The haves and have-nots

How generous private donations have created a tale of two pre-Ks in Detroit

PHOTO: LaWanda Marshall
Students in LaWanda Marshall's pre-K class at Detroit's Carver STEM Academy go on field trips to places like the Grand Prix Education Day at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

LaWanda Marshall and Candace Graham both teach pre-kindergarten at the Carver STEM Academy on Detroit’s west side.

Both have colorful, toy-filled classrooms, computers for students to use and assistant teachers to help guide their four- and five-year olds as they learn and explore.

But Marshall’s classroom has other things too — lots and lots of other things that regularly arrive like gifts from the pre-K gods.

“The office calls and says you have a package, and we’re like ‘Yay!’ and the kids get excited. It’s like Christmas,” said Marshall. Boxes filled with classroom supplies like musical instruments and science kits arrive every few weeks.

Marshall’s students — part of the Grow Up Great program funded by the PNC Foundation — go on regular field trips and get frequent visits from travelling instructors. The parents of her students get access to support programs like one that connects job seekers with employment opportunities. And Marshall receives special training in teaching arts and sciences that she credits with upping her game as an educator.

Graham and her students, meanwhile, hang back when the kids down the hall board the bus to go on field trips. Few packages or visitors arrive.

“We get left out a lot,” Graham said. “It’s unfortunate because I feel like all the kids should have the opportunities … They get more resources than we do. They have more materials in their classroom.”

The tale of two pre-Ks at the Carver STEM Academy is a problem well known in high-poverty school districts like Detroit that rely on the generosity of corporate and philanthropic donations to pick up where government resources leave off.

Districts are happy to accept gifts from private donors — baseball tickets or classroom supplies or money for school renovations. But inevitably, there’s not enough to go around. Schools then have to choose.

At Carver, all of the pre-K students are getting a quality education and a leg-up on school. But the children in Marshall’s classroom get to experience a program that shows how much more is possible when teachers have enough resources to fully involve parents, to engage community partners and to focus as much on science and art as they do on the ABCs.

The pre-K enrichment program is in 38 Detroit classrooms including 28 that receive PNC Grow Up Great funding and 10 that are supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Children in most of the city’s 177 pre-K classrooms don’t get to participate. That’s an inequity that Pamela Moore says she’d like to change.

Moore heads the Detroit Public Schools Foundation, which raises private funds for district schools. She’s trying to raise money to expand the program to all of the district’s preschools.

“We’ve got lots of partnerships so some kids get some things. Other kids get other things … but a lot of money is needed,” she said.

Moore is also looking for new ways to distribute private dollars so things like donated equipment or invitations to the Grand Prix are more coordinated — and less like a game show with prize-winning contestants.

“You’re the winner!” Moore said. “You and you and you. If we could coordinate that, maybe everyone could get a field trip or two and teachers could plan on it and count on it.”

 

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PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Students in LaWanda Marshall’s pre-Kindergarten class at the Carver STEM Academy regularly receive boxes with new toys like these ramps and balls that teach physics concepts through PNC’s Grow Up Great program. “It’s like Christmas!” Marshall said.

The PNC Foundation launched Grow Up Great in 2004, investing $350 million in quality education for young children across the nation. The bank’s effort was part of a national push from philanthropists, advocates and governments to help children become better prepared for school.

“For every dollar spent on high quality early education, the society gains as much as $13 in long-term savings,” said Gina Coleman, a PNC vice president and community relations director.

PNC approached the Detroit school district about participating in 2009, said Wilma Taylor-Costen who at the time was an assistant superintendent in charge of district early childhood programs.

District officials worked with PNC to design a program that would expose kids to the arts and sciences through extra classroom resources and partnerships with museums and arts organizations, Taylor-Costen said. The idea was to connect families with those groups through field trips and classroom visits, and to train teachers so the benefits would continue even if the money dried up.

“It has been an awesome opportunity for exposure of not just our children but their families,” Taylor-Costen said.

When kids in the program go on field trips, their parents come along. This year that included trips to the North American International Auto Show, the Grand Prix education day at the Palace of Auburn Hills, the Cranbrook Science Center and a Music Hall puppet production of Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Parents also benefit from classes and programs that help them support student learning at home.

And Marshall credits the program with expanding her approach to teaching preschool after 22 years in the classroom.

“The professional development has been key, very valuable,” Marshall said. “Before, I focused on the reading and the math and making sure they could write their name. Now I know that by incorporating arts and sciences … I’m adding that missing element.”

Tayor-Costen said she couldn’t recall how classrooms were selected for the program but said district officials made sure to include schools in different city neighborhoods.

