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Week in Review: Meet your new school board, elected during an intense week

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
A total of 63 candidates ran for the first board of the new Detroit Public Schools Community District.

This has been an intense week for everyone in this country as teachers in Michigan and elsewhere have struggled to heal divisions or confront ongoing nastiness in the wake of Donald Trump’s surprise presidential victory on Tuesday. But here at home, those of us who care about Detroit schools are also trying to get to know the six women and one man who have been chosen to help shepherd our schools through for the next 2-6 years.

“I … want to make sure students learn in a safe environment and that teachers are adequately paid. … We want for our kids what other districts want for their kids.”

Angelique Peterson-Maybury, newly elected member,
Detroit Public Schools Community District board

Read on for more information about the new board members as well as the rest of a busy week that included news of a new push to help young Detroiters and an update on the future of the state-run recovery district. Thanks for reading!

The top seven

Detroit voters who managed to wade through the city’s three-page ballot on Tuesday and find the list of 63 candidates seeking seats on Detroit’s new school board selected seven people to serve on the first (almost) empowered locally elected school board that Detroit has had in years. The highest vote-getters will serve six-year terms, while those with fewer votes will serve four- or two-year terms — a setup designed to ensure that not every seat is up for reelection at the same time. Here’s what we know about the winners:

  • The candidate with the most campaign spending got the most votes — and a six-year term. Angelique Peterson-Maybury is the community relations director at UAW-Ford and the mother of two students currently enrolled in the district.
  • The other candidate elected for six years, Georgia Lemmons, did not report any campaign fundraising or answer surveys from the district or major newspapers about her background or experience. But she was the only candidate to have a special designation — “certified teacher” — appear with her name on the ballot. She petitioned a court for that designation so voters could distinguish her from her husband.
  • Georgia Lemmons is the wife of LaMar Lemmons, who served on the old DPS school board and was also elected to the new board — the only person to do so. LaMar Lemmons, who is an aide to a state representative, said he believe he and his wife are the first married couple to serve on a Detroit school board. A third Lemmons family member on the ballot did not make the cut with voters.
  • Candidates elected to four-year terms are:
    • Iris Taylor, the retired former CEO of Detroit Receiving Hospital
    • Sonya Mays, the CEO of a real estate and housing development nonprofit
    • Misha Stallworth, the advocacy coordinator for Detroit Area Agency on Aging. The youngest winner at 27, Stallworth is the daughter of former state Rep. Thomas Stallworth III. Her uncle and grandmother were also elected state lawmakers.
  • The two members who will serve just two years before needing to run again are Lamar Lemmons and Deborah Hunter-Harvill, who heads an education consulting firm.
  • The union that represents Detroit teachers claimed victory on Tuesday. Four of its endorsed candidates were elected, giving union-supported members a majority.
  • Of the nine endorsement lists that Chalkbeat reviewed last week, the group that saw the highest number of its endorsed candidates elected was the 13th Congressional District Democrats, which backed five of the winners (including the four endorsed by the teachers union).
  • One critic says the election was actually illegal.

That other election:

  • Video of students at a suburban Detroit middle school chanting “build the wall” as a way of taunting Latino classmates has gone viral and turned the school into a national symbol of division.

More from Election Day:

  • The state board of education is now divided evenly between Democrats and Republicans, setting the board up for a brewing battle over issues like charter schools and school funding.
  • The Wayne County school tax hike passed, leading to cheers from school leaders. “We now have an exceptional opportunity to invest more fully in programs and initiatives that will strengthen the district’s academic plan, improve our facilities and reinforce safety and security,” said Alycia Meriweather, the interim superintendent of Detroit’s main school district.
  • Suburban voters also supported most of the tax hikes that were on the ballot throughout the region.
  • An influential pro-school choice lobbying group announced that 49 of the 53 candidates it endorsed in the state house had won their elections.

In Detroit:

  • Two major foundations are leading a high-profile effort called “Hope Starts Here” to design a “world-class” program to serve the health and education needs of Detroit’s youngest children, from babies to third graders. The effort will invite tens of thousands of Detroiters to make recommendations for immediate and long-term actions that will culminate in a “citywide action plan” next summer.
  • Plans for folding the Education Achievement Authority schools back into Detroit’s main school district are underway, and debts owed by the state-run recovery district have been resolved. Still unclear is what will happen to the EAA’s teachers, who aren’t members of the teachers union and are paid on a different scale from district teachers.
  • High schools in the main Detroit district will get career-based themes similar to the medicine and science theme at the Ben Carson High School of Science and Medicine. At least that’s what’s in the academic plan released this week by the district’s leaders. To be implemented, however, the plan will need approval from the new school board.
  • A conference today and tomorrow aims to encourage more churches and businesses to partner with schools to improve conditions for kids in poverty. A former United Way official is using the event to launch his book about a community partnership in Detroit’s Cody Rouge community that improved graduation rates.
  • More than 350 JROTC cadets from Detroit schools are expected to participate in today’s Veterans Day observance ceremony at the Historic Elmwood Cemetery.

