Changing course

After Detroit school board’s reversal, three charter schools face new uncertainty

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Three charter schools are facing new uncertainty after Detroit’s school board voted Tuesday to rescind an agreement to allow them to operate for another five years.

The three schools — Stewart Elementary-Middle School, Murphy Elementary-Middle School, and Trix Elementary-Middle School — have been a part of the state-run Education Achievement Authority, which is dissolving this summer. While 11 of the EAA schools are re-joining Detroit’s main school district, the board faces a trickier task in figuring out how to oversee the three that have operated independently.

Just last month, the board agreed to give the schools five-year charters. But at Tuesday night’s meeting, the new Detroit school board voted 4-2 to replace that agreement with a new one, allowing the charter schools to operate for just one year.

At that point, the schools could earn new charters or be absorbed fully into the district. Proponents of the change pointed out that allowing for the students to move into the district sooner could bring in needed funding.

“We have a fiscal responsibility to this district first and foremost,” board member LaMar Lemmons said. “In practical terms, we have a $10 million deficit and those children would bring approximately 10 million dollars back to the district.”

“Most importantly, those children were [Detroit Public Schools] children, they are neighborhood children,” he added.

The board’s decision may bring a new set of problems. One is that the charter management organization that had been overseeing the three schools has left, leaving the school board on the hook to find a new one. At last month’s meeting, the director of the district’s charter school office advised the board to offer a five-year contract, saying that securing a charter management company with only a one-year guarantee would be difficult.

Interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather also warned that absorbing students from the charter schools into the district more quickly would mean having to find additional staff when Detroit is already experiencing a teacher shortage.

Board members Misha Stallworth and Sonya Mays said they remained concerned about those issues and voted against the change on Tuesday. Board President Iris Taylor abstained.

Still, the majority of the board felt compelled to reconsider the charter agreement. They said they wanted the opportunity to check in sooner and make a plan once the district’s new superintendent — set to be named this week or next — is in place.

“It will give us an opportunity to look at the data for one year and then make an educationally sound decision based on that, versus all five years,” said board member Deborah Hunter-Harvill, who proposed the one-year contract. “That’s the basis for me wanting to change.”

closing arguments

Three Detroit-area charter schools are set to close in June, but not all parents know

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Britney Love, a parent of a first-grader at Woodward Academy.

At least three Detroit-area charter schools will close in June after years of low test scores, leaving hundreds of families to scramble for new schools — including some who haven’t yet been notified.

The schools set to close include Woodward Academy, one of Detroit’s oldest and most established charter schools. It opened near downtown Detroit in 1996. Also closing are the Starr Detroit Academy, which is located just across the city line in Harper Woods but serves primarily Detroit children, and the Academy of International Studies in Hamtramck.

All three schools are being closed for academic reasons, said Janelle Brzezinski, spokeswoman for the charter school office at Central Michigan University, which oversees the schools.

“We’re committed to having high academic quality in our schools,” Brzezinski said. “We’ve always held our schools to a high standard.”

A fourth charter school overseen by Central Michigan is also in danger of closing. The Michigan Technical Academy in northwest Detroit was issued a “notice of intent” in February indicating that the university planned to revoke the school’s charter. The university is still reviewing the school’s response, Brzezinski said.

Michigan Technical Academy, which Chalkbeat featured last year, was among 38 Michigan schools threatened with closure by the state earlier this year for being in the bottom 5 percent of state school rankings for three years in a row. State officials have largely backed away from those plans for now, allowing districts to negotiate “partnership agreements” with the state to keep the schools open. Of those schools, 24 were in Detroit.

A press release from the state Education Department on Tuesday about the agreements said Michigan Technical Academy was being closed down by Central Michigan.

Brzezinski said the press release was not accurate.

“We were surprised by that statement,” she said.

The school closings are bound to surprise teachers and parents connected to the schools.

Families at the Starr Academy were notified that their school would close several weeks ago.  But at the Woodward Academy, where the school’s website as of Wednesday still said it was accepting applications for September, parents dropping their children off Wednesday morning said they had no idea their school would close.

“I’m kind of shocked because they had such a great program and the teachers are helpful. I’m actually very shocked,” said Porschua Reliford, 28, who just transferred her three kids into the school in January after a bad experience in a traditional district school.

