Week In Review

Week in review: Can a district with half-empty schools keep them open?

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Public school advocates in Detroit are breathing easier now that forced state school closings are off the table,. But school leaders still must address the fact that dozens of city schools are enrolling just a fraction of the students they were built to serve.

Our analysis of district data this week identified more than 40 schools that are more than half empty, some housing vacant classrooms, darkened hallways and entire wings that have been mothballed. The vacancies raise questions about how long the district can keep these buildings open but local leaders are hoping the problem can be addressed without the slash-and-burn school closings of the past.

“I hope that the way any of these conversations proceed will be markedly different from the way things were done in the past … These conversations need to be around making sure that we provide the best possible opportunities for kids.”

—   Alycia Meriweather, interim superintendent, Detroit Public Schools Community District

Read on for more on this story and the rest of the week’s Detroit schools news. Also, our series on Detroiters telling their school stories this week features a mom who discovered that getting involved in her daughter’s school was the best way to ensure success. If you have a Detroit school story to share — or know someone who does — please let us know. Thanks!


In Detroit

Across the state

  • The Grosse Pointe school board voted unanimously to reject a plan that would have allowed admission for out-of-district students who paid $13,000 tuition a year. Charging tuition is legal, but it isn’t right, a Free Press columnist says. “It reinforces the arbitrary borders that separate cities and school districts, and the social divisions such partitions invite,” she wrote.
  • All nine districts that had schools on the state’s closure list have signed partnership agreements to keep their schools open. Of 38 schools that were targeted for closure in January, just one — a Detroit charter school — is still in danger of closing. The charter school could be closed by its authorizer.
  • Cyber and private schools were winners in the budget plan approved by state lawmakers this week. The plan, which includes a $100 per pupil increase, moved through both houses despite protests from Democrats.
  • In a lawsuit about the use of state dollars to fund private schools, the state argues that it shouldn’t be held to an “extremely literal interpretation” of the constitutional ban on public funding for private schools. A News columnist argued that those “stubborn” restrictions are one reason “students here continue to fall behind their peers in other states.”
  • GOP lawmakers are gearing up for another fight over teacher pensions.
  • The state’s top court ruled that private for-profit schools can qualify for some tax exemptions.
  • The question of when schools should be allowed to start classes in the fall has triggered a fierce political battle, pitting the tourism industry against schools.
  • Here’s how student enrollment has changed in the state’s 50 largest school districts over the last 25 years.
  • A U.S. State Department official paid a visit last week to a suburban charter school that in recent months has absorbed many refugee children from Iraq and Syria.
  • A state appeals court ruled that teachers and other school employees can quit their unions whenever they want, not just during the month of August.
  • Voters in some suburban districts this week approved tax hikes to fund new school buildings and renovations. Others voted no.
  • A News columnist argues that the U.S. News and World Report high school ranking, which put charters at the top of the list in Michigan, is an answer to critics of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos who say Michigan charters aren’t delivering results.

In other news

  • A DTE Energy executive explains why the push to prepare kids for 21st century jobs needs to begin in preschool.
  • A Free Press cartoonist wonders what would happen if the U.S. Education Department gave Secretary Betsy DeVos a voucher to pay for her personal security expenses.
  • A suburban school has won a $20,000 “innovators challenge” award to connect students and community members with a nearby tech workshop.
  • A former Detroit school official who was convicted of stealing from the Chicago school district was sentenced to 4 ½ years in prison. The sentencing came after she received letters of support from Detroit officials including the former emergency manager who hired her to work in the Detroit district.
  • Michigan teams were victorious in an international robotics competition.
  • A Detroit Catholic school held a “signing day” event to celebrate seniors’ college choices. The school says all seniors or going on to college for the seventh year in a row.
  • Here’s how one Detroit private school celebrated May Day.


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.