To close or not to close?

As the threat of closure looms, this Detroit charter school says it’s worth a second look

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Students line up at Michigan Technical Academy, which is on the list of 38 Michigan schools that could be forced to close in June.

On paper, the Michigan Technical Academy looks exactly like the kind of school state officials are planning to shut down.

The charter school in northwest Detroit has posted test scores in the bottom 1 percent in the state in recent years, and fewer than 5 percent of fourth-graders passed last year’s state math exam.

The scores mean the school could be shuttered under a new law designed to rescue students in long-struggling schools from a culture of failure. The school will find out its fate when the state releases its 2016 test-score ranking, which could come out as early as next week. If its scores are in the bottom 5 percent statewide for a third straight year, MTA could well be required to close in June.

But MTA’s supporters say that if state officials charge ahead with plans to take a sledgehammer to every low-scoring school like theirs, they’ll end up destroying even schools that are turning things around.

"The one thing that’s not on our side is time. We have a bullseye on our back but … we feel a sense of urgency. We feel it in our bones."Michaela McArthur,kindergarten teacher

That’s what teachers and administrators say is happening at their 600-student elementary school.

A new principal, a new way of teaching, and a more positive culture have given teachers a reason to believe their school is on the upswing. They just might not get a chance to prove it.

“The one thing that’s not on our side is time,” said kindergarten teacher Michaela McArthur. “We have a bullseye on our back but … we feel a sense of urgency. We feel it in our bones.”

The school was nearly shut down two years ago by Central Michigan University, which granted the charter that allows the school to operate.

The university was alarmed by low test scores and other problems, said Brad Wever, Central’s director of public policy and external relations. But when officials there considered where the school’s students would go next, they realized that neighboring schools had similarly low scores.

“We looked at all the options in the surrounding area to say, ‘What would happen to these kids if MTA was no longer to exist?’” Wever said.

Instead of closing the school, Central decided to change it. It replaced the school’s board. The new board brought in a team of school turnaround specialists from a New Jersey-based nonprofit management company called Matchbook Learning, which in turn introduced a program called Spark that uses computers to help teachers tailor lessons for individual students. Matchbook hired Phillip Price, a 62-year-old veteran principal who has led school turnarounds in Detroit and other cities.

Michigan Technical Academy Principal Phillip Price started at the struggling Detroit charter school in 2015. "Give us three years," he said. " We’re going to change this school."
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Michigan Technical Academy Principal Phillip Price started at the struggling Detroit charter school in 2015. “Give us three years,” he said. ” We’re going to change this school.”

“Believe me. Give us three years … we’re going to change this school,” said Price who took over as principal in September 2015. “I can’t change what people did before we got here, but we can change it now and that’s what we’re doing. We’re making a difference.”

Teachers and administrators say the recent changes at MTA have made their school a different place than it was during the years that produced the low scores.

“Since Mr. Price got here, it’s been a completely different school,” said Kristen Duran, 34, a second-grade teacher in her 11th year at MTA.

Before, she said, the school was clearly troubled.

“The curriculum changed a lot. There was teacher turnover, policies changed … We didn’t have a set direction,” Duran said.

But now things seem to be on the right track.

“Mr. Price has totally turned around the culture of the building,” she said. “The kids know what is expected of them … He’s here to make sure that our students learn and that we’re learning too. Teachers are valued more than they had been. We work as a huge team. Everybody pitches in at all times to help each other.”

But that teamwork has not yet translated into higher test scores.

The school’s 2016 M-STEP scores dropped slightly last year, with just 11 percent of third-graders testing proficient on the math test last spring compared to 13 percent the year before. (Scores also fell across the state, where 45 percent of third-graders passed the proficiency bar, down from 49 percent the year before.)

School leaders say the scores don’t mean students aren’t learning — just that they started very far behind.

“The M-STEP tests grade-level proficiency,” said Sajan George, Matchbook’s founder and CEO. “The M-STEP says, ‘OK, fourth-grader, we’re going to give you fourth-grade material.’ So if we take a kid that was starting at a first-grade level and get them to a second-and-a-half-grade level on M-STEP, they are marked ‘not proficient’ so they look like they’re in the worst tier and the school is failing.”

Most MTA students were two or three years behind when Matchbook took over, George said. “So the first year of the test, the second year of the test, the school is not going to look like it’s doing anything.”