“Now I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. Woodward is the third school that her two fifth-graders, Adrian, 10, and Lawrence, 11, have attended, she said. Her first-grader, Torence, 7, is on his second school.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Woodward Academy, one of Detroit’s oldest and most established charter schools, is set to close.

Britney Love, 32, said she was told by the school’s principal just three weeks ago that the school would not be closing.

She was alarmed to hear a different report Wednesday morning.

“I need to find out because I need to be looking for another school,” she said. She has a five year-old entering kindergarten in September and a six-year-old now in the first grade at the school.

“I don’t know what to do because my other school of choice was Starr Academy, and I heard they’re closing too,” she said. “I may have to change my work schedule and everything now.”

Parents just finding out now that they need a new school for next year are already at a disadvantage because many of the city’s top district and charter schools have already begun their enrollment processes. Many schools had application deadlines that passed weeks or even months ago.

“Currently, the timing of when closures are announced and how our city’s enrollment processes work are not in any way aligned to meet the needs of the students and families,” said Maria Montoya, director of Enroll Detroit, an organization that assists families in overcoming enrollment barriers from preschool to college.

“In our work supporting families in securing placements, we hear time and time again from families that it doesn’t make sense to close a school for failing to perform and then not have enough higher quality options available to take on these students,” Montoya said, adding that she’s hopeful that recent conversations will lead to improvements.

Georgia Hubbard, Woodward’s chief academic officer, said the administration planned to inform parents on Friday.

“It’s very upsetting for all of us,” Hubbard said, as she angrily asked a reporter to leave the school’s parking lot Wednesday. “We have 520 children. We have 65 staff people. We are very emotional and very concerned about why they would make such a decision when our school is improving. We are devastated by what they’ve done to us and we definitely need time to orderly communicate this to our parents.”

Woodward has seen some recent improvement in its test scores. On last year’s state exam, 4.9 percent of the school’s students scored high enough to be considered proficient in math and reading, compared to 2.8 percent the year before. But the school is still one of the lowest-ranked schools in the state. It was ranked in the fourth percentile among Michigan schools last year.

Charter school authorizers in Michigan have come under fire in recent years for not holding charter schools accountable for low performance.

The quality of charter schools in the state and how they’re overseen by universities was one argument against U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos during her nomination hearings. Critics charge that DeVos has used her wealth and influence to block regulation of charter schools in the state.

Dan Quisenberry of Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a charter school organization, say these closures are not a response to the political climate.

On the contrary, he said, authorizers routinely shut down low-performing charter schools. Three charter schools were closed in Detroit last year, two closed in 2015, three in 2014 and five in 2013, he said.

Closing a school is “a traumatic thing,” Quisenberry said. “No one is saying it’s not. But the goal is to get [students] in a better place.”

Quisenberry’s organization is working with Enroll Detroit to help parents at the Starr Academy learn about other options, he said. The group invited nearby schools that are ranked above the 25th percentile on state rankings to meet with Starr Academy parents.

“I understand the disruption this causes,” Quisenberry said. “The question isn’t, is this ideal? The question is, if kids are in a school that’s not performing for them, should we leave them there? That just doesn’t make any sense.”

meet the new boss

Nikolai Vitti has been chosen to lead Detroit schools. Read the application that got him the job

PHOTO: Duval County Public Schools
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti meets with students on the first day of school in Duval County, Florida in 2016. He was selected in 2017 to lead Detroit schools.

In his job application to run Detroit schools, Florida superintendent Nikolai Vitti wrote that he was motivated to apply by his “deep and unwavering belief in urban public education” and his “love” for the city of Detroit.

Vitti, who grew up in in Dearborn Heights but has spent his career working in North Carolina, New York and Florida, wrote that the success of the new Detroit school board “will rest upon its decision to select the right leader who has the vision, track record,experience, commitment, strength and perseverance for the job. I believe that I am that leader who is ready to collaboratively own the success of DPSCD’s future.”

He then lays out his qualifications in a 26-page application that spells out his experience in great detail, including specifics on the work he’s done as superintendent of Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville since 2012 and in his previous jobs. Read the full application below.

The Detroit school board voted last week to negotiate a contract with Vitti, though those contract negotiations won’t start until at least this week due to a challenge from an activist who claims the search process was illegal.

Vitit beat out another finalist, River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman for the job. To read Coleman’s application click here.