New Year New board

Detroit’s first empowered school board in years is gearing up for opening day — and a long to-do list

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Members of Detroit's new school board joined community leaders to discuss the future of the district at a Detroit Parent Network event this month. They are, from left, board members Iris Taylor, Deborah Hunter-Harvill, Misha Stallworth, Detroit Parent Network CEO Sharlonda Buckman, Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather, board member Sonya Mays, and Skillman Foundation President Tonya Allen.

Detroit’s newly elected school board is planning a major celebration next month as it takes control of city schools that have been under the thumb of appointed managers for nearly two decades.

But the party isn’t likely to last for long. The new board faces a daunting to-do list including possibly going to court to stop school closures. The board faces crucial decisions about who should lead the district, and what to do with long-struggling schools that will rejoin the district this summer. Board members must also quickly absorb reams of information about a complicated district that now serves about 45,000 children in 97 schools.

“It can be overwhelming at times,” said Misha Stallworth, a community activist who is the youngest member of the new board at 27. “It’s a lot of information but, for me, the priority is really starting with a strong foundation … We have to have a really clear understanding of what’s going on and also be prepared to write policy that has a positive impact today, has a positive impact in a year and has a positive impact in five years.”

The seven board members who were chosen by Detroit voters in November have spent the last two months in an intensive orientation on Detroit schools.

As the first elected Detroiters to have any real power over city schools in years, they’ve gotten workshops on curriculum, facilities, and finances from district officials. They’ve met with Gov. Rick Snyder and other state officials currently making decisions on whether to shutter as many as two dozen city schools. They’ve talked with the state financial review board, which must sign off on many of the new board’s decisions.

And now the district is planning an official ceremony on Jan. 11 at Cass Technical High School, where students, teachers and principals will be on hand to welcome the new board.

“The return to local control should be celebrated, and hopefully that meeting will be extra special,” said Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather, who has been working with the new board to plan the celebration.

“We want the principals to be there. We want teachers to be there. We want community members to be there,” she said. “Board meetings should be a place where we celebrate what’s good in the district … and work on policies to fix things that are not.”

The Jan. 11 meeting will focus on passing bylaws and choosing officers, board members say. But they’ll soon need to turn to pressing issues facing the district. Here’s what board members say they plan to tackle first:

 

 

Gearing up for a school closure fight

Shortly after taking office, board members might find themselves in a battle to save some city schools.

Snyder is currently weighing dueling legal opinions about a new law that requires the state to close every school in the city that’s been in the bottom 5 percent on state test score rankings for three years in a row — potentially affecting dozens of district schools.

Snyder initially accepted a legal opinion that asserted that the new law did not apply to schools in the main Detroit district because the schools are now officially in a new district called the Detroit Public Schools Community District that won’t have three years of test scores until 2019 or 2020.  (State officials created the new district to give Detroit schools a chance to spend their state education dollars in classrooms instead of paying off years of accumulated debt). But State Attorney General Bill Schuette issued a legal opinion in September disputing Snyder’s assessment and asserting that the state must close schools that have years of low scores.

New board members who met with Snyder last month declined to detail his comments about the fate of Detroit schools. But one member said the board is gearing up for a fight.

“Let me say this: If we don’t get a reprieve in writing, then we will challenge that position,” said LaMar Lemmons, who is the only member of the old Detroit school board to be elected to serve on the new board. “The board will either challenge or support a challenge of school closings by the [state School Reform Office].”

Lemmons noted that the board had met with state officials and added, “Based on those discussions, if we cannot come to a meeting of the minds, you can look forward to the prospect of litigation.”

Board member Sonya Mays, a former Wall Street financial manager who now runs a nonprofit community development organization called Develop Detroit, said she wouldn’t speculate on whether Detroit schools would be shuttered or on whether the board would file suit to stop the potential closings. But she noted that school closings can wreak havoc on communities.

“I’m a community developer,” she said. “I spend my day job fighting for investments in and across Detroit and what I’ve learned is that the closing of a neighborhood school is incredibly destabilizing, not just for children but for the entire community. It creates negative property values. It frays at the fabric of our communities … I think we can do a lot better than shuttering schools without a plan.”

Looking far and wide for a new superintendent

The law that created the new school board requires the board to choose a new superintendent within 90 days of taking office.

“The law says we have to do a search and we’ll have a process and we’ll go from there,” said board member Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a school consultant who has worked as a Detroit school principal and once served as the superintendent of a small district.

Meriweather has expressed interest in staying on as the district’s top educator and several board members interviewed by Chalkbeat said she is a strong contender for the position — but they are also considering looking farther afield.

“We would like to do a national search,” Lemmons said. A national search would likely require more time and money than the board has. But Lemmons said he hopes board members can get the deadline to pick a permanent schools chief extended — and support to defray the cost.

“We’re looking at getting a search firm and we’re looking for a way to pay for that without taking money out [of the district’s budget] — through grants or nonprofits,” he said.

Mays said a thorough search would be a top priority.

“Obviously the number one objective should be to find the best person for this district for this moment to fight for our children,” she said.

 

Reabsorbing struggling schools and other priorities

Figuring out how to bring the Education Achievement Authority schools back into the district will be at the top of board members’ priority lists.

Schools that have been part of the state-run Education Achievement Authority since Snyder removed them from the district in 2012 are scheduled to return to district control this summer. But the non-union teachers and administrators in those schools currently make salaries that don’t align with what district employees make. New EAA teachers make more than new unionized teachers in the main district, while senior teachers in the main district make more than top-salaried EAA teachers.

“We’re beginning to think through the process of what that might look like,” Hunter-Harvill said.

Lemmons said he thought the salaries were that not different in practice because EAA schools have a longer school year.  “All of those things will be negotiated,” he said.

Once the board gets going, Mays said one of her top priorities will be career and technical education.

“I’m seeing what appears to be signs of an early construction boom,” she said. “We’re going to make sure that anyone who’s interested in that career path — not just construction but entrepreneurs —  is going to be prepared for those opportunities.”

Hunter-Harvill said her priorities are seeing that the district recruit top teachers, keep its finances in order and that some stability is restored to Detroit schools.

“I want to hug those kids in the district and let them know we’re going to be there for the kids,” she said. “We have to be.”

Correction (Jan. 3, 2017): An earlier version this story incorrectly characterized the amount of time that state-appointed emergency managers have run Detroit schools. While Detroit schools have only been run by an elected board for three of the last 20 years, the first emergency manager was appointed in 2009. The district was earlier run by an appointed board. 

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.”

Conferme 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 five 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 30-45 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.