Shutting down

Dozens of struggling schools in Detroit are set to close — but nearby options for their students aren’t much better

Michigan education officials’ aggressive school closure plan faces a major challenge: It’s unlikely that most students displaced by closures will end up in substantially better schools.

That’s because there are few schools in struggling cities like Detroit that have test scores significantly higher than the schools facing closure.

The 38 schools — including 25 in Detroit — on the dreaded list have all spent at least three years in the bottom 5 percent on a state ranking that measures test scores and graduation rates.

In closing the schools, officials say they hope students will move to higher-performing academies — ideally ones whose ranking is at or above the bottom quarter.

“We want these kids to enroll in a school that’s at least a 25 ranking or higher,” said Natasha Baker, who heads the state school reform office. “Our goal is to make sure that every kid in the state of Michigan has access to a quality education so they have the skills necessary for a high-wage job, a career or college.”

But if a 25 ranking or higher is the goal, most kids in closing schools won’t get there.

In Detroit, where 25 schools serving roughly 12,000 kids are on the chopping block, there are only 19 schools with scores above the bottom quarter, many of which are full to capacity.

Just two of the higher-performing schools are high schools —  and neither is likely to take many new students.

“Honestly, we are always full and we have a full waiting list,” said Adnan Aabed, the principal of Frontier International Academy, a Detroit charter school that last year posted test scores in the 39th percentile.

The other Detroit high school ranked above 25 percent was Renaissance High School, a highly selective district school that ranked in the 48th percentile.

Even Cass Tech, the city’s historic premier high school, didn’t break the 25 percent threshold on last year’s rankings. In 2016, Cass Tech was in the 21st percentile among state schools.

That means that the more than 4,000 students who are now attending the 10 Detroit high schools that are slated for closure are not likely to land in a school whose ranking is much higher than the school they attend now.

Students who live near the city’s borders could attend schools in the nearby suburbs but city bus lines often don’t connect with suburban ones so traveling to a suburban school can often be difficult.

The mismatch raises questions about how many schools the state School Reform Office will actually go through with closing.

Officials have said they would allow low-scoring schools to stay open if students would face “unreasonable hardship” when finding a better school. Baker said her office would make final decisions that will take available alternatives into account by early March..

She acknowledged on Friday that finding high-ranked schools will be a challenge in some communities.

“Some of the schools are in such depressed areas where you wouldn’t find a school at an 80 rating unless you went 50 to 75 miles out,” Baker said. She added that many of the higher-ranked schools “either have closed enrollment processes or it’s just really difficult to get into those schools.”

The state is sending letters to parents of children in closing schools that offer suggestions for nearby charter schools or district schools that are above the 25 percent threshold.

The absence of strong alternatives will be one factor that the state will consider as it makes final decisions about closings over the next month and a half.

If the Reform Office decides not to close a school on the list, it will take steps to try to improve it.

Such steps can be effective. The state announced on Friday that 79 schools that had been on the so-called “priority” list due to years of low performance had improved enough to be removed from the list.

The Frontier International Academy had been on that list a few years ago, Aabed said, noting that he was brought in to turn things around as part of the state’s intervention.

His school, where roughly half of students come from countries like Bangladesh and Yemen and don’t speak English at home, focused on teacher training, using data to understand student needs and other efforts, he said.

“We honestly have so many initiatives going on that we implemented in 2010 and 2011 and that’s why you see the scores even now going higher,” he said.

Detroit school officials say they hope they, too, will get time to show they can improve their schools. After years under state control, Detroit schools were just returned to a locally elected school board this month.

Local school officials announced Monday that they plan to hold a school improvement summit to highlight ways that other urban districts have shown improvement for struggling schools.

Detroit officials have also said they are considering filing suit to block school closings. School board member LaMar Lemmons said the board is planning to meet with lawyers on Tuesday.

“They are holding us to the test results that students received when the state was operating the district,” Lemmons said. “We not only think that’s unfair, we think it should be illegal.”

The  Detroit schools that ranked above the bottom quarter on the 2016 state ranking list were: 

Detroit Edison Public School Academy, K-8, ranking: 87

Detroit Enterprise Academy, K-8, ranking: 51

Detroit Merit Charter Academy, K-8, ranking: 58

Chrysler Elementary School, K-5, ranking: 56

Renaissance High School, ranking: 48

University Preparatory Science and Math (PSAD) Middle School, 6-8, ranking: 45

Cesar Chavez Academy Intermediate, 3-5, ranking: 44

Hope of Detroit Academy, K-8, ranking: 43

Detroit Premier Academy, K-8, ranking: 42

Frontier International Academy, high school, ranking: 39

Martin Luther King, Jr. Education Center Academy, K-8, ranking: 38

New Paradigm Glazer Academy, K-8, ranking: 38

Oakland International Academy – Middle, 5-8, ranking: 38

Bates Academy, K-8, ranking: 34

New Paradigm Loving Academy, K-8, ranking: 33

Wright, Charles School, K-4, ranking: 32

Foreign Language Immersion and Cultural Studies, K-8, ranking: 29

Old Redford Academy – Middle, 6-8, ranking: 29

Weston Preparatory Academy, K-8, ranking: 25

Teachers stiffed

Detroit charter school teachers get tough news: Their school was in debt so they won’t get paid

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Matchbook Learning CEO Sajan George notified teachers at the now-closed Michigan Technical Academy that they won't get their summer paychecks.

