Week In Review

Week in Review: A reprieve — but difficult conversations — for struggling schools

Supporters of 38 struggling schools are breathing a little easier this week now that threatened state school closures are likely on hold until next year but the schools still face potentially difficult conversations as they try to improve.

“Any school that’s been failing for three, four or five years, we can’t allow it to continue … Obviously what we’re doing is not working.” 

— Brian Whiston, Michigan state superintendent

Read on for more on this evolving story — as well as the rest of the week’s headlines. And don’t forget to buy your tickets to the School Days storytelling event Chalkbeat is hosting next Friday — a week from today — in conjunction with the Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers at the Charles H. Wright Museum. We’re expecting an epic night of cocktails and storytelling, designed to both celebrate and elevate the voices of Detroit residents. Tickets are $20 in advance (or $25 at the door). Buy them here. Thanks for reading!

Closings averted (for now)

  • Schools have been offered a chance to avoid closure by entering into partnership agreements with state and local organizations (read the letter the districts received here).
  • State Superintendent Brian Whiston says he still expects 4-6 schools to close but those will be local — not state — decisions.
  • In Detroit, one school that’s likely to close is Durfee Elementary-Middle school, where students will move to nearby Central High School while a local organization turns Durfee into a “community innovation center.”
  • What exactly the partnership agreements will look like isn’t clear, but a spokesman for the superintendent says they’re “a hybrid model developed from Superintendent Whiston’s own experience as a local superintendent, similar initiatives from other states that have shown success, and discussions with education stakeholders in Michigan.”
  • To participate, districts will have to put together a team of partners including community groups, union leaders or parents to come up with research-based solutions for school improvement.
  • Keeping the schools open would preserve tens of millions of dollars that taxpayers and community groups have put into Detroit schools in recent years, expecting they would stay open.
  • One GOP leader said the state is “circumventing the law” by backing down on closures. “Everybody is just giving them some leeway to do this because it’s a popular thing,” he said.
  • The state Education Department has essentially taken over the fate of the 38 schools from the state School Reform Office, which announced the closures in January. One reason is what a GOP lawmaker described as a “clunky rollout” including the decision to send families a two-page letter listing “better” schools that students could attend. The letters sent to Detroit families included schools an hour away from the city that don’t even accept Detroit kids.

Across the state  

  • A top lobbyist promoting the Michigan education agenda of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos resigned this week after apologizing for making comments about shaking his wife during legislative testimony last week.
  • A local business leader compares DeVos with Eli Broad — another Michigan-born billionaire philanthropist who invests heavily in education. The two have different approaches to improving schools, he writes, but DeVos “has been far more successful.”
  • The commission, which plans to formally release its recommendations today, reached no consensus on controversial issues like charter schools and the state’s schools-of-choice law but is calling for upwards of $2 billion in spending on expanding teacher training and helping at-risk kids.
  • A Michigan education professor called on the state to use the latest research to update standards for what kids need to know in each grade instead of recycling other states’ old standards.

 

In Detroit

  • Members of a Detroit charter school’s champion chess team say the secret to their success is “a lot of heart.”
  • A service organization that provides academic and emotional support to students in seven Detroit schools could lose its federal funding.

 

Week In Review

Week in Review: Discount houses — and new faces at the top of Detroit schools

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

The big news this morning is the announcement from Mayor Mike Duggan that Detroit teachers and school employees — district, charter and parochial — will now get 50% discounts on houses auctioned through Detroit’s Land Bank Authority. That could help draw more residents to the city — and possibly give school officials another perk they can use to attract teachers in their efforts to address severe teaching shortages.

“Teachers and educators are vital to the city’s future. It’s critical to give our school employees, from teachers to custodial staff, the opportunity to live in the communities they teach in.

— Mayor Mike Duggan

New schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti has said that hiring teachers is a priority. He’s also busily hiring a team of top advisors to help him run the Detroit schools. To do that, he’s drawing heavily from his Florida contacts. Of the 16 cabinet members he’s identified, five are people he worked with in Jacksonville or Miami. Want to learn more about them? We’ve assembled a gallery of who they are, what they’re doing and how much they’ll be paid.

Also this week, we featured the latest installment in our Story Booth series: An educator who says the inspiration she received from teachers in the Detroit Public Schools helped her guide one of her own students through a personal tragedy. If you know a student, parent or educator with a Detroit story to tell for a future Story Booth, please let us know.

