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: The teachers union contract that wasn’t, Vitti’s move and more

A new charter school opening on the east side next year will look familiar to many Detroiters — and that familiarity has some people worried. The new charter school will be a publicly funded version of the private Cornerstone School. That means the school can access millions of dollars a year in state funds. But it also means the school must remove religious teachings that are deeply entwined in its curriculum.

The change has upset Cornerstone parents who had chosen the school for its religious values (and didn’t mind paying tuition). It also has triggered alarms for public school advocates who are worried that supporters of religious schools such as U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are looking for “backdoor vouchers” to steer public funds to private and religious schools. Vouchers are unconstitutional in Michigan but there are no limits on how many charter schools can open here.

“In the religious voucher setting, if you’re going to give vouchers to non-public schools you can trace the money and know what you’re getting. Here it’s like one of those bad science fiction movies where they take over the body.”

— Peter Hammer, director, Damon Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University law school

Read on for more on that story, plus the latest details on Detroit’s new superintendent, the teachers contract that wasn’t, and the rest of the week’s Detroit education news. Thanks for reading!

The new boss

  • Now that Nikolai Vitti has officially signed a contract and started packing up his Florida house to move to Detroit, he’s making plans and laying out a hopeful agenda for fixing Detroit schools. Here’s a look at Vitti’s 100-day plan for his first few months in office.
  • Among his top priorities is meeting with Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather about finding a role for her in his administration. Another priority is finding schools in the Detroit Public Schools Community District his four children, though the fact that some have special needs could complicate the effort.
  • Vitti and his family also need to find a house in Detroit. (We at Chalkbeat are trying to help and invite our readers to add Vitti housing suggestions on Facebook).
  • In interviews with Chalkbeat, the Free Press, and the Detroit News over the weekend, Vitti offered hopeful optimism — if not many specifics — about his vision for the future. He told the News that he wants Detroit to become a “mecca of traditional public school transformation.”
  • In the Free Press, among other topics, Vitti addressed the delicate question of race, telling the paper that he knows some parents and educators in this majority-black city were hoping the new superintendent would be African American. He responded by noting he’d improved schools for African-American students in “some of the toughest districts in the country,” and is the father of African-American children. “I come home to the achievement gap every day,” he said.
  • Vitti’s call for “better quality control” for charter schools prompted a response from a state charter school organization. “Only by working together can we make Detroit one of the truly great educational cities in America,” the group’s president wrote. Another school choice advocate urged Vitti to focus on quality control in his district, rather than worrying about charter schools.
  • Vitti has an eight-point plan to boost enrollment in the district that includes improving transportation, training employees in customer service, and launching a massive marketing campaign.
  • The new superintendent’s $295,000 salary has generated controversy, especially in a week when contract talks with the city teachers union hit a snag.
  • Days before leaving Jacksonville, Vitti shifted principals at 11 schools in the Duval County School District. His departure has triggered a mixed response  among parents and educators.
  • Vitti said he plans to arrive in Detroit early next week. He’ll soon head to the elite Mackinac Policy Conference to address corporate titans and political power brokers — something that one advocate says is essential right now. (I’ll be interviewing him live there and will report back on what he says).

In other Detroit news

  • Cornerstone’s switch from private school to charter school raises thorny issues about the separation of church and state — and whether Michigan’s notoriously freewheeling charter sector is set up to safeguard it.
  • The Detroit Federation of Teachers reached — then scrapped — a tentative deal with the district for a new contract.
  • The decision to lease a west side elementary school to a non-profit business incubator has angered some parents and community leaders and raised questions how the deal was made without community discussion.
  • Court documents assert that Detroit’s main district should have paid its debt to a janitorial company with money it got last year from the state.
  • A comprehensive plan to revitalize Detroit’s Cody-Rouge neighborhood includes a new STEAM camp, a mentorship program, and other efforts that will benefit local students and schools.

Across the state

  • For the third consecutive year, the percentage of Michigan public school students who are poor enough to qualify for subsidized meals has declined. Look up the free lunch rate in Michigan schools and districts here.
  • The Detroit News says the latest effort to study how schools are funded in Michigan is likely to be little more than a “more expensive, longer version” of a school funding study that came out last year — and has largely been collecting dust since. But the study’s defenders argue that the first step to reforming Michigan schools is “an independent, bipartisan look at how we fund Michigan’s public schools.”
  • Teachers are continuing their opposition to A-F grades for schools even as the state has largely backed off a plan to assign them. The head of a school research and advocacy organization, however, says letter grades would improve transparency and promote school quality.
  • A set of bills passed in the state Senate this week would ban schools from suspending or expelling students solely for poor attendance.
  • A fight over teacher pensions has derailed state budget talks.
  • A Republican state lawmaker is likely resigning to work for U.S. Education secretary Betsy DeVos.
  • The heads of two state charter school groups make their case for why charters have “helped breathe new life into the state’s K-12 landscape.”