"We looked at all the options in the surrounding area to say, ‘What would happen to these kids if MTA was no longer to exist?’"Brad Wever, director of public policy and external relations at Central Michigan University

The school’s own data system tells a different story, according to George. MTA uses an exam called the Performance Series to measure student improvement. That exam shows that students are making progress, with the percentage of students at grade level in reading growing from 21 percent to 29 percent between the fall and spring semesters last year and the percent at grade level in math growing from 24 to 36 percent. (While the M-STEP is only given to students in grade 3 and higher, the Performance Series data includes students as young as kindergarten.)

There are other signs that the school is becoming a better place for children to learn. The school has seen its attendance rate improve, and Price said suspensions are down dramatically from 163 the year before he started to fewer than 50 last year while enrollment has been steady. Price credits the lower suspension rate to better teaching.

“When discipline is high, instruction is low,” he said.

This year, by working with teachers on classroom management, Price said he hopes to bring the number of suspensions below 25.

Teachers say they’re on board with the changes so far and are already seeing results. But they know that the threat of closure looms.

“The part that makes me worried and sad is that we know our kids are prepared and our kids are doing a great job,” said kindergarten teacher Michelle Peters, who estimated that 90 percent of last year’s kindergarten students finished the year last spring ready to do first- or even second-grade work. “If we’re not open in two years then our kids will never get to show us on M-STEP what they really know.”

McArthur and Peters both said they worked in several other Detroit schools before starting at MTA last year and have never seen a school run as smoothly as this one.

Teachers get intensive mentoring from two full-time coaches who observe every teacher 40 times throughout the year and give them steady feedback and advice.

They also get extensive training on the Spark system, a massive database of online lessons including interactive games and videos that enable one student to do first-grade work while his classmates work on more advanced lessons.

While older kids at Michigan Technical Academy do their work on laptops, kindergarten and first-grade students use tablets.
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
While older kids at Michigan Technical Academy do their work on laptops, kindergarten and first-grade students use tablets.

Walk into a classroom and some students can be seen dancing along to lessons set to music that are streaming through their headphones. On a recent visit, a group of second-graders were doing a subtraction lesson that came in the form of a catchy jingle about a pirate making his shipmates walk the plank.

When you subtract with a pirate, you always take away,” some students sang while others called out answers or waved fingers showing answers to subtraction problems.

Once the students complete their lessons online — all kindergarteners and first-graders get tablets, while older kids have laptops — they meet with their teacher to make sure they understand the material before demonstrating what they’ve learned with a project that could be anything from writing a poem to building a house out of legos.

“Matchbook actually believes this is the heart and soul of how we turn around a school,” George said. “You can’t take a school that’s been failing for years and in a year get all these kids to grade level. There’s real gaps we have to fill in.

Matchbook Learning CEO Sajan George explains the Spark system his management company uses at Michigan Technical Academy, a Detroit charter school
Matchbook Learning CEO Sajan George explains the Spark system his management company uses at Michigan Technical Academy, a Detroit charter school

“I can’t speed a kid through and say, ‘Hey, I know you’re struggling with your number sense but let’s try this concept called quadratic equations because it’s going to be on the state test.’”

Central Michigan has been closely watching what’s happening at MTA, Wever said, but it’s too early to know whether the changes will prove successful in the long run.

“We’re cautiously optimistic at this point,” Wever said. “We have folks regularly in the school and they have seen a change in the culture and there appears to be a positive school culture going on with the new principal.”

It’s not clear how many schools with a history of scores as low as MTA’s could make a case that recent changes should spare them from severe consequences like closure.

Supporters of Detroit’s district schools say the creation of a new school district called the Detroit Public Schools Community District means they should get three years to try to improve before facing closure — a legal argument that’s under dispute.

But there’s no similar dispute over charter schools. The Detroit school closure legislation doesn’t include any exemptions for schools that are improving. So if MTA gets its third bottom-five ranking when the 2016 state list comes out this fall, there’s only one way for it to stay open: if the state determines that closing the school would represent an “unreasonable hardship” for students.

That’s essentially what Wever said CMU officials concluded was the case two years ago and little has changed in the neighborhood since then: Most schools in that part of the city have very low test scores.

But the School Reform Office declined to comment on how it will determine, in a neighborhood with many low-scoring schools, which ones would qualify for an unreasonable hardship exemption.

