passed weeks or months ago.
  • The partnership agreement that the Detroit school board officially signed Thursday night with the state education department will keep 24 threatened district schools safe from state closure for at least three years, an attorney representing the district says. The schools, which will have to set ambitious improvement targets, will get help from partners including four major state universities and the Wayne County educational service agency.
  • A teacher got this Detroit woman’s troublemaking brother involved in her classroom — and transformed both siblings’ lives
  • Grosse Pointe schools are considering accepting kids from Detroit and other communities — as long as they’re willing to pay $13,000 a year (and have a decent transcript). The proposal caused one columnist to declare the “end of public education.”
  • A scholarship program makes community college free for all Detroit high school grads, but only a fraction of participants stay in the program long enough to earn a degree. That has led organizers to add a coaching component so students will get both money and support from the program.

The new boss

  • The Detroit school board has gotten the green light to negotiate a contract with Florida superintendent Nikolai Vitti to lead the city schools. Negotiations had been temporarily stalled by a legal challenge from an activist who says the search process broke laws.
  • The board last night voted to hire an an attorney to negotiate the contract. It also named the board’s president to represent the board in negotiations. She said she expects Vitti to sign the contract by late May.
  • “There was no comparison” between Vitti and Derrick Coleman, the other finalist, one board member said during a break in the meeting where Vitti was selected. That’s according to a Free Press reporter who heard a recording of the conversation that surfaced during a hearing to discuss the activist’s motion to block negotiations.
  • In applying for his new job with district, Vitti wrote that he has “directly experienced the challenges of immigration, single motherhood, teenage pregnancy, unemployment, alcoholism and foreclosures” and got his work ethic from delivering the Free Press at 5 a.m. as a child. Read his full application here.
  • Advice for Vitti is piling up. One Free Press columnist urged Vitti to eschew the “reform-of-the-month approach” and “play the long game.” Another penned an open letter to Vitti, reminding him that his new job “is literally changing the lives of our children.”
  • A former city teacher urged people who are disappointed that Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather didn’t get the job to move on. “It’s time for everyone to come together in support of Dr. Vitti,” he wrote.

Across the state

  • The state superintendent objects to “incorrect” reports that he opposes assigning letter grades to schools. In fact, he wrote, “I continue to support an A-F report card for school accountability.”
  • The state’s lieutenant governor — a possible GOP candidate for governor — says the U.S. Department of Education should send back the state’s plan created under the Every Student Succeeds Act because it doesn’t have high enough standards for students with disabilities.
  • Voters in 10 suburban communities will vote Tuesday on tax hikes to fund new buildings, buses and facility improvements.
  • A former state lieutenant governor urged lawmakers not to “dumb” down the state’s graduation requirements.
  • The Detroit News blasted state political and educational leaders for failing to work together to improve education. Too many separate efforts, the paper wrote, have “led to a confusing mix of proposals and benchmarks for schools.”
  • The president of  a Michigan small business association argues that any serious conversation about improving the state’s schools “must begin with a comprehensive look at how we fund” public schools.
  • A Democratic candidate for governor penned an op/ed urging more charter school accountability and arguing that education should not be a partisan issue.
  • U.S. News and World Report is out with its top high school ranking but no Michigan schools were in the top 200. The ranking prompted the state charter school association to crow that charters are among the highest-ranked high schools in the state. In Detroit, Renaissance was top high school, coming it at 67th in the ranking. Cass Tech was at 111th.
  • A retiring state teachers union leader is due to receive a generous pension from the state.
  • A suburban district plans to close a high school after years of enrollment declines.

In other news

  • These Detroit kids wrote a letter to the Pistons — and got a new basketball court outside their school.
  • Nearly 400 works of art from Detroit students are now on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
  • A Detroit public school STEM administrator is this week’s Michigan Lottery Excellence in Education award winner.
  • A public-private partnership is addressing a major reason why kids struggle in school by providing them with eyeglasses.
  • A former University of Michigan football player is now the principal of a suburban school.

Extra credit

PHOTO: Doug Coombe/Hope Starts Here
Hundreds of Detroit community members came together on Thursday to celebrate the First Annual Detroit Day of the Young Child. Across the city, parents, caregivers, educators and policymakers attended “listening sessions” to discuss what early childhood could and should look like in Detroit. The gatherings, which focused on issues affecting children including education, nutrition, health, child care and transportation were among more than 60 events that are expected to attract over 600 participants by May 5.

 

 

 

Week In Review

Week in review: A new Detroit schools boss — and (another) panic over closing threats

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The Detroit school board discusses superintendent candidate Nikolai Vitti before his selection on Tuesday, April 18, 2017.

