The oath

New board takes on ‘awesome responsibility,’ of running a district plagued by serious challenges

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The seven members of the new Detroit school board were sworn in during their first meeting at Cass Tech high school.

 

The era of democratically elected school boards running Detroit’s schools officially returned tonight with the swearing in of the seven new board members chosen by voters in November.

“I do solemnly swear,” the board members said as they raised their right hands for the oath. “That I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of this state and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of Member of the Board of Education of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, according to the best of my ability.”

Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens, a Michigan Court of Appeals and Court of Claims judge who administered the oath wished the board well. “And with that you are imbued with the awesome responsibility of the children of the city of Detroit,” she told them.

As of 5:57 p.m., the board formally took control of the 48,659-student, 97-school district.

The board meeting that followed, which drew roughly 250 community members to the Cass Tech auditorium, was largely civil, punctuated by a few comments and cracks from the audience — a far tamer scene than the raucous community meetings that were typical during the years when the district was run by state-appointed emergency managers.

There was some new board confusion — including a contract to run district warehouses that members voted down before acknowledging that they weren’t really sure what the consequences of the “no” vote would be.

Community members and reporters complained that the meeting’s agenda had not been posted and copies of the superintendent’s presentation were not distributed to the audience. (District officials say they’ll eventually be posted online.)

There was some controversy over the board’s announcement that it was hiring search firms to choose a permanent superintendent and to recruit new teachers.

And there were some interesting insights offered about the state of the district. Among the highlights:

The board elected its officers

The new school board president is Iris Taylor, the retired former CEO of Detroit Receiving Hospital. Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, the director of community relations at UAW-Ford will be Vice President. Community activist Misha Stallworth, who develops arts and cultural programs for the elderly, will be secretary. And Sonya Mays, a former Wall Street financial manager who now runs a nonprofit community development organization, will be the board’s treasurer.

The board will hire two search firms

Taylor, the new board president, said the board selected the search firms by inviting talent search companies to apply for the job. Four firms applied, Taylor said. The board met with three of them and is moving forward with Ray & Associates Inc., which specializes in educational executive leadership searches, to help choose a superintendent candidate. A second firm, T.J. Adams & Associates, will be brought on to recruit teachers. The board did not put a price tag on the contracts but, after the meeting, Taylor said the fee for Ray & Associates would be roughly the “midpoint” of the superintendent’s salary. “We are seeking partners in the community to help fund that so that it doesn’t have to come out of operations,” she said.

Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather says she wants the permanent gig

“I definitely am putting my hand up,” she told reporters during a break in the meeting. “I have truly loved this city and this district my whole life and I’ve truly enjoyed what I’ve been able to do since [being named interim superintendent in] March so absolutely.”

The teacher shortage is a serious problem.

Meriweather told the board that 163 substitute teachers are currently filling the district’s 264 teacher vacancies but that 97 teaching jobs are completely empty. “That means … the staff in that building is being stretched out immensely by their preps being taken and other challenges which makes a very challenging cycle because my prep gets taken, I get tired, I take off. Now my colleague has to cover my class and students are not having regular instruction so this has to be addressed. This has to be a priority.”

Another serious problem is chronic absenteeism

A stunning 48 percent of the district’s students — 23,468 of them — miss two or more days of school a month, Meriweather said. At one school, she said, 95 percent of students are chronically absent. Meriweather did not name the school and a district spokeswoman declined to identify that school saying the district was working with the school to improve attendance. “The scary thing about that is when you miss two or more days a month, research shows you are less likely to graduate,” she said.

The district is in the black

Finance officials say they expect the district to end the year with a $48 million surplus.

The board was not given a heads up that the district plans to close a school

Taylor told reporters after the meeting that Transition Manager Steven Rhodes, who ran the district until December 31, made a deal in December to close Durfee elementary school  and lease the building to a small business incubator but that the board didn’t learn about it until January. “We’re in the process of vetting that,” Taylor said. Asked how she felt about Rhodes’ decision, she said: “Let’s just say that there are all kinds of challenges that you’ve got to respond to.”

 

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.