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Week in Review: Pressure mounts on Detroit school board, charter growth slows, and more in this week’s news

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The new Detroit school board voted unanimously Wednesday to fight school closures in court.

The big decision on who will be the next school leader for Detroit could come as early as next week as the Detroit school board stares down a looming (or possibly already blown) deadline — and increasing pressure to slow down.

The board plans to gather Monday to discuss the two finalists — Jacksonville superintendent Nikolai Vitti and River Rouge superintendent Derrick Coleman — and is scheduled to have its regular monthly meeting on Tuesday, exactly 90 days after its swearing in.

State law requires the board to choose a new superintendent within 90 days of taking office, although the law isn’t clear on whether that clock started Jan. 1, when the board took control of the district, or Jan. 11, when members were sworn in. If it declines to vote, it will be in violation of the law, but it’s not clear what consequences that would have for the district. Both of the city’s major newspapers have called for the process to be slowed.

Read on for more about the candidates, insights into a school board trip to check out Vitti’s schools in Florida, and the rest of the week’s schools news. And be sure to stay tuned to Chalkbeat next week as the board potentially makes the most important decision it’s likely ever to face. Oh, and go Tigers!

— Erin Einhorn, Chalkbeat senior Detroit correspondent

Where the candidates stand

It was Coleman’s turn to face a barrage of questions this week during his 12-hour interview for the city’s top school job. With him, he brought supporters from River Rouge — and a confidence that he can fix Detroit schools. “I have never failed at anything I’ve done professionally,” he told a board member who asked why the board should trust a man who runs a much smaller district (that has some lower test scores) than the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Here’s our take on the four reasons why Coleman might get the job — and four why he might not, as well as our list of 10 things to know about Coleman. (Plus: Catch up on 10 things to know about Vitti, five reasons why he might get the job, and three why he might not.)

Another thing to know about Coleman: In the 2013-2014 school year, he approved more than $100,000 in out-of-state travel for this small staff, including an educator whose expenses were clearly not work-related.

After the board met with Coleman on Monday, three members flew down to Florida to get a closer look at Vitti’s district. LaMar Lemmons, one of the members on the trip, said he was impressed by what he saw, which included a live-streamed visit to a school Vitti created for dyslexic kids: “We’re even more impressed than we were yesterday … It has been a great, informative experience,” said Lemmons, who said members plan to visit River Rouge on Monday.

Even as board members aim to meet the 90-day legal deadline, the Detroit News and Free Press are both urging them to ignore it. “The board has already shown complete disregard for the same law, which called for closing the worst performing schools in Detroit,” the News wrote. The Free Press urged the legislature to relax the law and give the newly elected board members “time to find the bathrooms and their governance footing before making such a crucial decision.”

Both papers urged the board to reconsider Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather, who said this week that she hopes her successor will “follow through” on the progress she’s made rebuilding trust and hope in the district. “What I hear, the common theme is, we are in a better place now than we were a year ago,” Meriweather said. “I think we have the evidence to back that up.”

In other Detroit news

  • Detroit’s main school district got a $451,000 “consolidation grant” from the state to cover expenses related to reabsorbing the Education Achievement Authority schools. That’s about $333,000 less than the district requested. Some of the money will go to pay staff taking on extra work related to the transition.
  • As EAA schools are folded back into the main district, school leaders from both districts showed off their best work during a school showcase this week including arts and craft projects, student-built robots, and music and dance productions.
  • New rules have dramatically slowed the growth of charter schools in Detroit, but the new requirements don’t do much to ensure charter school quality.
  • A bus company transported 3,000 Detroit kids to class for about a month with no valid insurance after it failed to pay its premiums, a discovery that this week left many students stranded without rides to school.

Across the state

  • School superintendents say the statewide substitute teacher shortage is showing no signs of abating.
  • The list of 50 schools with the lowest graduation rates in the state includes many alternative programs that serve overage students who fell behind their peers.
  • State civil rights and education officials sent a letter to schools warning of the “possibility” of federal officials raiding schools in search of undocumented immigrants. “All children, regardless of citizenship and immigration status, have the right to equal access to a free public education,” the letter said.
  • The state is submitting its plan to comply with the new federal education law, called ESSA — after a 30 day review by Gov. Rick Snyder.
  • An advocate with a West Michigan business, education, and government coalition offers this prescription to upgrade Michigan’s outdated educational system.
  • A prominent former Detroit charter school leader who served on Snyder’s  21st-Century Education Commission called the commission’s recent report an “urgent” call to action. “Unless we take dramatic and difficult actions soon to rebuild our public education system, neither our children nor our communities have a hopeful future,” he wrote.
  • The Michigan Network for Equity in Education is hosting a night of comedy and improv on “The Absurdity of Michigan’s Corporate Education Reform Movement.
  • These are the best Michigan districts for music education.

Week In Review

Week in review: A new Detroit schools boss — and (another) panic over closing threats

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The Detroit school board discusses superintendent candidate Nikolai Vitti before his selection on Tuesday, April 18, 2017.

The biggest news in Detroit schools this week was the selection of a new superintendent, Nikolai Vitti — at least until the city was swept by rumors of looming school closures.

Rumors began circulating Thursday after the state superintendent told reporters that the Detroit district planned to voluntarily shutter “some” of the 24 schools that had been targeted by the state earlier this year for forced closure. The news — broadcast by local papers including one that issued a news alert —  set off a panic and fury from parents and even school leaders. Two school board members expressed alarm when contacted by Chalkbeat, saying they’d heard nothing about closures. The matter didn’t die down until several hours later when the district issued a denial.

“You may have read recent news reports that indicated Detroit Public Schools Community District planned to close schools. Currently, the district is only relocating two programs, Durfee and Turning Point Academy, to other buildings for the 2017-18 school year.”

— Detroit Public Schools Community District statement

The episode illustrated just how on edge Detroit is when it comes to its schools — hardly an easy landscape for Vitti to enter. Read on for more about Vitti’s selection, the steep challenges he faces, and the rest of the week’s education news.

Also, we’re continuing to tell the individual stories of Detroit schools including this week’s story from a student who says her charter school promised art classes and college tours — then didn’t deliver. If you have a story to tell about Detroit schools or know someone who does, please let us know.

 

The new boss

  • The school board’s unanimous vote to select Vitti, the superintendent of Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, came after one member changed his no to a yes to show Vitti that he has the full support of the board.
  • The vote drew jeers from a heckler who was angry that the board had chosen a white man to lead the primarily African American school district. “You all know we’re black, right?” she shouted.
  • The selection of a white man for the job is bound to concern some parents in a city where most kids are poor and nonwhite, a Bridge Magazine reporter said during a radio broadcast. “There are parents who very understandably want someone in the role who understands the achievement gap,” she said. But she noted that Vitti’s wife his black and so are his four children. “He is like a lot of the parents in Detroit Public Schools in that he has the achievement gap living in his home,” she said.
  • The board now plans to negotiate a contract with Vitti — though those talks are on hold until at least Tuesday due to a legal challenge from activist who says the search process violated the law.
  • If Vitti formally accept the job, he’ll have a lot of work to do. Among things that Detroiters and educators say should be at the top of his list is addressing the disappointment of the community members who wanted Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather to get the job.
  • Once the news broke of Vitti’s selection, school board members in Duval County praised his track record in the Florida district. “I believe he can be very successful in Detroit,” one board member said. “I frankly think success in Detroit will really put him on a national stage. I’m excited about this opportunity for him and his career.”
  • A Detroit News columnist called him a “game changer,” adding: “He needs to be. Because it’s now or never” for Detroit schools.
  • Vitti beat out River Rouge superintendent Derrick Coleman who called Vitti a “great hire,” adding that he felt “almost a sense of relief” that he didn’t get the job. “It would have been extremely difficult to leave my current position,” he said.

 

In other Detroit news

  • The state superintendent later clarified his panic-creating remarks about Detroit school closings saying the Detroit district may need to close schools in the future “based on their enrollment numbers.” The only changes planned this year, the district says, are at Durfee Elementary-Middle school, which will be moved into nearby Central High School. The Turning Point Academy will be moving to another nearby building.
  • A town hall meeting was held Thursday night to give parents a chance to air their concerns about school closures in Detroit.
  • A Free Press columnist urged city philanthropic leaders to “drop the mother of all philanthropic bombs on the city’s schools,” but the head of a major local foundation said fixing city schools will take more than cash. “If we knew that money was the solution, we would have done exactly that.”
  • The same columnist earlier in the week renewed the call for a citywide education commission that would oversee all Detroit schools. “Who’s minding the entire store, perusing the landscape, making sure that schools  — public, private and parochial — are open where families need them and work successfully for all children?” she asked.
  • One Detroit student —  who says she and her siblings have attended 22 Detroit schools — says her charter school broke promises when it failed to provide art classes and college tours.
  • A Detroit charter school is hoping new legislation that got a hearing in Lansing this week will help preserve the school’s diversity. (Read this to learn more about the challenges faced by Detroit charter schools seeking diversity).
  • A coalition of Detroit organizations looking to expand early childhood education is inviting Detroiters to find or host a “listening session” this month or next — especially on April 27, Detroit Day of the Young Child — as part of a yearlong planning process to make Detroit a “kid-friendly city” by 2027.
  • An Ann Arbor couple is helping to send Detroit high school students to New York to perform at Carnegie Hall.
  • A Detroit charter school is spending $6 million on a new addition including space for new classrooms as well as broadcast and performing art studios.
  • More than 150 Detroit high school students will gather with teachers next weekend to prepare for Advanced Placement exams.

