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Week in Review: Where are the children?

PHOTO: Francesca Berardi
Some Detroit families struggle to find available seats in Head Start programs — while programs struggle to find families.

In a city that desperately needs quality schools, there are few things more confounding than knowing there are great programs in Detroit that can’t fill their seats. A story from our partner, the Teacher Project, this week highlights some of the reasons that low-income families struggle to find Head Start programs, even as the programs struggle to find enough kids.

“Where are the children? … I am becoming a walking billboard. I carry flyers everywhere.”

Laura Lefever, director, Children’s Center Head Start

That story builds on a Chalkbeat report from last spring about hundreds of Head Start vacancies caused by teacher shortages and the challenge of bringing classroom space up to code after years of deterioration and neglect.

Also this week, the debate around the Detroit charter school that critics say is using a “sneaky” enrollment method to create diversity went national when the Atlantic picked up our story on the school, generating heated comments from readers. Please take a look — and read on for the rest of the week’s headlines.

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District in transition

Bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes is leaving his Transition Manager role with the Detroit Public Schools Community District at the end of the month. He says he’s leaving the new school board with a balanced budget — but many challenges. Here’s what Rhodes and Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather told the state legislature this week:

  • They’re holding twice-weekly training sessions for the new board members who were elected last month.
  • Detroiters could see more school corruption cases as the district’s Inspector General pursues “several matters … that may result in further criminal investigations and charges,” Rhodes said.
  • Rhodes is urging the new board to give Meriweather a permanent post: “She has done an extraordinary job,” he said. “Her insight into the educational process and what it takes to achieve success in an urban district is amazing.”
  • Rhodes called on the legislature to “continue to insist on prudence” in the district’s financial affairs but said: “I also urge it to consider that educating children who live in poverty … is more challenging and therefore more expensive.”
  • Meriweather says the $617 million the state spent this summer to create a new debt-free district has helped educators focus on improving education but warned that improvements will take time. “It will take us eight to 10 years to get there,” she said. “We have a lot of work to do.” (That comment prompted a pro-charter school website to assert that charters are a better option.)

Division on DeVos

The impact of Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s pick for U.S. education secretary, on Michigan schools got a closer look this week. Here’s what analysts here and across the country said:

  • The Free Press editorial page editor blames DeVos and her advocacy for the poor state of charter schools in Detroit and Michigan. “I’m certain she’ll try to make the nation’s charter landscape look more like the chaos we face here in Detroit, and less like it does in (higher performing) states like Tennessee or Massachusetts,” he wrote in a column that the Washington Post reprinted.
  • Bridge Magazine wrote that “DeVos’s dogged commitment to policies that have yielded, at best, mixed results in Michigan raises questions about what lessons she would take to Washington, as well as about her willingness to listen to viewpoints outside her free-market ideology.”
  • Education Week offered this timeline of DeVos’ influence on state education policy, and Politico called Michigan’s charter school results “so disappointing that even some supporters of school choice are critical of the state’s policies.”
  • But a DeVos supporter said criticism misstates Michigan’s charter record. And Crain’s says DeVos will “shake up the status quo,” though it added: “if choice expands with federal dollars, DeVos should heed some lessons from Michigan.”
  • NPR visited the successful DeVos-founded charter school that trains students to become pilots or pursue careers in aviation or engineering fields. “I think the word choice says it all,” the school’s principal said. “The philosophy of our school from Dick and Betsy, obviously, is to provide opportunities for all kids. So the word opportunity and choice to me go hand in hand.”

In other Detroit news:

  • The main Detroit school district is still hiring teachers, especially those certified in math, science, and languages.
  • A columnist praises the schools in the state-run recovery district but says signs of progress have come too late to save the district.
  • Michigan State University is expanding its educational offerings in Detroit with music classes and a training program that prepares educators to teach in an urban setting.
  • After a brief delay, the bribery trial of a former DPS principal began with testimony from an FBI agent who said the principal admitted to taking $40,000. The principal planned to tell jurors she used the money on her school, but a judge scratched that defense.
  • The heads of two major foundations appeared on TV to explain why they’re investing heavily in early childhood education in Detroit.
  • Students at a dozen local schools are participating in the national “Hour of Code” today.
  • Members of two Detroit high school football teams are learning the importance of “digital etiquette” to protect their reputations online.
  • Detroit’s main district threw a parade to celebrate the two city football teams that won state championships.
  • This Detroit high school won $20,000 worth of sports equipment.

Across the state:

  • Gov. Rick Snyder on Thursday abruptly ended a push to pull $430 million out of the School Aid Fund to pay income tax refunds but said he might revive it later. “It’s the right thing to do, but it’s not the right time to do it,” his spokesman said. School advocates said the plan would cost schools nearly $300 per student (and a Free Press columnist called it “sketchy.”) Snyder’s office said his next budget will increase school funding.
  • New Michigan teachers and municipal workers will continue to get pensions after legislation to change the retirement system failed (for now) in Lansing. One columnist says lawmakers have declared “war on teachers,” while an advocate says the pension changes would have benefitted teachers.
  • The state teachers union has continued to lose members since right-to-work legislation made membership optional.
  • A statewide coalition of business, civil rights, and community groups is calling on state education officials to prioritize excellence, equity and transparency as they adapt state policies to conform with new federal education laws.
  • The state lieutenant governor called for schools to stop using restraint and seclusion to control children with special needs in non-emergency situations — a practice he called inhumane and barbaric. His call was supported by a columnist who described what happened to an 8-year-old boy with autism with who was locked in a padded room for hours.
  • A school counseling advocate urged parents and business leaders to call their legislators to back a bill that aims to improve college counseling for high schoolers.
  • Graduation rates in Michigan and across the country are expected to drop in coming years.
  • Parents at a suburban middle school dogged by racial incidents gathered for a “peace forum” to promote unity.
  • Calls from residents in a suburban community for a school board member to step down following offensive social media posts is getting national attention.
  • An elite suburban school has landed a $1 million donation.

More from Chalkbeat

  • New York City’s improvement goals for its most struggling schools are in many cases completely marginal.
  • Author Ta-Nehisi Coates has a message for principals: “It’s not all up to you.”
  • Donald Trump’s apparent backtracking on young adults who came to the country illegally as children is adding even more uncertainty for teachers in that category.
  • Indiana’s aggressive efforts to recruit more teachers aren’t paying off.
  • Meet Michael Johnston, the Colorado education policy architect who is eyeing the governor’s office.

Week In Review

Week in Review: A reprieve — but difficult conversations — for struggling schools

Supporters of 38 struggling schools are breathing a little easier this week now that threatened state school closures are likely on hold until next year but the schools still face potentially difficult conversations as they try to improve.

“Any school that’s been failing for three, four or five years, we can’t allow it to continue … Obviously what we’re doing is not working.” 

— Brian Whiston, Michigan state superintendent

Read on for more on this evolving story — as well as the rest of the week’s headlines. And don’t forget to buy your tickets to the School Days storytelling event Chalkbeat is hosting next Friday — a week from today — in conjunction with the Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers at the Charles H. Wright Museum. We’re expecting an epic night of cocktails and storytelling, designed to both celebrate and elevate the voices of Detroit residents. Tickets are $20 in advance (or $25 at the door). Buy them here. Thanks for reading!

Closings averted (for now)

  • Schools have been offered a chance to avoid closure by entering into partnership agreements with state and local organizations (read the letter the districts received here).
  • State Superintendent Brian Whiston says he still expects 4-6 schools to close but those will be local — not state — decisions.
  • In Detroit, one school that’s likely to close is Durfee Elementary-Middle school, where students will move to nearby Central High School while a local organization turns Durfee into a “community innovation center.”
  • What exactly the partnership agreements will look like isn’t clear, but a spokesman for the superintendent says they’re “a hybrid model developed from Superintendent Whiston’s own experience as a local superintendent, similar initiatives from other states that have shown success, and discussions with education stakeholders in Michigan.”
  • To participate, districts will have to put together a team of partners including community groups, union leaders or parents to come up with research-based solutions for school improvement.
  • Keeping the schools open would preserve tens of millions of dollars that taxpayers and community groups have put into Detroit schools in recent years, expecting they would stay open.
  • One GOP leader said the state is “circumventing the law” by backing down on closures. “Everybody is just giving them some leeway to do this because it’s a popular thing,” he said.
  • The state Education Department has essentially taken over the fate of the 38 schools from the state School Reform Office, which announced the closures in January. One reason is what a GOP lawmaker described as a “clunky rollout” including the decision to send families a two-page letter listing “better” schools that students could attend. The letters sent to Detroit families included schools an hour away from the city that don’t even accept Detroit kids.

Across the state  

  • A top lobbyist promoting the Michigan education agenda of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos resigned this week after apologizing for making comments about shaking his wife during legislative testimony last week.
  • A local business leader compares DeVos with Eli Broad — another Michigan-born billionaire philanthropist who invests heavily in education. The two have different approaches to improving schools, he writes, but DeVos “has been far more successful.”
  • The commission, which plans to formally release its recommendations today, reached no consensus on controversial issues like charter schools and the state’s schools-of-choice law but is calling for upwards of $2 billion in spending on expanding teacher training and helping at-risk kids.
  • A Michigan education professor called on the state to use the latest research to update standards for what kids need to know in each grade instead of recycling other states’ old standards.

 

In Detroit

  • Members of a Detroit charter school’s champion chess team say the secret to their success is “a lot of heart.”
  • A service organization that provides academic and emotional support to students in seven Detroit schools could lose its federal funding.

 

Week In Review

Week in review: Michigan school closing decisions delayed — but still looming

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Among schools that could be closed by the state is Mumford High School which moved into a new $50 million building in 2012.

Detroiters have to wait a little longer to find out which of 25 targeted city schools will be closed by the state in June. Gov. Rick Snyder announced yesterday that final decisions, which had been expected soon, have now been postponed until May. The state School Reform Office says  those decisions will be largely based on academic concerns but our story this week looks at the tens of millions of dollars that have gone into building and renovating Detroit schools in recent years — money that could be wasted if schools are shuttered.

“These upgrades were done because the business community, the faith-based community and private individuals believe in these schools. You’re rallying that kind of support and then you’re just going to chop it off? Cut off the limb? Not only are they going to hurt children but they’re going to hurt all of Detroit.”

— Chris Lambert, the founder and CEO, Life Remodeled

Read on for more on school closings and other education issues. Also, if you haven’t yet purchased your ticket for the March 17 School Days teacher storytelling event hosted by Chalkbeat and the Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers, get your tickets here. For a preview, watch Chalkbeat Senior Detroit Correspondent Erin Einhorn on stage last week telling the story of how and why Chalkbeat got started in Detroit.

 

On school closings

  • The nation’s top education states typically do not close down schools, preferring to find ways to improve them. But Michigan is plowing ahead with as many as 38 school closings across the state.
  • Those closings will cost money: roughly $100,000 to close buildings and remove equipment plus $50,000 in yearly security costs but state officials haven’t yet decided who will shoulder those expenses.
  • A powerful documentary about school closings highlights the plight of special needs students, including some that are now facing their second school closing in recent years.
  • The state’s Democratic members of Congress urged Gov. Snyder to stop the closings. “We ask that the state not close any schools without consultation and input from the local community,” the members wrote.
  • Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said he’s been “encouraged” by conversations between the district and the state. “I’m optimistic we’re gonna work things out” he said in his State of the City Address on Tuesday. He’ll fight the state if he has to, he said. “Closing a school doesn’t add a single quality seat. All it does is bounce our children around from place to place.”
  • Snyder’s postponement of final decisions until May was cheered by opponents as a sign that the state is rethinking its approach. ”I hope that the delay is a recognition that the way the state was handling school closures was ineffective,” one said.

On Detroit

  • Duggan revealed that, until recently, city high school grads lost jobs because the district took months to produce student transcripts.
  • Nearly 100 teachers in Detroit’s main district got $1,000 bonuses last year for improving student test scores and meeting other criteria.
  • The district is expanding its Montessori program to three more schools including Palmer Park Prep Academy, Vernor Elementary and Chrysler Elementary.
    All 94 district buildings now have safe levels of lead and copper.

Across the state

In other news

  • The troubled website for children with disabilities that became a political symbol during the first weeks since Betsy DeVos became U.S. Education Secretary has been restored.
  • One Detroit high school student says Devos used money and power to create “a lack of resources for Detroit Public Schools, as well as a negative connotation with all Detroit schools.”
  • Another Detroit student is featured in a national magazine tying DeVos to a host of Detroit school problems.
  • DeVos was initially opposed to rolling back protections for transgender students but then defended the changes.
  • Trump’s proposed AmeriCorps cuts would trim .03 percent of the federal budget — but slash support at 11,000 schools.
  • A gun hoax led a suburban school to beef up security.
  • A new report examines how student transportation affects school choice in Detroit and four other cities.
  • Chalkbeat staffers were featured this week on the radio, a global TV network and a local podcast. Check us out!