The biggest news in Detroit schools this week was the selection of a new superintendent, Nikolai Vitti — at least until the city was swept by rumors of looming school closures.

Rumors began circulating Thursday after the state superintendent told reporters that the Detroit district planned to voluntarily shutter “some” of the 24 schools that had been targeted by the state earlier this year for forced closure. The news — broadcast by local papers including one that issued a news alert —  set off a panic and fury from parents and even school leaders. Two school board members expressed alarm when contacted by Chalkbeat, saying they’d heard nothing about closures. The matter didn’t die down until several hours later when the district issued a denial.

“You may have read recent news reports that indicated Detroit Public Schools Community District planned to close schools. Currently, the district is only relocating two programs, Durfee and Turning Point Academy, to other buildings for the 2017-18 school year.”

— Detroit Public Schools Community District statement

The episode illustrated just how on edge Detroit is when it comes to its schools — hardly an easy landscape for Vitti to enter. Read on for more about Vitti’s selection, the steep challenges he faces, and the rest of the week’s education news.

Also, we’re continuing to tell the individual stories of Detroit schools including this week’s story from a student who says her charter school promised art classes and college tours — then didn’t deliver. If you have a story to tell about Detroit schools or know someone who does, please let us know.

 

The new boss

  • The school board’s unanimous vote to select Vitti, the superintendent of Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, came after one member changed his no to a yes to show Vitti that he has the full support of the board.
  • The vote drew jeers from a heckler who was angry that the board had chosen a white man to lead the primarily African American school district. “You all know we’re black, right?” she shouted.
  • The selection of a white man for the job is bound to concern some parents in a city where most kids are poor and nonwhite, a Bridge Magazine reporter said during a radio broadcast. “There are parents who very understandably want someone in the role who understands the achievement gap,” she said. But she noted that Vitti’s wife his black and so are his four children. “He is like a lot of the parents in Detroit Public Schools in that he has the achievement gap living in his home,” she said.
  • The board now plans to negotiate a contract with Vitti — though those talks are on hold until at least Tuesday due to a legal challenge from activist who says the search process violated the law.
  • If Vitti formally accept the job, he’ll have a lot of work to do. Among things that Detroiters and educators say should be at the top of his list is addressing the disappointment of the community members who wanted Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather to get the job.
  • Once the news broke of Vitti’s selection, school board members in Duval County praised his track record in the Florida district. “I believe he can be very successful in Detroit,” one board member said. “I frankly think success in Detroit will really put him on a national stage. I’m excited about this opportunity for him and his career.”
  • A Detroit News columnist called him a “game changer,” adding: “He needs to be. Because it’s now or never” for Detroit schools.
  • Vitti beat out River Rouge superintendent Derrick Coleman who called Vitti a “great hire,” adding that he felt “almost a sense of relief” that he didn’t get the job. “It would have been extremely difficult to leave my current position,” he said.

 

In other Detroit news

  • The state superintendent later clarified his panic-creating remarks about Detroit school closings saying the Detroit district may need to close schools in the future “based on their enrollment numbers.” The only changes planned this year, the district says, are at Durfee Elementary-Middle school, which will be moved into nearby Central High School. The Turning Point Academy will be moving to another nearby building.
  • A town hall meeting was held Thursday night to give parents a chance to air their concerns about school closures in Detroit.
  • A Free Press columnist urged city philanthropic leaders to “drop the mother of all philanthropic bombs on the city’s schools,” but the head of a major local foundation said fixing city schools will take more than cash. “If we knew that money was the solution, we would have done exactly that.”
  • The same columnist earlier in the week renewed the call for a citywide education commission that would oversee all Detroit schools. “Who’s minding the entire store, perusing the landscape, making sure that schools  — public, private and parochial — are open where families need them and work successfully for all children?” she asked.
  • One Detroit student —  who says she and her siblings have attended 22 Detroit schools — says her charter school broke promises when it failed to provide art classes and college tours.
  • A Detroit charter school is hoping new legislation that got a hearing in Lansing this week will help preserve the school’s diversity. (Read this to learn more about the challenges faced by Detroit charter schools seeking diversity).
  • A coalition of Detroit organizations looking to expand early childhood education is inviting Detroiters to find or host a “listening session” this month or next — especially on April 27, Detroit Day of the Young Child — as part of a yearlong planning process to make Detroit a “kid-friendly city” by 2027.
  • An Ann Arbor couple is helping to send Detroit high school students to New York to perform at Carnegie Hall.
  • A Detroit charter school is spending $6 million on a new addition including space for new classrooms as well as broadcast and performing art studios.
  • More than 150 Detroit high school students will gather with teachers next weekend to prepare for Advanced Placement exams.

Across the state

In other news

More from Chalkbeat