Enroll

How bad timing and poisonous politics killed a $700,000 effort to streamline school enrollment in Detroit

PHOTO: Jeffrey Loos
School advocates spent years and more than $700,000 on a streamlined enrollment system called Enroll Detroit but a pilot last year drew few participants and the effort has been largely abandoned.

A sophisticated new enrollment tool that was supposed to make signing up for school easier in Detroit won’t be of much use to the thousands of families whose children could be displaced by upcoming school closures.

Despite the more than $700,000 and countless hours of planning that went into creating a single application for Detroit’s competing district and charter schools, the effort has been put on hold indefinitely — a victim of bad timing, poor planning, and a toxic political environment.

“It’s a shame,” said Karey Reed-Henderson, a former charter school leader who served on the planning committee for what came to be called Enroll Detroit.

“We came together. We hashed things out,” Reed-Henderson said of a process that brought together charter school leaders with officials from the Detroit Public Schools, the state-run Education Achievement Authority and representatives of community groups.

“It wasn’t always roses and butterflies but the conversation was always around what’s best for the kids and best for families,” she said.

“Unfortunately it just got muddied.”

Now, as 25 Detroit schools face possible shut-down by the state, the handful of staffers still working at Enroll Detroit hope they can use their knowledge and technology to help at least some of the roughly 12,000 children who could be affected.

But the grand vision of creating a common enrollment system similar to those used in other cities is largely dead — at least for the near future.

In common enrollment cities like New Orleans, Denver, Newark and Washington DC, parents no longer need to navigate a mix of deadlines and requirements to apply to multiple schools. They don’t need to drive around, submitting one kind of application to their local district school, another kind to district magnet schools and a host of other applications to a host of charter schools.

Instead, parents use a single application that lets them rank the schools they want for their children. A computer then crunches admission criteria and applies a lottery to assign children to schools.

Proponents say common enrollments are more equitable because most applicants have the same shot at sought-after schools. The systems also remove some of the guesswork for administrators by preventing parents from enrolling in multiple schools, then waiting until September to make their final decisions.

The systems have been controversial around the country, running into opposition in cities like Boston and Oakland because they reduce the influence some parents have had in school admissions. They can also hurt traditional districts by making it easier for families to choose charter schools.

But few cities have the deeply poisonous relationships between district and charter schools that doomed the effort in Detroit.

Here, in a city where roughly equal numbers of students attend district and charter schools, and where thousands of students travel out of town to attend suburban schools, what happened to Detroit’s common enrollment shows how difficult it can be for competing factions to come together. The tensions exposed by the issue are the same ones that make it difficult to solve other serious challenges in Detroit, such as student transportation and teacher recruitment, that would be easier to address if competing schools worked together.

That kind of collaboration isn’t dead, said Reed-Henderson who is the founder of the Metro Detroit Charter Center and the Detroit Teacher Village. “But I think the right people need to get back in the room.”

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PHOTO: Jeffrey Loos
School advocates spent years and more than $700,000 on a streamlined enrollment system called Enroll Detroit but a pilot last year drew few participants and the effort has been largely abandoned.

 

Officials with the advocacy group Excellent Schools Detroit (which is a Chalkbeat supporter) first proposed creating a common enrollment for Detroit in 2013. Though competition for students is fierce in a city where school funding is based almost exclusively on student enrollment, the school leaders who came together around the enrollment effort hoped they could find solutions to shared problems.

“Schools were struggling to find parents and parents were struggling to find schools,” said Dan Quisenberry, who heads the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a charter school group that was involved in the early days of the effort.

There were risks for all parties, said Neil Dorosin, the consultant and school enrollment expert who was brought to Detroit to determine if common enrollment could work here.

“It was very threatening to the district because right now there are a lot of children who don’t make choices because they get rolled up into their district school,” Dorosin said. “It was threatening to the (Education Achievement Authority) for similar reasons. And it was threatening to charter schools who would have to play by a much more transparent set of rules.”

Individually, he said, “it’s not in anyone’s best interest, but it is in the best interest for the customer.”

As the planning group met in 2014 and 2015 to hammer out details, Excellent Schools Detroit raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from foundations and hired a tech company to build a massive database that could match students with schools.

