Headlines

Week in review: Right-wing Michigan philanthropist Betsy DeVos reportedly in the mix for Trump education secretary

Harassment and intimidation complaints in schools spiked after last week’s election, and Michigan officials are pleading with “educators at all levels” to help stop the bullying:

“Our schools must be safe havens for our children – free from hate; free from intimidation; free from bullying; and free from fear.”

— State Superintendent Brian Whiston

The election fallout comes as Michigan political watchers wait to see whether an influential figure in state education policy could join the new Trump administration. Read on for more details and the rest of the week’s education news.

Ed sec speculation hits home

As Donald Trump prepares to become president in January, a powerful — and controversial — figure in state education politics is in the mix as a possible education secretary in the Trump administration.

Republican Betsy DeVos helped lead an unsuccessful push to change the state constitution to allow private school vouchers and has been a strong supporter of school choice programs. She sparked criticism this year when together with other wealthy family members, she flooded state lawmakers with campaign cash as they debated whether to include oversight for charter schools in their Detroit schools legislation. They didn’t.

It could be weeks before we know who Trump will choose, but one prominent native Detroiter whose name had been floated says he’s not interested. And while some say that whoever does get the job won’t have much influence under existing federal law, others in Michigan want the U.S. Education Department shuttered completely.

Other names in the education secretary mix include former Indiana schools chief Tony Bennett and New York City charter school mogul Eva Moskowitz, who said Thursday that she doesn’t want the job. As Trump appears to be considering education reformers, they face a stark choice: serve or steer clear?

Election aftermath

After his statement Monday that lamented the election’s impact on the “actions, demeanor and mood in some of our schools,” state Superintendent Brian Whiston followed up the next day with another message, this time issued jointly with the state’s top civil rights official. They called on “every administrator, teacher, staff member, parent, guardian, bus driver and student” to “stand as one in condemning intolerable conduct regardless of message or motivation.” The second statement also included a list of resources and specific guidance for schools.

That effort came as some parents at a Grosse Pointe school were angered by a unity message broadcast after the election by the school’s Muslim principal. And a Birmingham teacher is under fire for tweets that questioned the values of his largely white students in the wake of the election.

Those incidents, which follow high profile events last week like the viral video of Royal Oak students chanting “build that wall” in a school cafeteria, are part of a growing national tally of post-election bullying and harassment in schools.

It’s not all negative though. Students at this Michigan school created a “wall of positivity.” And these middle schoolers are doing their part to spread unity and kindness.

In Detroit:

  • The Detroit News says the new Detroit school board must prove itself. Arguing that “despite a couple of bright spots,” the new board “doesn’t offer a lot of hope for the district’s variability,” the paper urged the board to conduct a nationwide search for a new superintendent. But Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather should be an option, the paper wrote: “She’s done well in her role.”
  • The success of the Wayne County tax hike vote last week might inspire neighboring counties to seek similar votes in upcoming elections.
  • The heads of two prominent local foundations explain why they’re launching a “bold, city-wide engagement to bring the needs of Detroit’s youngest citizens, from birth to age 8, to the forefront.”
  • A local after-school program that teaches low-income children to play classical music was honored this week by the White House.
  • One advocate says Detroit needs more college pipeline programs.
  • The private companies that now run school buses in Detroit have adapted to recent changes and technology.
  • A school bus crashed into a manufacturing plant on Detroit’s northwest side, injuring the driver. No kids were on the bus.
  • A former Detroit Public Schools CEO has died.

Across the state:

  • Without state oversight, dual enrollment programs that are supposed to help students earn free college credits while still in high school are diminishing. While the programs have grown in popularity, not all colleges accept the credits.
  • State officials want public input on how best to respond to changes in federal education law and are holding public forums around the state.
  • What would it cost to pay Michigan teachers the way we pay doctors? A lot.
  • One advocate warns that a teacher pension crisis is looming in Michigan.
  • A suburban teacher’s aide pleaded guilty to charges related to sexaul contact with students.
  • Police at a suburban high school are investigating whether a student threatened to carry out a school shooting.
  • A suburban high school is hosting a “Prep for Success” educational symposium this weekend to help over 1,000 students and their parents get help with study skills, test prep and academic guidance.

From Chalkbeat:

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

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