If the state decides to close the school, Central Michigan says there’s nothing the university can do to keep it open.

“At the end of the day, we are going to follow the law,” Wever said.

But George said he hopes state officials will visit his school before using three-year-old test scores to shut it down.

“We fundamentally believe that this is going to work,” George said. “I’m hoping there’s an opportunity to make a rational evident case and if there isn’t, then … I think they missed an opportunity to see something happen in Detroit that’s different than what else is out there.”

Closing MTA, George said, wouldn’t solve the deep challenges facing students and schools in Detroit.

“You’re just going to shuffle the deck,” he said. “What happens when the kids from one bottom 5 percent school go to a school that’s in the bottom 15 percent? If they’re not doing a radical turnaround design, that school will automatically be in the bottom five, and it’s like this domino effect.”

tailoring transformation

How a Memphis school that missed the turnaround tide plans to catch up under Hopson’s budget

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Antonio Harvey shows kindergarteners how to blow bubbles during a graduation celebration at Hawkins Mill Elementary School in the Frayser community of Memphis.

Located in one of the most concentrated neighborhoods of school turnaround work in America, Hawkins Mill Elementary School is in many ways a throwback to Memphis public education before the city became a battleground for school improvement efforts.

It’s one of the few schools in the city’s Frayser community that hasn’t undergone a major intervention plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter and Innovation Zone schools that surround it.

But that’s about to change.

As part of his initiative to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson picked Hawkins Mill to join more than a dozen other Memphis schools that will receive new resources under next year’s budget for Shelby County Schools. (You can see the full list here.)

Dubbed “critical focus schools,” the schools were chosen for reasons that range from poor test scores to low enrollment to aging buildings — all criteria that district leaders have used in recent years to close more than 20 schools.

But about $5.9 million in new investments soon will be spread across the schools based on transformation plans developed this spring with school administrators, teachers and parents in partnership with district leaders.

Principal Antonio Harvey says the process has inspired a climate of hope at Hawkins Mill, which has been among the state’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools since 2012.

“We’re getting the message out there that we’re invested in this community, we’re not giving up on this community, we support you,” said Harvey, who just completed his fourth year at the elementary school.

For years, the school’s leaders have tried to turn around academics in a zip code where about half the households live on less than $25,000 per year. But there’s never been a significant influx of resources, making progress negligible.

As part of Hopson’s budget, Hawkins Mill will receive an extra $300,000, mostly for staff hires that include a science teacher, teacher assistants, an instructional facilitator and an interventionist. The school also will require more team projects in classrooms; add a STEM specialty for science, technology, engineering and math; and host a dance academy under Watoto Memphis, an Afro-centric performing arts program.

“We were able to sit down and put a lot of energy into the plan because the thinking process was already there,” Harvey said of the new strategy.

Most of the needs had been identified in previous years but were a pipe dream without additional investments, according to Janet Rutherford, the school’s professional learning coach.

“Now we can make this happen,” she said.

 

Teams for other critical focus schools also have been developing transformation plans, each tailored to meet their individual needs and challenges.

Some are borrowing components from Shelby County Schools’ flagship turnaround program called the iZone. Those include an hour tacked onto the school day, retention bonuses for top teachers, and more teacher coaches.

Like other schools in the newest initiative, Hawkins Mill will have to meet benchmarks within three years if it wants to avoid closure. Those benchmarks are still being identified, but school leaders at Hawkins Mill are already figuring out how to address other challenges with enrollment, attendance and behavior. The plan includes home visits for chronically absent students and launching Hawks Buck Store, a weekly incentive program in which students can win prizes for good behavior.

Note: 2013-14 science and 2014-15 social studies test scores were not listed in the state report card. Elementary students did not take TNReady in 2015-16.

Community leaders are welcoming the investments in a school that was eyed for takeover in 2015 by Tennessee’s Achievement School District. At the time, Hawkins Mill was being considered for operation by the ASD’s direct-run Achievement Schools, which includes five Frayser schools already in turnaround mode.

Charlie Caswell, a longtime community leader and pastor at Union Grove Baptist Church, said he hopes Shelby County Schools will use the Achievement Schools’ community engagement model as it implements the transformation plans.

“Our hope is that it will be a game-changer for schools to have the autonomy based on what they know their needs are in the community,” he said.

Changes

As Denver gentrifies, which neighborhoods are losing public school students?

