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
Kindergarten teachers at the Michigan Technical Academy say their students will be better prepared for state exams in third grade but they may not get a chance to prove it.

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.”

leadership matters

Meet the leader behind one Memphis school’s Blue Ribbon success

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Principal Yolanda Heidelberg celebrates during a schoolwide event in November at Jackson Elementary, one of two Memphis schools honored as a 2016 National Blue Ribbon School.

In many ways, Jackson Elementary School is an anomaly in Memphis.

In a district in which more than 78 percent of students are black, 71 percent of Jackson Elementary’s students are Hispanic. And more than 99 percent of its students come from poor families, much higher than the district average. Yet its most recent state test scores outpaced Shelby County Schools in most every subject, earning Jackson Elementary a 2016 Blue Ribbon designation by the U.S. Department of Education for closing the performance gap between poor and minority students and their more affluent and white peers.

To insiders, Jackson is known affectionately as Heidelberg University, named in honor of the school’s inspirational leader.

As principal of the 350-student school, Yolanda Heidelberg fosters an all-hands-on-deck attitude that creates a vibrant learning environment for both students and teachers.

Parents volunteer in preparation for Jackson Elementary School's annual Hispanic heritage festival.
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Parents volunteers decorate for the school’s annual Hispanic heritage festival.

“We’re a family school,” Heidelberg said. That, in turn, trickles down to interactions with parents, who frequently pack the auditorium for parent meetings.

The confidence that Heidelberg exudes is a far cry from how she felt when interviewing for the job in 2001. At the time, Hispanics made up less than a quarter of the school’s enrollment. But district leaders expected the composition to change dramatically as more Hispanic families moved into the neighborhood. Heidelberg was asked if she spoke Spanish and had to answer no.

“I was frightened by that because I wasn’t sure I could help,” Heidelberg recalls of eventually landing the job. “But that became my greatest strength.”

Her lack of knowledge about serving English language learners drove Heidelberg to dive into research on how to help her incoming students feel welcome and flourish academically.

And it worked.

Jackson ES in Memphis
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Hispanic students comprise 71 percent of the school’s student population, much higher than the district average.

In 2012, Jackson Elementary was named a state Reward School for achieving top growth rates in scores across multiple years. In 2015, the most recent year for which standardized test scores are available, nearly 60 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in state math tests and nearly 70 percent in science. About 40 percent of students did the same in reading.

The school’s success can be traced to Heidelberg’s persona, leadership, coaching and resourcefulness, according to faculty members.

When she was unable to get the former Memphis City Schools to provide translation services to produce literature for parents, Heidelberg found help from the Memphis Police Department. Those services came in handy when she needed content translated for event programs, marquees and even the school’s website.

“I never wanted language to be a barrier for us. … I never want language to hinder our progress,” she said.

Heidelberg also works with area churches and businesses that provide volunteer tutors for Jackson’s after-school programs.

Yolanda Heidelberg's favorite place at Jackson Elementary School: the Wall of Fame that displays former students who have gone on to college.
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Heidelberg’s Wall of Fame celebrates former students who have gone on to college.

The focus on academics is clear when entering the school, where a prominent display celebrates former students who have gone on to college.

Among staff, teamwork and collaboration are viewed as school values.

Strategies used by teachers of English language learners are often found in mainstream classrooms. Classroom teachers work closely with ELL teachers to plan lessons and skew work toward visuals. To show their mastery of a topic, students can do presentations and projects that aren’t text-heavy but still build language skills.

“We work really hard together — meeting kids where they’re at,” said Charnisha Phipps, a third-grade teacher.

“What sets us apart is that we’re not in competition with each other. We operate as one unit,” adds Lavonda Brown, who teaches fifth grade. “Here we share. We build on each other’s strengths.”

Carla Wilson teaches English language learners but she still attends classroom teacher meetings, for instance, and sometimes steps in other classrooms to offer extra support. “Just because I’m an ESL teacher doesn’t mean I’m only going to be doing that. We go in and do whatever needs to be done,” she said.

The culture is apparent in the front office too, where students and parents vote each month for a “star” staff member. The prize? A lunch out with Heidelberg — and a half day off.

For Heidelberg, the prize is the National Blue Ribbon award, shared this year with 278 other public schools across the nation. While there’s no material benefit, the designation is viewed as a badge of honor in education.

“This is just a validation of the hard work we’ve done over the years,” she said. “It’s finally being recognized.”

charter lineup

Tennessee’s ASD soon will lose one of its first charter school networks, but others say they’re still in the game

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Achievement School District Superintendent Malika Anderson speaks to parents and teachers in November at Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School, which will lose its charter operator at the end of the school year.

This fall’s surprise announcement that Gestalt Community Schools is leaving Tennessee’s school turnaround district doesn’t appear to be a bellwether for other charter networks operating in the Achievement School District.

Of the state’s 13 charter operators, half that spoke with Chalkbeat said they have no plans to exit the ASD. And several are open to expanding under the state-run district, which oversees 33 schools in Memphis and Nashville.

“Aspire is focused on growing in Memphis,” said Allison Leslie, Memphis superintendent for the California-based network, which operates three schools in the city and tried last year to add a fourth.

Leaders for Capstone Education Group and Frayser Community Schools said their Memphis-based networks also would like to expand under the ASD. Capstone wants to grow from three to five schools in Memphis by 2021, while Frayser Community Schools, now with one school, has expressed interest in managing the two that Gestalt will leave behind.

Other operators characterize Gestalt’s decision as an outlier rooted mostly in enrollment challenges in North Memphis. The network had sought to turn around two low-performing schools in an area where the city’s population of school-age children had hollowed out in recent years.

Gestalt Community Schools was one of the first charter networks to join Tennessee’s turnaround district that launched in 2012; now it will be the first to depart. Leaders of the Memphis-based network announced plans in October to pull out at the end of this school year. CEO Yetta Lewis blamed chronic under-enrollment, exacerbated by a state-imposed cap on out-of-zone enrollment for ASD schools. Gestalt will continue to operate five other Memphis charter schools authorized by Shelby County Schools.


Read our Q&A with Gestalt Community Schools CEO Yetta Lewis about why Gestalt is leaving the ASD and lessons learned.


The work has been hard for ASD charter operators tasked with taking schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and turning them around in five years — a goal that ASD leaders now acknowledge was unrealistic.

Created in 2010 with the help of federal Race to the Top funding, the ASD recruited and incentivized charter networks to join its portfolio of schools and granted them broad discretion in hiring, curriculum, instruction and budgeting. But especially in Memphis, charter leaders have grappled with high student mobility, extreme poverty, a lack of shared resources, barriers to school choice, and on-the-ground opposition in communities with intense loyalty to neighborhood schools.

Like schools statewide, charters also have had to deal with the void in state test scores in 2015-16 due to Tennessee’s cancellation last spring of its new TNReady assessment for K-8 students. The bumpy testing transition prompted ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson to halt takeovers of low-performing schools for one year.

Enrollment has been another challenge. Gestalt has not been alone in that struggle, but its two ASD schools — Klondike Elementary and Humes Middle — suffered some of the district’s largest enrollment losses: about 13 percent of their student population in the last year.

“We keep trying something new or different but came to realize that over the last four years, people have moved pretty steadily out of North Memphis,” Lewis said.

With a limited pool of high-quality national charter networks, the ASD is working to cultivate more local operators to be part of its future expansion. This fall, the district kicked off a series of trainings in Memphis and Nashville, inviting community leaders to learn about the basics of charter schooling in Tennessee and how to create schools through the ASD.

Chalkbeat reporter Laura Kebede contributed to this story.