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: Discount houses — and new faces at the top of Detroit schools
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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
- 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.”
- 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.