PHOTO: Marissa Page
Members of Denver's Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative committee examine demographic data at a meeting Monday.

As more young adults move to Denver and the cost of housing skyrockets, some city neighborhoods are seeing drops in the percentages of people of color and children.

Those changes affect Denver Public Schools, which has been the fastest-growing urban school district in the country. But that growth is slowing. Birth rates are down and many of the new transplants responsible for Denver’s population boom don’t have kids.

In addition, rising housing prices are pushing families out of some neighborhoods. A recent report by the Colorado Children’s Campaign found that the 92,000-student district is more racially segregated now than it was ten years ago. (DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg has said he doesn’t necessarily agree with that claim.)

A new committee created by the Denver school board got a closer look this week at population changes and demographic shifts in Denver’s 78 neighborhoods.

The Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative committee is set to spend the next six months studying how gentrification is impacting schools. The 42 members are tasked with suggesting ways to increase racial and economic integration in DPS schools and address the declining number of school-aged children in certain parts of the city.

The data provided to the committee at its second-ever meeting Monday night includes a lot of numbers, and you can see them in full at the bottom of this story. But we’ve pulled out some highlights.

Five neighborhoods where the number of students who attend a DPS school declined from 2010 to 2015.

1. Highland in northwest Denver, down 21 percent.
2. Marston in southwest Denver, down 14 percent.
3. Lincoln Park in west Denver, down 13 percent.
4. Jefferson Park in northwest Denver, down 12 percent.
5. Sunnyside in northwest Denver, down 6 percent. Bear Valley in southwest Denver and Clayton in central Denver also saw 6 percent decreases.

Five neighborhoods that saw big demographic shifts from 2010 to 2015.

1. Northeast Park Hill in near northeast Denver, where the percentage of black residents shrunk from 55 to 42 percent and the percentage of white residents grew from 11 to 20 percent.

2. Baker in northwest Denver, where half the residents in 2010 were Hispanic. By 2015, white residents were the majority: 56 percent compared 34 percent who were Hispanic.

3. Whittier in central Denver, where 40 percent of residents in 2010 were black and 38 percent were white. In 2015, 24 percent of residents were black and 50 percent were white.

3. Globeville in central Denver, which saw its Hispanic population decrease from 80 percent to 61 percent and its white population increase from 15 to 33 percent.

5. A few neighborhoods saw increases in the percentage of residents of color and decreases in the percentage of white residents, though white residents remained the majority. They include Hampden in southeast Denver and Washington Virginia Vale in near northeast Denver.

Five neighborhoods that saw big changes in the percentage of families living in poverty from 2010 to 2015.

1. Baker in northwest Denver, where the percentage of families living in poverty fell from 47 percent in 2010 to 17 percent in 2015, which is the citywide poverty rate.

2. Jefferson Park in northwest Denver, where the percentage fell from 48 to 24 percent.

3. Lincoln Park in northwest Denver, where the percentage fell from 47 to 26 percent.

4. West Colfax in northwest Denver, which saw the sharpest increase from 20 to 35 percent.

5. College View in southwest Denver, which saw an increase from 29 to 38 percent.

The data shows that many of Denver’s neighborhoods are racially segregated. Here are the neighborhoods where 80 percent or more of residents in 2015 were of one ethnicity.

Westwood in southwest Denver, 80 percent Hispanic
Elyria Swansea in central Denver, 83 percent Hispanic
West Highland in northwest Denver, 80 percent white
Civic Center in northwest Denver, 82 percent white
City Park in central Denver, 81 percent white
Congress Park in central Denver, 82 percent white
Cherry Creek in central Denver, 87 percent white
Speer in southeast Denver, 86 percent white
Washington Park West in southeast Denver, 85 percent white
Washington Park in southeast Denver, 90 percent white
Belcaro in southeast Denver, 93 percent white
Cory-Merrill in southeast Denver, 86 percent white
Platt Park in southeast Denver, 89 percent white
University Park in southeast Denver, 84 percent white
Wellshire in southeast Denver, 92 percent white
Southmoor Park in southeast Denver, 87 percent white
Hilltop in near northeast Denver, 90 percent white
There were no neighborhoods where 80 percent or more of residents were black.

The committee is set to meet next in August to discuss DPS’s existing integration policies.

Chalkbeat intern Marissa Page contributed information to this report.