Then, with the system ready to go last year, the group announced it would plow ahead with a pilot project to see how many students it could place for the 2016-2017 school year.

But just as the pilot was launching, a nasty fight was raging in Lansing over a package of bills aimed at keeping the cash-strapped Detroit Public Schools out of bankruptcy.

One of the provisions in the bills would have created a city-wide Detroit Education Commission, appointed by the mayor, that would have had influence over the opening and closing of district and charter schools.

The Detroit Education Commission was strongly opposed by some charter school advocates including Betsy DeVos, an influential Michigan philanthropist who was confirmed this month as the U.S. Secretary of Education.

Because Excellent Schools Detroit was among Detroit organizations backing the commission and because enrollment was one of the areas over which the commission would have had authority, the issue became politically charged. Though the commission was ultimately removed from the final legislation, the threat of it kept some charter schools away from the enrollment pilot.

“There was a big question of trust,” said Quisenberry, who said he grew concerned that common enrollment officials would steer families to district schools at the expense of charter schools.

To make things even more challenging, the Detroit Public Schools were in turmoil.

Darnell Earley, the state-appointed emergency manager who was running the district at the start of 2016, resigned amid controversy in early February.

Earley was replaced by former bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes, who agreed to serve as “transition manager” until the the city schools could be returned to a locally elected school board. Because Rhodes did not want to make any long-term commitments for the district, he announced that DPS would not participate in the common enrollment pilot.

That meant that the pilot went forward with less than a quarter of Detroit schools. Of more than 200 schools in the city, just 41 participated in the pilot, including some charter schools, a private school and the 15 schools in the Education Achievement Authority.

The application system placed just 78 children — a fraction of the almost 20,000 kids who were applying to kindergarten or ninth grade, the two grades that were the focus of the pilot.

School enrollment counselors also provided advice to a few hundred additional families, including some who were displaced by charter schools that closed last year.

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PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
A multi-year, $700,000 effort to streamline school enrollment in Detroit has been tabled indefinitely.

Whether common enrollment has a future in Detroit isn’t clear.

The new Detroit school board, which was sworn in last month, has not yet publicly discussed the issue. A district official who played an important role in the planning process and a district spokeswoman both declined to comment on whether the district might someday be open to joining a common enrollment system.

Meanwhile, at Excellent Schools Detroit, a new interim director is rethinking the organization’s mission. The group’s two top officials — its longtime CEO and vice president — both left at the end of 2016.

But some Enroll Detroit staffers are still on the payroll, and they say they’re looking to use the resources they’ve created to help families affected by state-mandated school closings this spring.

State officials “are saying, ‘We want to get the kids in a higher quality school’ but what kind of chance are they going to have?” asked Maria Montoya, Enroll Detroit’s executive director.

Families won’t know for sure which schools will close until March or even later since state decisions are likely to be challenged in court. By then, many of Detroit’s most sought-after schools, including charter schools and selective district schools, will already have completed their enrollments.

Many of the schools targeted for closure are in neighborhoods that don’t have many high-performing schools and where parents have few resources to figure out which schools are taking new students and which offer transportation.

A letter state officials sent to parents suggested they reach out to districts as far as an hour away from Detroit — including some that don’t even accept Detroit kids.

Montoya said she’s hoping to adapt Enroll Detroit’s computer system to help track kids as they move to new schools, making sure their records transfer and that things like special education services are continued — details that sometimes fall through through the cracks when schools close.

She’s also hoping that over the summer, some schools will use Enroll Detroit to fill vacancies.

“Instead of using the full system, we could take the technology we have and have schools give us the seats they have available and we could do a real-time placement in June, July, and August when we know families are really applying and looking for seats,” Montoya said.

City leaders are no longer talking about a single city-wide application but there have been conversations around smaller steps such as a common application timeline that would make things easier for parents and schools.

If district and charter school leaders ever do decide to restart the full common enrollment, Montoya said the system remains available and could be fired back up.

“We have all this investment and not just in the technology,” Montoya said. “We have the folks who did our marketing. They created assets other cities have taken years to build. We have logos and tents and outreach things … We have staff and a team and knowledge. The question is: How do you move forward in this landscape?”

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: