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.”

red carpet

#PublicSchoolProud has its Oscar moment as ‘La La Land’ songwriter shouts out his schools

Songwriter Justin Paul at the 2017 Academy Awards, where he credited his public school education in his acceptance speech for best song.

The recent movement to praise public schools made it all the way to the Academy Awards stage Sunday night.

Justin Paul, one of the songwriters for the movie “La La Land,” credited his public school education during his acceptance speech.

“I was educated in public schools, where arts and culture were valued and recognized and resourced,” Paul said after winning the Oscar for best song. “And I’m so grateful for all my teachers, who taught so much and gave so much to us.”

Paul attended public schools in Westport, Connecticut, where he graduated from Staples High School. The school was also recognized in a recent documentary about its history as a rock venue in the late 1960s. Students recruited The Doors, the Yardbirds, and several other bands to play in the school’s auditorium.

The Oscars stage shoutout comes as people across the country have begun praising their own public schools on social media. The #PublicSchoolProud movement is a response to new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has advocated for policies that let students leave public schools for private and charter schools.

survey says

How accessible are New York City’s high schools? Students with physical disabilities are about to find out

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Midwood High School is considered inaccessible to students with physical disabilities.

Michelle Noris began her son’s high school search the way many parents of children with physical disabilities do: by throwing out most of the high school directory.

She knew her son Abraham would only have access to a few dozen of the city’s 400-plus high schools because of significant health needs, despite being a bright student with a knack for writing.

“I tore out every page that didn’t work in advance of showing [the directory] to him,” Noris recalls.

Even once they narrowed the list of potential schools, they still couldn’t be sure which schools Abraham — who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair — would be physically able to enter. The directory lists whether a school is considered partially or fully accessible, which, in theory, means that students should have access to “all relevant programs and services.”

In practice, however, the situation is much more complicated. “We had schools that are listed as partially accessible, but there’s no accessible bathroom,” said Noris, who is a member of the Citywide Council on Special Education. Some “accessible” schools might not have water fountains or cafeteria tables that accommodate students with mobility needs. A school’s auditorium could have a ramp, but no way for a wheelchair-bound student to get up on the stage.

Most of that information is not publicly available without calling a school or showing up for a visit — a process that can be time-consuming and demoralizing. But now, thanks in part by lobbying from Noris and other advocates, the city has pledged to begin filling the information gap. The education department will soon release more detailed information about exactly how accessible its high schools are.

Based on a 58-question survey, the city is collecting more granular data: if music rooms or computer labs are accessible, for instance, or whether there’s a slight step in a library that could act as a barrier. The survey also tracks whether a student in a wheelchair would have to use a side or back entrance to make it into the building.

“Sometimes, [parents] actually have to visit four or five of our schools to see if their child could get to every area of the school that’s important to them,” said Tom Taratko, who heads the education department’s space management division. “We didn’t think that was right.”

Virtually every physical amenity will be documented, Taratko said, down to whether a school has braille signage or technology for students with hearing impairments.

Education department officials are still fine-tuning exactly how to translate the city’s new accessibility inventory into a user-friendly dataset families can use. Some of the new information will be made available in the high school directory, and the results of each school’s survey will be available online.

Officials said the new data would be provided in “the coming weeks” for all high schools in Manhattan and Staten Island. The rest of the city’s high schools should be included before the next admissions cycle.

The survey will help identify which schools could be made accessible with relatively few changes, Taratko explained. “Everything — our shortcomings, our strengths — everything will be out there.”

The decision to release more high school accessibility data comes less than two years after a scathing U.S. Department of Justice investigation revealed “inexcusable” accommodations in elementary schools.

Many of the city’s school buildings were built before the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, and despite committing $100 million in its current five-year capital budget to upgrades, many schools are still not accessible. According to 2016 data, the most recent available, just 13 percent of district and charter schools that serve high school grades are fully accessible. About 62 percent are partially accessible, and 25 percent are considered inaccessible.

Making accessibility data public could help change those numbers, said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children who has pushed for greater transparency and praised the initiative.

“Once it’s out there, there’s so much more self-advocacy a parent can do,” Moroff said. “Then they can make requests about specific accommodations.”

Greater transparency is just one step in the process. Moroff hopes the city will consider taking students’ physical disabilities into account during the admissions process so that academically qualified students get preference for accessible schools. Once students arrive, she added, they must be welcomed by the school community.

“There needs to be much more work to hold the schools accountable to actually welcoming those students,” Moroff said. “It has to go hand in hand with making renovations and making accommodations.”

Even though the data comes too late for Noris, whose son submitted applications to just two high schools out of a possible twelve due to accessibility constraints, she is optimistic future families will have an easier time navigating the process.

“They didn’t say, ‘We’re going to do this over the next ten years.’ They said, ‘We’re going to do this in two years,’” Noris said, noting that she hopes more funding is allocated to upgrade buildings. “I think it’s a real example of the Department of Education hearing the needs and being willing to act on it.”