Furious teachers at a recently shuttered Detroit charter school were notified Wednesday that they won’t be paid thousands of dollars they earned during the last school year.

Teachers at the Michigan Technical Academy had contracts that required the school to pay them through the summer for work they did during the school year. But the school’s management company, Matchbook Learning, alerted teachers in an email Wednesday that the money would instead go to pay off the school’s debts.

“Last Friday, Matchbook Learning became aware that the holders of MTA’s outstanding bond debt are refusing to allow use of funds for any summer payroll and instead, are requiring that any available funds be used toward payment of the bond debt,” Matchbook’s CEO Sajan George told teachers in the email. “We are disappointed and deeply saddened by this development because this means funds will not be there for July or August payroll.”

The school, which Chalkbeat wrote about last fall, closed its doors forever last month when Central Michigan University revoked the school’s charter citing academic and financial difficulties.

The school was one seven Detroit area charter schools that closed this year including five that had been overseen by Central Michigan.

Matchbook Learning, which had been running the school since 2015, had a contract with the school’s board that expired on June 30, George wrote in the email to teachers.

“Matchbook Learning never received and does not expect to receive any funds from the MTA Board, CMU or the bondholders to fund payment of any July or August payroll — meaning Matchbook Learning is not in a position to make payment to you,” George wrote. “Unfortunately, the closing of MTA has had a severe effect on everyone involved. We thank you for your time at MTA, sympathize and empathize with your position, and wish you the best in your future endeavors.”

George told Chalkbeat that his New Jersey-based school management organization, a non-profit, hasn’t been paid by the school’s board since February due to lack of funds. Matchbook is owed what he characterized as “a couple hundred thousand dollars.”

He said he knew Matchbook wouldn’t be paid for the last few months of the school year but that the organization stayed until the last day of class in June.

“If we left, the employees wouldn’t get paid and the school would shut down,” George said.

He said Matchbook asked the school board to approve payments that would enable the teachers to get paid in July and August. The board knew it would receive payments from the state in July and August and authorized a portion of that money to go toward paying teachers. But the bondholders are priority creditors, meaning they get paid first. The bondholders have refused to allow money to go to the teachers, George said. 

“Ultimately it wasn’t in our control,” he said.

The school borrowed about $16 million for building improvements when it first opened and only about $1 million had been paid off when the school closed last month, George said. Had the school stayed open, it would have continued to receive money from the state that could have been used to make payments on the debt. Without money coming in, the creditors moved to collect as much as they could. 

Angry teachers say they’re contacting lawyers in hopes of trying to collect what they’re owed.

“That’s money that we’ve all worked for,” said Maeve Rochon, a kindergarten teacher who said she’s owed around $5,000. “That’s for time we spent in those kids’ lives, doing our jobs. We all stuck it out to the end and now you’re telling us the money we worked for, we’re not going to get?”

Janelle Brzezinski, a spokeswoman for the Governor John Engler Center for Charter Schools at Central Michigan University, said there’s not much the university can do to help the teachers.

“Some creditors of Michigan Technical Academy have ordered an acceleration of payments due on Academy loans,” Brzezinski wrote in an e-mailed statement. “The acceleration of payments means that the Academy received no funds from the scheduled July 20, 2017 state school aid payment sent by the state of Michigan. The Academy board and the Center had been working with the Michigan Department of Education and Michigan Department of Treasury officials to ensure continued flow of state aid through July and August to allow the Academy to meet payroll and other outstanding obligations. Unfortunately, the decision of the creditors to accelerate payments under the Academy loans means that there will not be sufficient funds for the Academy to process the July 31, 2017 scheduled payroll and there may not be sufficient funds to meet the August payrolls.”

Brzezinski encouraged teachers to contact Matchbook or the Wage and Hour Division of the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.

home sweet home

‘Finally! Something useful’ or a dangerous mistake? Detroiters respond to city’s housing deal for teachers

PHOTO: Detroit Land Bank Authority
This home on Harvard Road was up for auction the week after Detroit announced a half-off-on-city-owned housing deal for teachers.

Friday’s announcement that all Detroit school employees — whether they work for district, charter, or parochial schools — will get a 50 percent discount on houses auctioned through the Detroit Land Bank Authority stirred a lot of discussion.

Some of our commenters on Facebook had high hopes for the deal:

But one commenter wondered if it’s the city of Detroit that’s actually getting the best deal, not the employees — or other people seeking to buy homes in the city:

And others argued that people who already live in Detroit won’t benefit from this deal:

Still, some readers appear to be ready to move — and have even picked homes to bid on (though not necessarily from the Land Bank Authority)!