In other news

  • A $250,000 grant from Google will provide more Detroit-area high school students with hands-on science and engineering after-school programs at the Michigan Engineering Zone.
  • Students at a Detroit charter school won a national chess tournament.
  • A Detroit charter school student saw his winning textile design — “Fist Full of Power” — made into a 5ft x 7ft wool after winning a design competition.
  • Hundreds of volunteers helped beautify three southwest Detroit schools on National Arab American Service Day last weekend.

 

 

Week In Review

Week in review: Salary news for Vitti, uncertainty for Detroit teachers

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

With a new superintendent getting a (generous) contract as soon as tonight and school closings off the table for now, Detroit schools are starting to feel a bit more stable. But with just weeks to go before the end of the school year, teachers in the state-run Education Achievement Authority still don’t know what their salaries will be next year or who will be running their buildings. That has some fearing a mass teacher exodus that could hurt academic progress and create new challenges for children whose lives are already tumultuous.

“These children have very little stability in their lives. The people in this building are the only stable people they have.”

— Stefanie Kovaleski, kindergarten teacher, Bethune Elementary-Middle School

 

Read on for more on this story and the rest of the week’s Detroit schools news. Plus, our series on Detroiters telling their school stories this week features a Detroit student who says her school helped make her the active, successful student she’s become. If you have a story to tell, or know someone who does, please let us know. Thanks!

In Detroit

  • EAA teachers are bracing for pay cuts when their district returns to the main Detroit school district this summer. They’re so frustrated by the slow pace of negotiations, they’re looking for other jobs.
  • This Detroit student credits her success to her Detroit public school. “DPS has expanded my horizon for me to see a whole new world,” she said, adding that her school has “given me opportunities to express myself and be who I am.”
  • Nikolai Vitti, the man selected to lead Detroit schools is reportedly close to signing a $295,000 contract, which will be the subject of a special school board  meeting tonight.
  • Vitti, who could start work in Detroit as soon as this month, will be one of the first speakers at a major business conference that will be held on Mackinac Island after Memorial Day.
  • A plan to move Durfee Elementary school into nearby Central High School has produced mixed reactions among parents and community members but a board member’s effort to stop the move was not successful at this week’s meeting.
  • As the Detroit teachers union negotiates its first contract with a district run by the new school board, its leaders penned an op/ed urging the district to “understand the important role that we play and negotiate with us accordingly.”
  • Detroit schools advocates will gather this weekend for the screening of a new documentary about school closings in Detroit and a discussion on the history and future of Detroit public schools.
  • This great Detroit teacher is proof that not all great teachers leave, a parent advocate and blogger writes.
  • Detroit teachers who were laid off in 2011 and not properly recalled will share in a $400,000 settlement approved this week by the Detroit school board.

 

Across the state

  • The partnership agreements that were signed to spare 38 struggling schools from being closed by the state look different in the nine districts that signed them. Here’s a breakdown.
  • Gov. Rick Snyder weighed in on the agreements, saying the schools are now “on a path to increased academic achievement” and calling for lawmakers to update the state’s school accountability law to set the stage for more such agreements.
  • The agreements “hold promise” if done right, but the “constantly changing target” of Michigan school reform is counter productive, a News columnist writes. “While these blueprints are crafted with good intentions by smart people, the churn has created a culture of “this too shall pass.”
  • State reports written on the 38 schools reveal a sober picture of the work that will need to be done to improve them. Among challenges: chronic absences, poor curriculums, insufficient resources and a lack of parental involvement. One of the Detroit schools lacked a certified English teacher for two years.
  • The state had conducted “hardship reviews” that could have spared schools from closures even without the partnership agreement but hid the details from a reporter who paid $2,160 to request the documents under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
  • A Michigan radio station is polling teachers to get a better idea of how much educators make in different parts of the state.
  • The state’s controversial school reform officer is up for a job in Tennessee (and is competing against another local school leader).
  • As lawmakers debate teacher pensions and 401k’s, teachers worry about the consequences.
  • The Kellogg Foundation awarded an “unprecedented” $51 million grant to Battle Creek Public Schools. The grant represents the foundation’s first effort to turn around a district from top to bottom. “This is monumental,” a New York University researcher said. “I haven’t seen anything like this – a philanthropy investing so much with a belief they can actually turn a system around.”
  • The head of a virtual school disputes claims from critics who think cyber schools should get less state funding than brick-and-mortar schools.
  • The state education department has established “transformation zones” in three counties to “improve instructional and innovation practices” in schools.
  • The state received a $10,000 grant to help create a Michigan Teacher Leadership Advisory Council to support the state’s implementation of new federal accountability rules.

In other news