 

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PHOTO: Courtesy of LaWanda Marshall
Detroit Pre-K teacher LaWanda Marshall poses with her students at the Carver STEM Academy before a bell choir performance that was made possible by the PNC Grow Up Great program. She learned to play bells when the Music Hall brought the instruments to her classroom.

 

Principal Sabrina Evans first brought the PNC program to Carver when she came to the school in 2012. She had seen the program at her prior school, the Beard Early Learning Neighborhood Center, and wanted it for Carver’s pre-Ks, she said.

“For them to have the first time going to school with all these things at their disposal, it’s like ‘Wow! I like school!’ Not only the kids, but the parents. I see more parents coming to the field trips and then I see them coming to school to participate.”

Evans was able to put both of Carver’s two pre-K classrooms into the Grow Up Great program in 2012 but when the school added a third pre-K in 2016, there wasn’t room for a third Carver classroom in the coveted program.

That’s why Graham’s students can’t participate.

“It’s lonely,” Graham said. “A lot of times we don’t even know when they have somebody coming to their classroom because it’s almost like a secret society.”

On a recent morning, when Graham’s class came out to play on the playground, her students ran past students in the school’s two PNC classrooms. The PNC kids were launching bottle rockets they had learned to make when visitors from the Charles H. Wright Museum, a new partner, brought bottles, baking soda and vinegar to the school.

Evans said she tries to support Graham’s classroom with other resources. She sets aside $20,000 from her budget every year to pay for school-wide field trips (Marshall’s students go on those field trips, too). And Marshall says she shares as many classroom resources with Graham as she can. She also passes along ideas and tools she develops through the supplemental teacher trainings.

But Evans regrets that some of her classrooms get benefits that others do not.

“I’m blessed to have two [PNC classrooms] because some schools don’t have any,” she said “But  … If they’re going to offer it, it should go to every pre-K class in the district.”

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit Pre-K teacher Candace Graham talks to a student on the playground at the Carver STEM Academy. She says her students get “left out a lot” because the school’s two other preschool classrooms are in the PNC Grow Up Great program.

Moore has been trying to raise money to expand the program — and continue it in case the current funding dries up.

Last year, Moore put together a proposal to share with potential funders that put the cost of the program at $882 per child per year.

“PNC was the one that stepped up and said they were going to write a check and … we were so excited about that investment, we just said ‘woo hoo!’ and took it,” Moore said. “But now it’s time, if we all agree that it’s valuable … to go and find the resources.”

Moore is encouraged by the Hope Starts Here initiative, led by the Kellogg and Kresge Foundations, which has brought parents, experts, community organizations and political leaders together over the past year to develop a city-wide strategy to improve the lives of young children in Detroit.

“Hope Starts Here is an excellent example of bringing everybody into the room, figuring out where the gaps are and coming up with a plan we all agree with,” Moore said. “Then we’ll have a road map.”

Kellogg has been funding programs in the Detroit Public Schools for years but has recently ramped up its focus on early childhood education, said Khalilah Burt Gaston, a Detroit-based program officer with the Battle Creek-based foundation.

The foundation has worked closely with district leaders, she said, but the string of state-appointed emergency managers in recent years has made city-wide collaboration with the district challenging. “I think it would be fair to say that it’s been difficult during transitioning leadership to articulate a clear vision and strategy,” Gaston said.

That could change now that the district has a new superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, who has said he plans to stay for at least five years. Gaston said Hope Starts Here hopes to work with the district as it looks for new ways to expand high-quality early childhood programs.

Grow Up Great offers one model that the planners are looking to, she said. “It’s wonderful but it’s only serving a small number of children so what are the strategies needed to scale that? Replicate it across the entire district?”

Coleman said PNC knew that limited resources would prevent the bank from providing the program to all of the district’s preschoolers. The goal, she said, was to show what can be accomplished with extra funds.

“Obviously you can’t help every classroom,” she said. “But we have helped set the bar in how it can look.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of LaWanda Marshall
Students in LaWanda Marshall’s Detroit pre-Kindergarten class attend the North American International Auto Show through PNC’S Grow Up Great program

Closing forever

The Detroit school district fought to keep 24 struggling schools open. At the same time, it was closing an east side charter school

The Ross-Hill Academy charter school closed its doors in June, 2017.

Leaders of Detroit’s main school district spent much of this year fighting to keep schools open.

At the same, however, the district was preparing to shut a school down.

That school, the Ross-Hill Academy charter school, quietly closed forever last month after serving Detroit children on the east side for 19 years.

The kindergarten to eighth-grade school had taken on too much debt, district officials said, and was in danger of not having enough money to stay open through the next school year.

“As a district, we always try to do what’s right for children and, in this case, it would have been irresponsible to allow a school to stay open that had really any chance of potentially leaving parents stranded,” said Kisha Verdusco, the district’s director of charter schools. “If we had allowed them to go into another school year, you’re taking a gamble that they’re not going to have enough students to be viable.”

