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

Superintendent search

Ten things to know about Detroit superintendent candidate Nikolai Vitti

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the 130,000-student Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Fla., speaks in a district video.

The search for Detroit’s next schools superintendent enters the next stage on Wednesday with the first of two public interviews with the finalists for the job.

The candidate on the hot seat Wednesday is Nikolai Vitti, a Dearborn Heights native who is now superintendent of the 130,000-student Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Fla. The district is more than three times the size of the Detroit district, which now enrolls around 40,000 students.

Vitti will spend 12 hours interviewing in Detroit on Wednesday starting at 8 a.m. with a briefing on district finances and academics. His planned schedule for the day includes a visit to Thirkell Elementary Middle School to meet with students and educators, a lunch with school board members at the Breithaupt Career & Technical Center, and a series of public forums at Detroit Collegiate Preparatory High @ Northwestern. That includes a 2:30 p.m. meeting with religious, labor and business leaders, a 4 p.m. meeting with parents and community leaders, and a 6 p.m. public interview with the school board.

A second finalist, River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman, will go through a similar process on Monday. Despite community pressure, the district’s current interim superintendent is not a finalist and will not be interviewed.

Before the action begins, here are ten things to know about Vitti:

  1. He grew up in Dearborn Heights, the son of Italian immigrants.
  2. He played football at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, later getting graduate degrees in education at Harvard.
  3. His history as someone who has struggled with dyslexia a challenge also faced by his two sons — has led him to highlight the needs of students with learning disabilities. Those efforts earned him an award from the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
  4. Vitti presides over a district labeled the most dangerous in Florida but faces far fewer challenges than Detroit does.
  5. He appears to have found a middle ground in a polarized education reform landscape. On the one hand, he has invoked the language of teachers as “widgets” that came out of a seminal 2009 report that advocated for weighing student performance in teacher hiring, firing, and evaluation decisions, and he replaced 30 percent of principals early in his tenure in Duval County, saying that they were underperforming. But he has advocated for the arts and evaluating performance beyond test scores.
  6. He says he has learned a lesson that some hard-charging reformers took a while to absorb: that having a strong curriculum is as important as getting strong educators into the classroom. “This has been an evolution for me. I have traditionally put more of my eggs in the leadership-development category and in the direct support of teachers through coaching. That’s still a relevant investment,” he said in an October 2016 conversation with an education leader. “But as I’ve gone through this process and evolved as a leader and a thinker, I would put my eggs more in the curriculum basket than I ever would have before.” In Duval County, Vitti rolled out EngageNY, the free curriculum that New York State developed and now makes available to other states. EngageNY is also in use in some Detroit-area schools, including in those run by the state’s Education Achievement Authority, which will be returning to the main Detroit district this summer.
  7. Vitti has sparred with the local NAACP over test score disparities between white children and children of color. And a Duval school board member asked Vitti to resign last fall in part over the achievement gap, issuing an open letter explaining why. The local newspaper urged the board to keep him, saying the idea of firing him would be a “tragic mistake.”
  8. But the racial achievement gap is lower in Duval County than in many other urban districts. And low-income and minority students as well as students with disabilities in Jacksonville perform better on a national exam compared to their peers across the country. Vitti credits to Response to Intervention, an approach to helping struggling students fill in their skills gaps, with the strong results.
  9. Vitti believes that school systems can and should give children more than what’s necessary to hit learning goals. Duval County has a voluntary summer school to keep kids busy.
  10. His wife, Rachel, an educator and advocate, invoked the fact that she’s a black woman married to Vitti, who is white, on a poster to campaign “as a straight ally” for a local human rights ordinance. “The sobering fact is that less than 50 years ago, without the voice of allies, I would have been arrested and jailed for displaying my human right to love a man, who shares my heart, brings me to a poignant pause,” she was quoted as saying on the poster. “Less than 50 years ago, without the voice of allies, my four bi-racial children would have been deemed to be illegitimate and would not have been given the protections and privileges afforded to the children of lawfully wedded parents.”

change at the top

Warning of ‘inconsistency at the top,’ Detroit school administrators, teachers urge board to reconsider Meriweather

Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather is not among finalists in the running to be Detroit's permanent district superintendent.

Even as the Detroit Public Schools Community District moves forward with planning day-long interviews for the three finalists in the running to be Detroit’s next superintendent, supporters of the woman currently in the top job have continued to push her case.

After the Detroit school board announced over the weekend that Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather was not among finalists for the permanent position, ten top district administrators signed a letter urging the board to keep their current boss in the running.

“Our district has endured an enormous amount of change in leadership over the past 10 years,” the administrators wrote, adding that the district has “succumbed to the dictates of 5 emergency managers and have finally returned to local control.”

The letter calls on the board to give Meriweather a formal interview noting that district leadership has “seen up close and personal the detriment of inconsistency at the top.”

The administrators are part of an effort that was joined Wednesday by the city teachers union, which released a statement urging the board to consider Meriweather. Hundreds of her supporters have also signed a petition.

The board has three finalists scheduled for 12-hour interviews that will include school visits, parent meetings and public questioning by the board.

Orlando Ramos, a regional superintendent for the Milwaukee Public Schools is scheduled for an interview on March 29th. Nikolai Vitti, the superintendent of the Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Fla., is scheduled for April 3. And Derrick Coleman, who is superintendent of the River Rouge district, is scheduled for April 5.

Board President Iris Taylor said the board has no plans to add a fourth candidate to the mix.

“We have a process that we’ve established and that we’ve agreed upon and we’re going to continue to follow that process,” she said.

Meriweather’s interim contract continues until June 30. She says she intends to stay focused on the job until then but wouldn’t comment this week on whether she’ll plan to stay with the district under a new superintendent.

Here’s the letter from district leaders that was signed by top district administrators including the district’s Deputy Superintendent of Finance and Operations Marios Demetriou, its Executive Director of Enrollment Steve Wasko and several district network leaders: