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Week In Review: What $617 million can’t buy

PHOTO: Nick Hagen

A massive infusion of cash from Lansing last summer might have given Detroit’s main school district a new lease on life. But it didn’t solve enormous problems like the teacher shortage that has forced the district to end a reading program just as the consequences for struggling to read became more severe.

And while the money helped launch a new Montessori program that has attracted some skeptical families to the district, our story this week notes that ongoing instability in the district has made the program’s future unclear.

“DPS unfortunately is the king of let’s start it, let’s try it for a minute or two, then — oop, no, scrap. But my hope is that with a lot of parent involvement and a lot of community support, we can make sure the program grows and is pushed forward.”

— Yolanda King, Detroit public school teacher and Montessori parent

Read on for more on these stories as well as an update on when struggling Michigan schools could learn if they’ll face closure next year. 

On DeVos, charters and truth

How could philanthropist Betsy DeVos’ past in Michigan predict her future in Washington? That was the question again this week as the country continued to get up to speed on President-elect Donald Trump’s education secretary pick.

  • “A believer in a freer market than even some free market economists would endorse, Ms. DeVos pushed back on any regulation as too much regulation,” the New York Times concluded after scrutinizing DeVos’ record in Michigan, including her role last spring in blocking an oversight commission that advocates hoped would bring some order to Detroit’s district and charter schools.
  • A columnist suggested DeVos would face an easier confirmation process if she came out in favor of improved oversight and transparency for Michigan charter schools.
  • A Free Press editor blasted DeVos for distorting charter school data to claim the privately run schools are more successful in Detroit than they really are.
  • DeVos got a public defense from state Attorney General (and likely candidate for governor) Bill Schuette — who has received $102,800 in campaign contributions and $20,000 in administrative support from the DeVos family since 2009.
  • Are DeVos’ voucher dreams part of an evangelical Christian mission? One observer who has studied the Christian right thinks so.

In Detroit:

  • A new Montessori program for 150 kids in three Detroit public schools has successfully lured some families that might otherwise have chosen private, charter or suburban schools. But that doesn’t mean the program will survive. No definitive decisions have been made,” a district official said.
  • A teaching shortage has forced DPS to cut its reading intervention program — just as a state law makes the consequences for failing to read more severe. “It’s absolutely absurd and inexplicable,” fumed one Reading Recovery teacher who was reassigned to a regular classroom.
  • Some members of the new Detroit school board spelled out their goals for the coming year.
  • Detroit’s main school district qualifies for so much state and federal funding due to its high number of poor and special needs students that it has one of the highest per-pupil funding levels in the state.
  • A tutor who billed DPS for $684,644 worth of work he never did has pleaded guilty to theft and fraud charges.
  • Detroit high school students learned how to build green infrastructure.
  • Students from suburban school brought holiday gifts to kids at a Detroit charter school.

Across the state:

  • Michigan officials originally said they would identify the state’s lowest-performing — and most at-risk — schools by the end of the year. Now they’ve pushed back their timeline, meaning that anxious Michigan schools will have to wait for the new year to find out if they’re in danger of being shut down.
  • One bill headed to Gov. Rick Snyder could cut down on suspensions and expulsions in Michigan schools. Another would bar schools from using seclusion and restraint to discipline children.
  • Fewer Michigan school districts are broke.
  • The tense environment since election day has triggered complaints of 19 hate or bias incidents in schools.
  • The state appeals court found that a suburban teachers union “took deliberate action” to lock in union dues before the state’s right-to-work legislation took effect.
  • Flint students will get extra help through a $2 million grant to Michigan State University.

From Chalkbeat:

  • Why every online school in Indiana got an F on this year’s state report card.
  • How Colorado schools are helping kids calm down — and learn — through mindfulness.
  • Chronic absenteeism is lower in New York City charter schools than in district schools, report finds,
  • Denver Public Schools wants to give more autonomy to more schools through expanding its “innovation zone” experiment.
  • Why Tennessee’s turnaround district might lose some power.

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!