Ross-Hill, which enrolled just 110 students last year, had been one of 13 charter schools overseen by the Detroit district.

Under new superintendent Nikolai Vitti, the district has been rethinking its approach to charter schools. That could lead to additional charter school closings in coming years. But Vitti’s predecessors have been overseeing charter schools for more than two decades. Unlike the 100-plus traditional schools that are managed directly by the district, charter schools have independent managers who report to independent school boards.

In its role as authorizer, the district keeps tabs on charter schools, making sure they’re academically and financially viable. The district’s charter school office determined in March that Ross-Hill was not on stable footing.

“Enrollment had been declining for some years,” Verdusco said. “We track schools’ quarterly financial performance so we were really keeping a close eye on what was going on.”

Unless the school dramatically found a way to raise enrollment, which would bring in more state dollars, officials did not believe the school could survive, Verdusco said.

A woman who answered the phone at the school said its principal and management company were not available to comment. The school closed last month.

Ross-Hill has had a mixed academic track record over the years but its low scores last year put the school near the bottom of state rankings. It ranked in the 4th percentile, behind the vast majority of Michigan schools.

The school was hardly alone at the bottom of state rankings. Of 162 Detroit schools that were ranked in 2016, 69 were in the bottom five percent of Michigan schools.

That’s part of why state officials announced plans to shutter 24 Detroit schools that had been in the bottom five percent for three years in a row.

That effort triggered loud community protests and lawsuits by school boards that led the state to back down. Instead of closing schools, state officials brokered partnership agreements designed to help them improve.

As a result, the only Detroit schools being shut down this year are charter schools. (One district school, Durfee Elementary-Middle School, is moving into the adjacent Central High School).

Ross-Hill is among at least seven charter schools in or near Detroit that closed forever last month.

Central Michigan University, the state’s largest charter school authorizer, declined to renew the charters of the Woodward Academy and the Michigan Technical Academy in Detroit; the Starr Detroit Academy in Harper Woods, the Taylor International Academy in Southfield and the Academy of International Studies in Hamtramck. Also closing is the Blanche Kelso Bruce Academy, a strict discipline academy that served children who had been expelled by other schools or referred by the juvenile courts. It had been overseen by the Wayne County intermediate school district.

At some of those schools, parents complained that they weren’t notified in a timely manner. At the Woodward Academy, some parents found out about the closing from a Chalkbeat reporter. At Taylor International, the school abruptly shut its doors two weeks before the end of the school year when it ran out of money and its management company left.

Verdusco said she took steps to make sure the closing of Ross-Hill went smoothly. A parent meeting was held in April for parents to voice their concerns about the closing and an enrollment fair helped families find other schools options.

Some parents chose district schools. Others chose charters, she said.

Converting Ross-Hill to a district school was not an option because the charter school was in a building owned by a church, Verdusco said.

Calming the chaos

A year after the tearful demise of a proposed Detroit school oversight commission, backers seek another way to bring order to Detroit schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit district and charter school leaders are meeting to see if they can set aside their differences to collectively address issues such as enrollment and transportation that can be challenging for families in a city without a centralized school system.

It’s been more than a year since the tearful, emotional night when a divided state legislature blocked a major effort to bring order to Detroit schools.

Now some of the parties involved in last year’s fight are regrouping and looking for new ways to improve city schools.

Only this time, they’re less likely to look to Lansing for laws that would force schools to report to a powerful school oversight commission.

Instead, early discussions appear to be centered on bringing together the historically competitive leaders of district and charter schools. The hope is that they can set aside their differences to collectively address issues such as enrollment and transportation that can be challenging for families in a city without a centralized school system.

“We’re trying to figure out as a group how we can work together on finding solutions that are in the best interest of providing quality education for students,” said Cindy Schumacher, who heads the charter school office at Central Michigan University, which oversees many of the city’s charter schools. “We all have different roles but there are things that I think we can find common ground on.”

Roughly half of Detroit schools are run by the main city school district and the other half are run by a host of unaffiliated charter school management companies, overseen by unaffiliated charter school authorizers. But unlike Denver, New Orleans, Washington and other cities that offer families many school options, Detroit does not have any kind of centralized board, agency or coordinating partnership to help parents navigate the landscape.

No single entity in Detroit has sway over where new schools should open or where struggling schools should close. That means many children live in neighborhoods without quality schools and have to travel long distances to access better options.

Families searching for schools face a dizzying mix of enrollment procedures and deadlines. Some schools offer bus transportation. Others don’t. And schools aggressively compete for students and teachers while parents are often left with few tools to figure out which of the city’s largely low-performing schools can meet their children’s needs.  