In Detroit

  • Mayor Duggan is planning to announce details of the Detroit Land Bank Authority Educator Discount Program at a press conference this morning.
  • The Floridians in Vitti’s cabinet are joined by veterans of the Detroit Public Schools and several officials who worked for the dissolved state-run recovery district. Among them are former teachers and principals, lawyers and a real estate developer.
  • This weekend’s March for Public Education — tomorrow in Clark Park — was organized by a local resident who couldn’t get time off work to attend the march in Washington.
  • Students who attended Southeastern High School last year won’t have to take a test to return in the fall — but new students will. The school will become the city’s fourth exam school. “I’m not going to suggest that in one year Southeastern is going to be Renaissance and Cass,” Vitti said, “but I think we can make it successful.”
  • A revived local restaurant association is working with Detroit schools to train students and grads for jobs in downtown and Midtown restaurants.
  • A Detroit schools advocate explains why the relationship between Detroit and the state is like that of a child and her abusive mother.
  • Detroit’s former “rebel lunch lady” now has plans to shake up school food in Houston.
  • Here’s how the work formerly done by the defunct Excellent Schools Detroit organization will be divvied up among other groups.
  • A convicted former Detroit principal has been given more time before she has to report to prison.

Across the state

  • Districts that sued the state to stop the forced closures of struggling schools are close to reaching a settlement. The state backed down on 38 proposed school closings but maintains the right to close persistently low-performing schools in the future.
  • Michigan is one of 23 states that did not meet all the federal requirements for educating its students with disabilities.
  • A fiscally conservative Michigan think tank has issued a helpful, comprehensive guide to how school funding works in Michigan.
  • These three early childhood centers demonstrate how schools can be community hubs. They offer medical and dental clinics and services such as job training for parents.
  • Michigan schools are changing their zero-tolerance discipline policies to comply with a new state law.
  • A state science and technology advisory council has chosen to invest in six STEM programs that have been proven effective for Michigan schools.

Teachers united

  • The state’s largest teachers union used a collection agency to force teachers to pay $241,000 in delinquent dues between 2013 and 2016.
  • A state teachers union leader says teachers getting summers off is a dated myth. Teachers “work second and even third jobs to support their families, while finding creative ways to prepare for the next school year,” he wrote.
  • A critic of teacher pension changes says the bill Gov. Rick Snyder signed last week will squeeze teachers and cost the state more money.

 

Week In Review

Week in review: Could Detroit’s main school district be entering unchartered territory?

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
New Detroit school superintendent Nikolai Vitti addresses reporters outside a teacher hiring fair on his first full day in the job.

Even as new superintendent Nikolai Vitti plows ahead with shaking up district leadership in his quest to improve the city’s 100-plus traditional schools, much of the focus this week has been on the future of the district’s charter schools.

The district has been overseeing charter schools for more than two decades. Now, Vitti says it potentially should get out of the charter school business to focus on traditional schools. That could lead to charter schools closing — like this one that the district quietly closed last month amid concerns about its poor financial footing.

Read on for more on these stories. And, if you have five minutes of your time to donate today, please give us some honest feedback. Help improve our journalism by taking Chalkbeat’s annual reader survey.

Chartering new territory

The shakeup

  • Vitti has overhauled the district’s executive leadership team, bringing in people he worked with in Florida, educators and leaders from the Detroit area, and former officials with the EAA.
  • Nearly all the people he’s hired have been teachers or principals — and he said at this week’s school board meeting, they’re “mission-driven.”
  • The changes have sent some longtime district administrators packing: Vitti has so far eliminated roughly 70 administrative positions. He also cut multiyear contracts and perks like car allowances from those who remain.
  • The district will run more efficiently now, he said. “I found that there were one and two positions within departments that were duplicated or responsibilities shared that could be streamlined,” he said, adding that the network structure that principals used to report to “led to communication and work product backlog.”

In Detroit

  • A year after Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation that created the new Detroit Public Schools Community District, one former GOP leader writes why he thinks the “fresh start is working,” arguing that Detroit is “not the ‘wild west’ that defenders of the status quo say that it is.”
  • Plans to change the name of Southeastern High School hit a snag at Tuesday’s school board meeting.
  • District officials will try to renegotiate the controversial lease, signed by a state-appointed emergency manager on his last day on the job in December, that turned a west-side elementary school over to a nonprofit group. That negotiation isn’t likely to satisfy the biggest critics of the deal.
  • The district says this year’s graduates have collectively earned $170 million in college scholarships and grants.
  • Limited access to quality early childhood education has a high cost in Detroit.
  • A state health and safety agency has fined the district for unsafe water at one school.
  • A water main break closed one of the schools serving this week as a “summer fun center.”
  • One of the city’s Head Start providers has picked up a $12.5 million grant to serve 168 more west side children and their families.

From the capitol

  • The state’s top education official says conversations with the federal government have been “combative” since the state abandoned plans to assign letter grades to schools in favor of a “dashboard” that compiles data in a variety of categories. The state is preparing to begin discussions with the U.S. education department over how it complies with new federal education laws.
  • The Detroit News is unimpressed with Snyder’s school improvement efforts, saying they’ve “ended up being more about optics than the substantial changes Michigan families deserve.”
  • Snyder signed a controversial teacher pension overhaul into law. The plan will take effect next year.
  • An advocate says the state’s 56 intermediate school districts need to be more transparent about how they collectively spend $1.6 billion on special education and other services.
  • Another advocate makes the case for why schools should focus on a broad-based education — rather than career readiness.