next steps

After state delays timeline, anxious Michigan schools must wait until next year to learn their fate

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Michigan schools waiting anxiously for word on whether they’ll be shut down next year will have to wait a little longer.

State officials initially planned to release their annual state rankings, which will be used to decide which schools will be forced to close, by the end of this month. Now, they’re saying the rankings — and any closure decisions — won’t come until at least January.

The delay means that schools at risk of closure won’t be getting bad news before the winter vacation. But it also keeps the schools in the dark longer about whether they could face sanctions, including closure — giving communities less time to prepare for the possibility that students might have to find new schools for next year.

A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education, which produces the so-called “top-to-bottom” list based on test scores, said the new timeline is an effort to coordinate with the state School Reform office, which will make the decision on school closings.

The reform office said last summer that it would shut down schools that appeared in the bottom 5 percent of state rankings for three or more years, except in cases where closure would create a hardship for students.

That announcement was surprising because schools had been told they wouldn’t be held accountable for low scores during the first years of the new M-STEP exam.

The change came after lawmakers approved legislation designed to resuscitate the debt-saddled Detroit Public Schools. The legislation included a requirement that all Detroit schools — district and charter — with three years at the bottom of the rankings be closed.

The reform office said last summer that it would apply the same rules to schools across the state.

Kurt Weiss, a spokesman for the reform office, said the office “is continuing its review of the data” and has not yet “completed recommendations for how to address chronically failing schools.”

Still not clear is how schools in Detroit’s main school district will be handled, since Gov. Snyder has said he is reviewing two different legal opinions about whether the fact that the Detroit Public Schools are now officially a new district called the Detroit Public Schools Community District requires the state to wait three years before closing down its low-performing schools.

“The goal remains to give kids in Michigan – regardless of where they attend school – a quality education, but no final determinations have been made around what actions might be taken,” Weiss said.

Fear and fury

Educators blast ‘uninformed decisions’ behind state plan to shutter schools

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.

The news that state officials are moving to shutter as many as 38 Michigan schools triggered fear and fury from parents and educators.

Concerns were especially heightened in Detroit where 25 schools were put on notice that they’ll have to close their doors in June unless the state decides that closure would pose an “unreasonable hardship” to students — or unless school leaders are able to block the closures in court.

The state School Reform Office “is making uninformed decisions without consistent data on growth and achievement,” steamed Veronica Conforme, who heads the Education Achievement Authority, a state-run recovery district that saw eight of its 14 schools on the dreaded closure list.

“Today’s public announcement comes without input from districts, educators or community,” Conforme said. “This should make us all question the validity of this action.”

Conforme said most of the EAA schools have seen improved math and reading scores on state exams — evidence that she believes shows the schools are on the right track.

“Our students cannot continue to move between schools year after year,” Conforme said. “Short-sighted decisions create more volatility in our city, leaving families trapped in a downward spiral.”

The school reform office says it is closing schools in an effort to make sure kids have a shot at a decent education.

“Our goal is to make sure that every kid in the state of Michigan has access to a quality education so they can have the skills necessary for a high-wage job, a career or college,” said Natasha Baker, who heads the state School Reform Office. “It’s the only way to end multi-generational poverty for the children in the schools we’re serving.”

Educators have raised concerns that closing a school can be disruptive to children and communities because changing schools can hurt kids’ academic progress, but Baker responded that it’s “more disruptive to a community when they graduate thousands of kids who can’t read.”

The 38 schools landed on the closure list because they ranked in the bottom 5 percent of state schools for three years in a row. The rankings are calculated based on test scores and graduation rates but critics say there are many ways to measure a school.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a think tank that supports school choice and accountability, noted in a statement Friday that the list of potentially closing schools includes six schools that received passing grades on the center’s school ranking system, which factors in student poverty levels. One school that could close actually got an A on the center’s report card.

The schools marked for closure in Detroit include the eight Education Achievement Authority schools, 16 schools in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, and one Detroit charter school.

Chalkbeat wrote about the charter school, Michigan Technical Academy, last year when the school was trying to make a case that things started improving when new school leaders came into the building in 2015 and introduced a new way of teaching.

Phillip Price, the school principal, said Friday that he’s still hoping he’ll get more time to show his school can succeed.

“Give me three to five years and I can turn a school around,” Price said. “Just give me the time and I’m going to take care of saving the school for the students because that’s what I do … I was one of these kids when I was younger, right in one of these neighborhoods, and somebody gave us the time and it worked.”

The School Reform Office said it will make final decisions about closures in the next 30 to 45 days after considering things like school location to determine whether students have access to higher-quality schools.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Michigan Technical Academy Principal Phillip Price is still hoping he’ll get more time to turn things around at the Michigan Technical Academy, which is on the state’s potential closure list

Three strikes

These 38 Michigan schools could be shut down for poor performance in June

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

The state of Michigan Friday put 38 struggling schools on notice.

After years of rock-bottom test scores and disappointing results, the schools were informed that they’re in serious danger of having to shut their doors forever in June.

“Because we want all kids to have a good life after high school, our office is responsible for taking action when schools have been chronically failing for several years,” state School Reform Officer Natasha Baker said in a statement.

A statement from Baker’s office said officials will use the next 30 to 45 days to “examine the geographic, academic, and enrollment capacity of other public school options for children attending one of the 38 failing schools.”

If the office determines that closing a school would be an “unreasonable hardship” to students because no better options are available, the office will let the school remain open and try to help school leaders turn things around.

The issue is expected to end up in court as school leaders across the state have vowed to fight closures.

The schools on the list are 16 Detroit public schools, one Detroit charter school and eight Detroit schools that are controlled by the Education Achievement Authority, a state-run recovery district that will revert back to the district’s control this summer.

The news comes as part of a new push by the state to crack down on schools that have produced years of disappointing results.

State lawmakers forced the issue last year when they passed a law requiring the state to shutter every school — district or charter — in the city of Detroit that has spent three or more years in the bottom five percent of the state’s annual school rankings.

Chalkbeat broke the news last summer that the state School Reform Office intended to apply the same standard to schools across the state, creating uncertainty for dozens of schools that were in the bottom five percent in 2014 and 2015.

School leaders were surprised to learn that school rankings from 2014 and 2015 would be used to apply serious consequences since the rankings are largely based on test scores and Michigan Department of Education had told schools it wouldn’t hold scores against them for the first years of the new M-STEP exam, which replaced the MEAP in 2015.

The School Reform Office, however, is no longer a part of the Department of Education. Gov. Rick Snyder took over the office in 2015 in an effort to increase pressure on low-performing schools.

Here’s a list of the Detroit Public Schools Community District schools that could be closing:

Ann Arbor Trail Magnet School
Bow Elementary-Middle School
Clark, J.E. Preparatory Academy
Detroit Collegiate Preparatory High School @ Northwestern
Detroit Institute of Technology at Cody
Durfee Elementary-Middle School
Fisher Magnet Upper Academy
Gompers Elementary-Middle School
Henderson Academy
Marquette Elementary-Middle School
Mason Elementary School
Osborn Academy of Mathematics
Osborn College Preparatory Academy
Osborn Evergreen Academy of Design and Alternative Energy
Sampson Academy
Thirkell Elementary School

Detroit Charter schools:

Michigan Technical Academy

Education Achievement Authority schools:

Burns Elementary-Middle School
Denby High School
Ford High School
Law Elementary School
Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary-Middle School
Mumford High School
Pershing High School
Southeastern High School

See the full list here.