When top community, civic and business leaders came together in 2015 as the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, they offered a solution to bring more cohesiveness to Detroit’s school landscape.

That solution was a single, powerful school oversight board called the Detroit Education Commission that would have had authority over the opening and closing of district and charter schools. The proposed commission would have graded schools, held them to high standards and helped coordinate things like enrollment and transportation.

But when the plan for a seven-member, mayoral-appointed Detroit Education Commission was sent last year to the legislature as part of a package of bills designed to keep the Detroit schools out of bankruptcy, the idea was met with strong, vocal opposition.

Both district and charter school supporters saw the DEC as a threat to their independence, and charter supporters feared the commission would favor district schools over charters. One of the commission’s chief critics was Betsy DeVos, who is now the U.S. Secretary of Education. Her powerful Michigan political organization led the fight against the commission and her family contributed $1.45 million to the lawmakers who eventually voted it down in a politically charged, highly partisan episode.

The final package of bills sent $617 million to Detroit to create the new, debt-free Detroit Public Schools Community District. But, with no DEC, the bills passed without support from Detroit lawmakers or Democrats.

Now, a year later, the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, the school, union, business and community leaders that proposed the DEC in the first place, has begun a process called Coalition 2.0. This year’s goal is to take on some of the unfinished business from last year’s school improvement push.

The Coalition 2.0 effort has eight focus areas including special education, student attendance, teacher recruitment and retention, literacy, parent support, and pathways for students to college and careers. The group will study ways to increase the number of Detroit students who attend schools in Detroit, including both district and charter schools.

And, to take on the work that the initial Coalition hoped the DEC would tackle, Coalition 2.0 is bringing together top leaders of the main Detroit school district and the only two charter school authorizers that currently have the credentials to approve new charter schools in Detroit: Central Michigan and Grand Valley State universities.

Leading up this “citywide coordination and planning,” group for Coalition 2.0 are Schumacher from CMU; Rob Kimball, who leads the charter school office at Grand Valley; and Alycia Meriweather, the first Deputy Superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Charter school authorizers have been criticized for allowing poor-performing charter schools to proliferate in Detroit and across the state.  But last year’s Detroit education law raised the standards that authorizers have to meet. Now, only authorizers that have been accredited by a national organization can open new charters in Detroit.

Kimball said having the two accredited authorizers involved could help pave the way to solving some of the problems the DEC aimed to address. Authorizers were not involved with the original Coalition, though individual charter school leaders were.

“The table is now more diverse,” Kimball said. “The authorizers are now at the table, participating in designing a process in which many of these DEC-like functions can occur.”

The citywide coordination and planning group could, in theory, propose something like a legally empowered DEC but early conversations appear to be geared more toward creating voluntary collaborations between schools.  

A preliminary planning document shared this month with city and community leaders says the group plans to review the DEC recommendations from the original Coalition report and “identify areas/measures that can be implemented voluntarily” by district and charter schools.

The group will also “develop recommendations to collaboratively advance DEC-like functions” including planning for how schools open and close, and looking for ways that schools could work together on enrollment, transportation, data, common standards and common learning/practices. 

If a new citywide commission comes together, it could take over some of the functions that had been done by the advocacy group Excellent Schools Detroit, which dissolved last week.   

Excellent Schools Detroit, which was founded in 2010 to help families find quality school options in the city, published an annual report card that graded schools. It also led a $700,000 effort to create a unified enrollment system that would allow parents to use a single application to apply to district and charter schools. The unified enrollment effort has been largely stalled amid political controversy but its future could be one of the subjects discussed as part of these new conversations. For now, the Excellent Schools Detroit’s functions have been passed on to other organizations. 

Whatever the group comes up with, it’s not likely to be something that would require support from Lansing.

In a memo to Coalition steering committee members earlier this year, Coalition co-chair Tonya Allen wrote that, this time around, the group is looking at things Detroiters can do without state lawmakers.

“Our intentions and energy will look to Detroit, not Lansing,” wrote Allen, the President and CEO of the Skillman Foundation (a Chalkbeat supporter). “Detroiters must develop a vision, a plan and execute it with fidelity if we are to improve education practices in our city.”

“The initial work of the Coalition was …triage,” Allen wrote. “Our efforts were focused on keeping the district alive.”

Now, she wrote, “our next body of work must be focused on transition …. This phase is about setting an education vision for our city and mobilizing ‘doers’ to begin to implement strategies locally.”

The Coalition last year got many of the things it fought for including the new district and the return to power of a locally elected school board after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

This year’s effort has an ambitious timeline. Organizers hope to have a list of final recommendations by early August with an eye toward publishing them in the fall.