Across the state:

  • The head of a national charter school organization warns that as Michigan considers closing schools for low performance, officials should be on the lookout for struggling schools that “resort to politics and personal attacks to garner sympathy for their plight and divert attention from their failings.” Closing a school, he writes, is “agonizing,” but sometimes necessary.
  • Chalkbeat wrote recently about a Detroit charter school that says it’s turning things around, even if that turnaround hasn’t yet been reflected in test scores. Now several other schools across the state are making similar arguments.
  • Online-only schools in Michigan that let kids do their lessons from home have seen a spike in enrollment.
  • The list of state high school band competition winners is awfully similar to last year’s.
  • A suburban school is hosting a “life after high school” fair for students with “learning differences” to explore college and vocational options.
  • Michigan families can now turn to a state website to search for and apply for more than 5 million scholarships worth up to $25 billion.
  • The state education department is now accepting nominations for the prestigious $10,000 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
  • Some western Michigan districts are ramping up reading instruction to prepare kids for the new tougher third-grade promotion requirements that will affect this year’s kindergartners.
  • A new report looks at the impact of the Michigan Teaching Fellowship Program, which trains science, technology, and math teachers to work in some of the state’s neediest schools.

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

Week In Review

Week in review: Open Meetings Act violation postpones superintendent discussion

PHOTO: Detroit Public Schools Community District
Teams with Detroit Public Schools Community District students will be going for the first time to the Destination Imagination Global Competition next month. The problem-solving competition draws more than 17,000 participants from 20 countries. Among the winners is a team from Detroit’s Neinas Dual Language Learning Academy.

A crucial discussion about who should lead Detroit’s main school district won’t happen until at least next week after a superintendent search update was postponed last night due to problems with the way the meeting was advertised.

The Detroit school board now plans to discuss (and possibly vote on) the two finalists — Florida superintendent Nikolai Vitti and River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman — at a meeting scheduled for Tuesday night. Thursday’s meeting was cancelled after an activist who scrutinizes city practices filed an emergency court motion to prevent the board from violating the state Open Meetings Act.

 

“The irony was that there was going to be no action taken today. It was just going to be open deliberation.”

— LaMar Lemmons, Detroit school board member

 

The board had announced the meeting on social media and in a press release but the notice was not clearly visible on the district’s website yesterday. Read on for more about the superintendent search and the rest of the week’s Detroit schools news. Also, check out our new series featuring parents, students and educators talking about Detroit schools. This week’s inaugural story featured a teacher explaining the tragic reason why her students sometimes don’t come to class. Do you have a story to tell or know someone who does? Please let us know.

The search

The Detroit school board this week defended its superintendent search process from an onslaught of criticism. “We ask and request that we are allowed to do this process that was agreed upon by this board back in January,” the head of the board’s search committee said.

Critics are steamed by what some call an “unfair” decision to exclude interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather, who applied for the position but was not named a finalist when the board decided only to consider candidates with three or more years of superintendent experience. Meriweather had gotten broad support from teachers, parents, and community leaders, including business titan Dan Gilbert and a parent advocate who blogged this week that “the majority of Detroiters agree that we don’t want to start over from scratch.”

The two remaining finalists revealed in video interviews and in their 90- and 100-day plans for what they’ll do if they get the job that they are men with a lot in common and big ambitions for the district.

The Detroit News says it believes Coleman is the board’s preferred candidate, but the paper urged the board to pick Vitti instead, arguing that “the fact that Vitti has run a large school district gives him experience with complicated budgets, which he’d be overseeing in Detroit.”

Vitti has expressed enthusiasm for the job but assured a Florida news station that he’ll be keeping his eye on his current job until he gets a new one. “Right now, my focus is on Duval County Public Schools,” Vitti told a reporter in Jacksonville. “We still have lots of work to do here and that’s what I’m focused on right now.”

 

In other Detroit schools news

    • This Detroit teacher reveals the tragic reason why her students don’t always come to class.
    • Three charter schools that are currently part of the Education Achievement Authority now face an uncertain future.
    • Enrollment in Detroit’s main school district is at a historic low.
    • Hundreds of Detroit parents have turned in letters opting their children out of this year’s M-STEP exam to protest school closings and other high-stakes consequences for test scores. Schools could face sanctions if more than 5 percent of their students opt out. A Free Press columnist urges Lansing to pay attention to what protesting parents are saying.  
    • A partnership between Detroit’s main school district and the University of Detroit Mercy aims to attract more teachers, especially African-American men.
    • A new novel is inspired by a writer’s time teaching poetry to kids in Detroit schools.
    • Two Detroit high school orchestras that will compete against each other in a national competition at Carnegie Hall this month are led by a married couple — he teaches at Renaissance High School; she at Detroit School of Arts.
    • This Detroit private school makes a point of teaching cursive.

 

Across the state

    • Michigan is revising its rules to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, but doesn’t plan to publicly share its final plan before sending it to the federal government for approval. The state superintendent makes his case for why the state’s plan “is the proper course and the best direction for education in Michigan” but a schools advocate knocks the department for choosing “expediency over transparency” with its ESSA plan.
    • The state education department is looking for tools that schools and districts can use to identify children who are in danger of being held back under the state’s tougher new third grade reading requirements.
    • A Free Press columnist slams a House bill that would allow schools to replace foreign language instruction with computer coding classes. “It should not be either/or,” she writes. But a western Michigan lawmaker who helped craft the legislation says her bill “would give students better choices.”
    • The state’s top court heard arguments this week on whether courts have any say over private school admissions. The case centers around a girl whose parents say she was turned away a Catholic school because of a learning disability.
    • A Democratic candidate for governor says, if elected, she would crack down on charter school authorizers who fail to close poor-performing charter schools.
    • The parents of a middle-schooler with autism are suing their local district after their son told them he was sexually abused by a classmate.