Across the state

In other news

More from Chalkbeat

Week In Review

Week in review: Open Meetings Act violation postpones superintendent discussion

PHOTO: Detroit Public Schools Community District
Teams with Detroit Public Schools Community District students will be going for the first time to the Destination Imagination Global Competition next month. The problem-solving competition draws more than 17,000 participants from 20 countries. Among the winners is a team from Detroit’s Neinas Dual Language Learning Academy.

A crucial discussion about who should lead Detroit’s main school district won’t happen until at least next week after a superintendent search update was postponed last night due to problems with the way the meeting was advertised.

The Detroit school board now plans to discuss (and possibly vote on) the two finalists — Florida superintendent Nikolai Vitti and River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman — at a meeting scheduled for Tuesday night. Thursday’s meeting was cancelled after an activist who scrutinizes city practices filed an emergency court motion to prevent the board from violating the state Open Meetings Act.

 

“The irony was that there was going to be no action taken today. It was just going to be open deliberation.”

— LaMar Lemmons, Detroit school board member

 

The board had announced the meeting on social media and in a press release but the notice was not clearly visible on the district’s website yesterday. Read on for more about the superintendent search and the rest of the week’s Detroit schools news. Also, check out our new series featuring parents, students and educators talking about Detroit schools. This week’s inaugural story featured a teacher explaining the tragic reason why her students sometimes don’t come to class. Do you have a story to tell or know someone who does? Please let us know.

The search

The Detroit school board this week defended its superintendent search process from an onslaught of criticism. “We ask and request that we are allowed to do this process that was agreed upon by this board back in January,” the head of the board’s search committee said.

Critics are steamed by what some call an “unfair” decision to exclude interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather, who applied for the position but was not named a finalist when the board decided only to consider candidates with three or more years of superintendent experience. Meriweather had gotten broad support from teachers, parents, and community leaders, including business titan Dan Gilbert and a parent advocate who blogged this week that “the majority of Detroiters agree that we don’t want to start over from scratch.”

The two remaining finalists revealed in video interviews and in their 90- and 100-day plans for what they’ll do if they get the job that they are men with a lot in common and big ambitions for the district.

The Detroit News says it believes Coleman is the board’s preferred candidate, but the paper urged the board to pick Vitti instead, arguing that “the fact that Vitti has run a large school district gives him experience with complicated budgets, which he’d be overseeing in Detroit.”

Vitti has expressed enthusiasm for the job but assured a Florida news station that he’ll be keeping his eye on his current job until he gets a new one. “Right now, my focus is on Duval County Public Schools,” Vitti told a reporter in Jacksonville. “We still have lots of work to do here and that’s what I’m focused on right now.”

 

In other Detroit schools news

    • This Detroit teacher reveals the tragic reason why her students don’t always come to class.
    • Three charter schools that are currently part of the Education Achievement Authority now face an uncertain future.
    • Enrollment in Detroit’s main school district is at a historic low.
    • Hundreds of Detroit parents have turned in letters opting their children out of this year’s M-STEP exam to protest school closings and other high-stakes consequences for test scores. Schools could face sanctions if more than 5 percent of their students opt out. A Free Press columnist urges Lansing to pay attention to what protesting parents are saying.  
    • A partnership between Detroit’s main school district and the University of Detroit Mercy aims to attract more teachers, especially African-American men.
    • A new novel is inspired by a writer’s time teaching poetry to kids in Detroit schools.
    • Two Detroit high school orchestras that will compete against each other in a national competition at Carnegie Hall this month are led by a married couple — he teaches at Renaissance High School; she at Detroit School of Arts.
    • This Detroit private school makes a point of teaching cursive.

 

Across the state

    • Michigan is revising its rules to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, but doesn’t plan to publicly share its final plan before sending it to the federal government for approval. The state superintendent makes his case for why the state’s plan “is the proper course and the best direction for education in Michigan” but a schools advocate knocks the department for choosing “expediency over transparency” with its ESSA plan.
    • The state education department is looking for tools that schools and districts can use to identify children who are in danger of being held back under the state’s tougher new third grade reading requirements.
    • A Free Press columnist slams a House bill that would allow schools to replace foreign language instruction with computer coding classes. “It should not be either/or,” she writes. But a western Michigan lawmaker who helped craft the legislation says her bill “would give students better choices.”
    • The state’s top court heard arguments this week on whether courts have any say over private school admissions. The case centers around a girl whose parents say she was turned away a Catholic school because of a learning disability.
    • A Democratic candidate for governor says, if elected, she would crack down on charter school authorizers who fail to close poor-performing charter schools.
    • The parents of a middle-schooler with autism are suing their local district after their son told them he was sexually abused by a classmate.