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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: Discount houses — and new faces at the top of Detroit schools

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

The big news this morning is the announcement from Mayor Mike Duggan that Detroit teachers and school employees — district, charter and parochial — will now get 50% discounts on houses auctioned through Detroit’s Land Bank Authority. That could help draw more residents to the city — and possibly give school officials another perk they can use to attract teachers in their efforts to address severe teaching shortages.

“Teachers and educators are vital to the city’s future. It’s critical to give our school employees, from teachers to custodial staff, the opportunity to live in the communities they teach in.

— Mayor Mike Duggan

New schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti has said that hiring teachers is a priority. He’s also busily hiring a team of top advisors to help him run the Detroit schools. To do that, he’s drawing heavily from his Florida contacts. Of the 16 cabinet members he’s identified, five are people he worked with in Jacksonville or Miami. Want to learn more about them? We’ve assembled a gallery of who they are, what they’re doing and how much they’ll be paid.

Also this week, we featured the latest installment in our Story Booth series: An educator who says the inspiration she received from teachers in the Detroit Public Schools helped her guide one of her own students through a personal tragedy. If you know a student, parent or educator with a Detroit story to tell for a future Story Booth, please let us know.

In Detroit

  • Mayor Duggan is planning to announce details of the Detroit Land Bank Authority Educator Discount Program at a press conference this morning.
  • The Floridians in Vitti’s cabinet are joined by veterans of the Detroit Public Schools and several officials who worked for the dissolved state-run recovery district. Among them are former teachers and principals, lawyers and a real estate developer.
  • This weekend’s March for Public Education — tomorrow in Clark Park — was organized by a local resident who couldn’t get time off work to attend the march in Washington.
  • Students who attended Southeastern High School last year won’t have to take a test to return in the fall — but new students will. The school will become the city’s fourth exam school. “I’m not going to suggest that in one year Southeastern is going to be Renaissance and Cass,” Vitti said, “but I think we can make it successful.”
  • A revived local restaurant association is working with Detroit schools to train students and grads for jobs in downtown and Midtown restaurants.
  • A Detroit schools advocate explains why the relationship between Detroit and the state is like that of a child and her abusive mother.
  • Detroit’s former “rebel lunch lady” now has plans to shake up school food in Houston.
  • Here’s how the work formerly done by the defunct Excellent Schools Detroit organization will be divvied up among other groups.
  • A convicted former Detroit principal has been given more time before she has to report to prison.

Across the state

  • Districts that sued the state to stop the forced closures of struggling schools are close to reaching a settlement. The state backed down on 38 proposed school closings but maintains the right to close persistently low-performing schools in the future.
  • Michigan is one of 23 states that did not meet all the federal requirements for educating its students with disabilities.
  • A fiscally conservative Michigan think tank has issued a helpful, comprehensive guide to how school funding works in Michigan.
  • These three early childhood centers demonstrate how schools can be community hubs. They offer medical and dental clinics and services such as job training for parents.
  • Michigan schools are changing their zero-tolerance discipline policies to comply with a new state law.
  • A state science and technology advisory council has chosen to invest in six STEM programs that have been proven effective for Michigan schools.

Teachers united

  • The state’s largest teachers union used a collection agency to force teachers to pay $241,000 in delinquent dues between 2013 and 2016.
  • A state teachers union leader says teachers getting summers off is a dated myth. Teachers “work second and even third jobs to support their families, while finding creative ways to prepare for the next school year,” he wrote.
  • A critic of teacher pension changes says the bill Gov. Rick Snyder signed last week will squeeze teachers and cost the state more money.

 

Week In Review

Week in review: Could Detroit’s main school district be entering unchartered territory?

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
New Detroit school superintendent Nikolai Vitti addresses reporters outside a teacher hiring fair on his first full day in the job.

Even as new superintendent Nikolai Vitti plows ahead with shaking up district leadership in his quest to improve the city’s 100-plus traditional schools, much of the focus this week has been on the future of the district’s charter schools.

The district has been overseeing charter schools for more than two decades. Now, Vitti says it potentially should get out of the charter school business to focus on traditional schools. That could lead to charter schools closing — like this one that the district quietly closed last month amid concerns about its poor financial footing.

Read on for more on these stories. And, if you have five minutes of your time to donate today, please give us some honest feedback. Help improve our journalism by taking Chalkbeat’s annual reader survey.

Chartering new territory

The shakeup

  • Vitti has overhauled the district’s executive leadership team, bringing in people he worked with in Florida, educators and leaders from the Detroit area, and former officials with the EAA.
  • Nearly all the people he’s hired have been teachers or principals — and he said at this week’s school board meeting, they’re “mission-driven.”
  • The changes have sent some longtime district administrators packing: Vitti has so far eliminated roughly 70 administrative positions. He also cut multiyear contracts and perks like car allowances from those who remain.
  • The district will run more efficiently now, he said. “I found that there were one and two positions within departments that were duplicated or responsibilities shared that could be streamlined,” he said, adding that the network structure that principals used to report to “led to communication and work product backlog.”

In Detroit

  • A year after Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation that created the new Detroit Public Schools Community District, one former GOP leader writes why he thinks the “fresh start is working,” arguing that Detroit is “not the ‘wild west’ that defenders of the status quo say that it is.”
  • Plans to change the name of Southeastern High School hit a snag at Tuesday’s school board meeting.
  • District officials will try to renegotiate the controversial lease, signed by a state-appointed emergency manager on his last day on the job in December, that turned a west-side elementary school over to a nonprofit group. That negotiation isn’t likely to satisfy the biggest critics of the deal.
  • The district says this year’s graduates have collectively earned $170 million in college scholarships and grants.
  • Limited access to quality early childhood education has a high cost in Detroit.
  • A state health and safety agency has fined the district for unsafe water at one school.
  • A water main break closed one of the schools serving this week as a “summer fun center.”
  • One of the city’s Head Start providers has picked up a $12.5 million grant to serve 168 more west side children and their families.

From the capitol

  • The state’s top education official says conversations with the federal government have been “combative” since the state abandoned plans to assign letter grades to schools in favor of a “dashboard” that compiles data in a variety of categories. The state is preparing to begin discussions with the U.S. education department over how it complies with new federal education laws.
  • The Detroit News is unimpressed with Snyder’s school improvement efforts, saying they’ve “ended up being more about optics than the substantial changes Michigan families deserve.”
  • Snyder signed a controversial teacher pension overhaul into law. The plan will take effect next year.
  • An advocate says the state’s 56 intermediate school districts need to be more transparent about how they collectively spend $1.6 billion on special education and other services.
  • Another advocate makes the case for why schools should focus on a broad-based education — rather than career readiness.