Hitting the road?

Detroit parents steered to ‘better’ schools — that don’t actually take Detroit kids

PHOTO: Ken Lund
State officials are encouraging Detroit families to hit the road in search of 'better' schools — but some districts offered as alternatives won't accept Detroit children.

Thousands of Detroit parents last month opened their mailboxes to find an alarming letter.

“You are receiving this letter because the school your child attends is at risk of being closed by June 30, 2017 due to academic failure for many years,” the letter states.

The letter, signed by State School Reform Officer Natasha Baker, went on to explain that children attending closed schools may be offered “the opportunity to attend a higher-performing school” and encouraged parents to use an attached list of schools “to enroll your child in a better option for the 2017-2018 school year.”

But when Detroit parents turned to the attached list, many were surprised. There were nearly 60 school districts listed, including some like Holly, Brighton and East China, Mich., that are an hour’s drive from Detroit.

“When this letter first came out, parents started blowing up my phone saying ‘What is this?’” said Wytrice Harris, a parent organizer with 482Forward. “‘Are they telling us to move out of the city because these schools are so far away? How am I ever supposed to get my kids to these schools?’”

To make matters worse, Chalkbeat has discovered that some of the districts listed don’t even accept Detroit kids. We spent an hour on Friday calling districts on the list to see how they would respond to questions from someone claiming to be the mother of a Detroit student — and some seemed very confused.

“I’m really sorry they put us on that list,” said the woman who responded from Brighton Area Schools.

Brighton is a Schools of Choice district, meaning it accepts students who live outside district borders. But state law only allows districts to accept kids who live in the same county or in a neighboring county. And since Brighton is in Livingston County, which does not share a border with Wayne County, Brighton does not accept Detroit kids.

“I would imagine you could attend Oakland County schools,” said the helpful woman from Brighton.

It was the same story with East China schools, which are in St. Clair County.

“We take students from Sanilac, Lapeer and Macomb [Counties],” an enrollment official in East China responded.

When told that East China was on the list provided to Detroit families, she said, “That was a typo. That was supposed to be East Detroit.”

East Detroit was also on the list provided to Detroit families, and its schools are much closer to Detroit than East China’s. But that district has also had academic struggles. Some of its schools are currently being run by a state-appointed CEO, and one East Detroit school is also on the list of schools officials have threatened to close.

Baker last month put 38 Michigan schools on notice that they could be closed unless her office determines that closing the school would pose an “unreasonable hardship” to students.

There are 25 Detroit schools on the list, including 16 in the Detroit Public Schools Community District and eight schools in the state-run Education Achievement Authority that are expected to revert back to the city’s main district this summer.

The Detroit school board voted last week to oppose the closings in court if necessary, and cited the letter parents received among its concerns.

“The SRO advised Detroit parents that if their child’s school is closed, they should consider sending their child to communities as far as Holly and East China to find a quality school,” board President Iris Taylor said, reading a prepared statement from the board Wednesday night.

Asked for comment about the parent letter on Friday, the SRO emailed this statement to Chalkbeat: “We looked at districts with schools that have Top-To-Bottom rankings of 25 or higher contiguous to failing schools that are also schools of choice. The goal was to find quality schools accessible to children and families.

“We appreciate the concerns that have been raised and will consider those points during the hardship review. Our goal is to offer quality opportunities for students so that they can succeed as adults.”

When Chalkbeat set out to contact districts on the list, we decided to see how many we could reach in one hour.

We started at the top of the alphabetical list, placing a call to Airport Community Schools, which are near the Ohio border in Monroe County.

“We can take kids from Wayne County,” said the man who answered the phone.

But Airport schools are in Carleton, Michigan, nearly an hour away now that I-75 is closed for construction — and very few districts offer student transportation to non-resident kids.

“It would be your responsibility to get ‘em here,” he said.

Some districts we reached were welcoming, including Clintondale Community Schools in Macomb County.

“We have a lot of Detroit kids here,” said the woman who took the call in Clintondale. “Twenty to 25 percent of our population is from Detroit.”

She recommended Parker Elementary school, where she knows some Detroit families carpool to class. (She did not mention that the school was one of the lowest ranked schools in the state last year.)

The Crestwood School District is very close to Detroit in Dearborn Heights, but it won’t take just any kid.

“We’re a closed district except that we have the Crestwood Accelerated program,” the woman on the phone at Crestwood told us. “Your child is welcome to test for the accelerated program but we don’t have any test dates scheduled yet. The next one would probably be by the end of the school year.”

Most districts that answered our calls were largely helpful but not necessarily encouraging.

“Our Schools of Choice window should be open at the beginning of March,” said the woman who took the call at the Anchor Bay School District, which is based in Casco Township, Michigan, a 50-minute drive from Detroit.

“But, you know, transportation is not included,” she said. “If traffic was bad, you could be spending an hour just getting them here.”

Here’s the list of “better” districts that Detroit parents received:

The list of ‘better’ school districts provided to Detroit parents include districts very far from the city that won’t accept Detroit kids.


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:

Looking ahead

Despite being passed over for top job, Alycia Meriweather says she’s focused on changes ahead for Detroit schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather addresses parents and teachers at Bethune Elementary-Middle School on Detroit's west side about the school's return to the district.

When Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather and other top officials from the Detroit Public Schools Community District arrived in the auditorium of Bethune Elementary-Middle School on Tuesday afternoon, their goal was to calm frayed nerves.

Bethune is among 11 schools that will be returning to the main Detroit district this summer after five years in the state-run Education Achievement Authority and district officials have been making the rounds of returning schools, promising a smooth transition.

“I wanted to come to each of these meetings personally to make sure that we clearly communicate that DPSCD is excited to have our family back,” Meriweather told Bethune parents and teachers, vowing that the district would “move everyone back into the family and move the whole family toward excellence.”

But even as Meriweather rallied the troops at the school on Detroit’s west side, her hopeful predictions about the future struck an odd note just days after the Detroit school board narrowed its superintendent search to three finalists that did not include Meriweather.

The interim superintendent’s exclusion from the search process has triggered angry reactions on social media. Hundreds of people have signed a petition urging the school board to reconsider. And on Wednesday, the union representing Detroit teachers called on the board to give Meriweather a shot.

“During her tenure, Interim Superintendent Meriweather has led the way in restoring trust, confidence and hope in our school district,” the Detroit Federation of Teachers wrote in a Facebook post. “She has earned an opportunity for further consideration.”

Board President Iris Taylor did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Meriweather had applied for the permanent position but said her elimination won’t change her focus between now and the end of her contract in June.

“What I’m committed to right now is through June 30th and making sure that we move this district forward,” Meriweather said. “My hope is the same hope I had when I took the interim position, which is that every piece of work that I have done in the last year will be good enough to keep moving forward no matter who sits in this seat.”

Several Bethune parents and teachers said knowing that Meriweather is leaving adds another layer of uncertainty to the already daunting prospect of their school returning to the district, but Meriweather said most of the transition details will be addressed before she leaves.

She told the parents and teachers in the Bethune auditorium that EAA teachers will get letters next week promising them that they can remain in their current positions as long as they’re certified and not rated “ineffective.” What they will be paid, however, will be the subject of ongoing negotiations between the district and the city teachers union because many EAA teachers make more than their district counterparts.

Parents who want to keep their children in their current EAA schools can do so without having to deal with extra paperwork, Meriweather said, adding that the district is committed to maintaining continuity.

“I wanted you to hear straight from me: Who I am, who we are and where we’re going,” Meriweather said. “We’re excited to have you back and I really look forward to this transition and making it as smooth as possible.”

Despite the superintendent search news, Meriweather has kept up her schedule of events and community meetings this week. Her signature is on the lawsuit the district just filed opposing state plans to shutter 16 district schools.

She will be the one negotiating a “partnership” with the state education department that is intended to keep those 16 schools open as well as eight EAA schools that were also on the closure list, she said.

The school board is moving ahead with scheduling interviews with the three men who were named as finalists: Orlando Ramos, a regional superintendent for the Milwaukee Public Schools; Nikolai Vitti, the superintendent of the Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Fla.; and Derrick Coleman, who is superintendent of the River Rouge district.

All three will go through a 12-hour interview process that will include school visits and parent meetings as well as a public interview with the board, the district announced Wednesday. Ramos’ interview is scheduled for March 29th, Vitti’s for April 3 and Coleman’s for April 5.

Asked whether she intends to remain with the district under a new superintendent, Meriweather declined to answer.

“At this point, I’m going to say no comment,” she said.