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.

 

Looming threat

Report: Looming financial threats could undermine ‘fresh’ start for new Detroit district

The creation of a new school district last year gave Detroit schools a break from years of crippling debt, allowing the new district to report a healthy budget surplus going into its second year.

It’s the first time since 2007 that the city’s main school district has ended the year with a surplus.

But a report released this morning — just days after Superintendent Nikolai Vitti took over the district — warns of looming financial challenges that “could derail the ‘fresh’ financial start that state policymakers crafted for the school district.”

The report, from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, notes that almost a third of the district’s $64 million surplus is the cost savings from more than 200 vacant teaching positions.

Those vacancies have caused serious problems in schools including classrooms crammed with 40 or 50 kids. The district says it’s been trying to fill those positions. But as it struggles to recruit teachers, it is also saving money by not having to pay them.

Other problems highlighted in the report include the district’s need to use its buildings more efficiently at a time when many schools are more than half empty. “While a business case might be made to close an under-utilized building in one part of the city, such a closure can create challenges and new costs for the districts and the families involved,” the report states. It notes that past school closings have driven students out of the district and forced kids to travel long distances to school.

The report also warns that if academics don’t improve soon, student enrollment — and state dollars tied to enrollment — could continue to fall.

Read the full report here:

 

familiar face

Former interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather ‘discussing’ new role in Detroit district under superintendent Nikolai Vitti

New Detroit superintendent Nikolai Vitti greets principals and job applicants with former Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather at a district job fair.

When Nikolai Vitti worked a teacher hiring fair Tuesday night, the new Detroit superintendent brought a partner — a familiar face — to stand beside him.

It was Vitti’s first full day running the Detroit Public Schools Community District. And although he was the new guy in a room full of school principals, administrators and job applicants, he stood side-by-side with someone more well-known: Alycia Meriweather, the district veteran who served for 14 months as interim superintendent until Vitti took over this week.

Whether Meriweather’s presence at the hiring fair suggests a permanent role for her in Vitti’s administration hasn’t yet been decided, she said. “We’re discussing that right now. He has made it clear that there is a position for me and, right now, it’s just a matter of me having further dialog with him about what that might look like and figure out if it’s a good fit for me.”

The news of Meriweather possibly staying on in the district could be comforting to the teachers and staff who strongly urged the school board to consider Meriweather for the permanent post. Teachers circulated petitions and protested outside a board meeting during a finalist interview after Meriweather was dropped from consideration.

For now, Meriweather is officially a senior advisor to Vitti — a role that will last at least until the end of June.

“My main focus right now is making sure this transition is as smooth as possible,” Meriweather told Chalkbeat. “Dr. Vitti and I have had really good conversations. I think we see things very similarly and he’s made it very clear that his intention is to build on the work that’s been done, which is very affirming and encouraging.”

For now, Meriweather, who is a graduate of the district and has worked in Detroit as a classroom teacher and administrator throughout her career, said she’s focused on a smooth transition.

“I really, at the heart of hearts, just want the district to continue to evolve,” she said. “I need him to be successful because if he’s successful, the district is successful, which means my kids are taken care of.”