Tough times

An eighth-grader taught his classmates and other horrifying allegations in federal suit on Detroit schools

PHOTO: Public Counsel
Attorneys behind a new federal civil rights lawsuit meet with Osborn High School college advisor Andrea Jackson and student Jamarria Hall.

The federal civil rights lawsuit filed this week on behalf of a Detroit school kids isn’t likely to bring a quick fix to Detroit’s troubled schools. Even successful lawsuits can take years to wend their way through the courts.

But as Detroit tries to turn things around with a new school district, the suit paints a bleak picture of what officials are up against.

The 136-page complaint reveals allegations of condoms strewn on playgrounds, bathrooms leaking sewage into hallways, and students left to grieve without support. The suit claims that these conditions make learning difficult in Detroit schools — a conclusion that a recent study bears out.

Relying on statements from students and teachers, the suit describes alarming conditions at five schools, including three in the main city district: Osborn Academy of Mathematics, Osborn Evergreen Academy of Design and Alternative Energy and the Medicine and Community Health Academy at Cody.

The suit also looks at two charter schools: Hamilton Academy, authorized by Detroit Public Schools, and Experiencia Preparatory Academy, which was authorized by Northern Michigan University until closing its doors in the face of financial problems last spring. It also mentions the Marion Law Academy, which is part of the state-run Education Achievement Authority.

Spokeswomen for the Detroit Public Schools Community District and the Education Achievement Authority did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Neither did officials from Northern Michigan University or CS Partners, the management company that ran Experiencia.

The full complaint is worth a read. It outlines all of the ways that these schools haven’t measured up on standardized tests and other objective measures and offers some disturbing descriptive details. These are just some of them:

Teachers are too few and not skilled

  • At Hamilton … many students have a vocabulary of only a couple hundred words. Some students cannot even sound out letters.
  • At Cody MCH, many of the students struggle when called upon to read aloud, with some stumbling over even monosyllabic words. Yet the few instructors originally designated as reading interventionists, already insufficient in number, must cover teacher vacancies in other classrooms.
  • There is no meaningful training in literacy intervention available (at Cody MCH), even when requested by teachers … Plaintiff Jaime R. was in an English Language Arts course in ninth grade during which the class spent a large part of the year going paragraph by paragraph through a single novel, which has a third grade reading level.
  • At Marion Law Academy, inexperienced teachers “used Google to search the Internet for lesson plans the night before class, and many paid out of their own pockets to obtain lesson plans on teacherspayteachers.com.”
  • The middle school science classes at Hamilton are currently taught by a paraprofessional who states that she does not understand the material and cannot lead classroom experiments.
  • In the 2015-16 school year, the seventh- and eighth-grade math teacher (at Hamilton) left several weeks after the start of school due to frustration with large class sizes and lack of support. He was temporarily replaced by a paraprofessional and then a special education teacher. Eventually, the highest performing eighth grade student was asked to take over teaching both seventh and eighth grade math, while the paraprofessional remained in the room to assist with classroom management. This student taught both math classes for a month.

English language learners are being left far behind

  • There were no certificated EL teachers for long stretches of Experiencia’s three years of operation. In the upper grades, about 20 of the approximately 80 students were English learners, but the English language class available to them covered the same elementary phrases for two years, regardless of the skill level of the individual students.
  • Plaintiff Esmeralda V.—who was more comfortable in Spanish than in English—was frequently called upon to assist her Spanish-speaking classmates by summarizing the material for them in Spanish. Some students relied on Google Translate in order to teach themselves English, although many EL students did not have access to the Internet outside of school.
  • At Cody MCH, there are multiple students who do not speak or write fluently in English, yet there are no EL teachers at the school. When a family of Iraqi refugees sought to register their daughter at Cody MCH, their community school, DPS attempted to transfer the child to a school over 25 miles away because it could not support her EL needs. The teachers ultimately relied on other students who spoke Arabic to assist the EL students.

Classes can have 50 or more students

  • Classrooms are stuffed with as many as fifty students and often do not have enough chairs and desks. Students sometimes sit on the floor, lean against walls, or congregate around teachers’ desks.
  • One Osborn MST class had 42 students but only 32 desks. Another classroom had 52 students but only 37 chairs and fewer desks. The overcrowding also significantly exacerbated the extreme heat at many points during the year.
  • Classrooms (at Law) become so crowded that a teacher who managed to obtain chairs for all 42 students had to pack them together so tightly that a left-handed student could not sit next to a right-handed student … When a teacher is absent and no short-term substitute is available, classes are frequently combined so one teacher may have up to 60 students in a single classroom.
textbook

Teachers are asked to buy their own supplies

  • The teaching resources at Law are woefully deficient; textbooks, library books, and other curricular materials were thrown away into a dumpster at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year when the school opened as an EAA school; the intent was to switch to digital learning. But the new digital platform was ineffective, lacked existing instructional materials, and was abandoned in the 2015-16 school year. Administrators told teachers at Law that they were expected to buy their own supplies.
  • Textbooks at Experiencia were damaged and many years out of date, with taped spines and ripped and missing pages. The computers at the school were frequently broken, and when they did work, the Internet connectivity was so poor that they were nearly unusable. The third floor of the building technically had a library, but there was no librarian and students were not permitted to access the library or check out books without a teacher escort. Most of the time, the library remained locked.

Students and their families aren’t getting the help they need

  • In those schools that do have access to a social worker, the social worker is often restricted to special education students, does not come every day, and is stretched beyond capacity, such that students wait months for an appointment.
  • After a Hamilton student was kidnapped and murdered, his classmates were not provided any opportunity to grieve. No additional counselors were brought in, and the teachers were not offered any support or training on how to speak with the students about the tragedy. Instead, on the day the police found the boy’s body, the only school-wide reaction was an announcement by loudspeaker to remind the students, who were using their phones to share details about what happened and to communicate their grief, that cell phones were not allowed at school.
  • At Experiencia, report cards were not translated into Spanish, and where teachers did not speak Spanish, no parent-teacher meetings with monolingual parents took place.

Students’ basic health and safety are imperiled

  • At Hamilton, temperatures of over 100 degrees caused students and teachers to vomit and pass out during the first week of school.
  • At Hamilton, the playground equipment—which is designed for 2-5 year olds, although the school serves children ages 5-14—is frequently broken. One of the playground slides is disconnected at the base so it shifts around, and the other has cracks with sharp pieces of plastic sticking out. Multiple students have sliced or otherwise injured themselves while playing.
  • At Hamilton … it is not uncommon for meals to feature moldy bread and expired milk. The students know not to drink out of the water fountains, which are frequently infested with cockroaches and maggots, and the teachers and principal bring in bottled water they purchase themselves.
  • Teachers at Hamilton Academy say the school is infested with cockroaches
    Teachers at Hamilton Academy say the school is infested with cockroaches.

    At Law, several classrooms have flooded. In one fourth-grade classroom, a leaking hole in the ceiling created what students called “the lake,” and the teacher surrounded the area with yellow caution tape after multiple requests for repairs were ignored.

  • At the Osborn schools, fire exits are frequently locked and chained to prevent unauthorized individuals from entering from the street. During the 2015-16 school year, a fire broke out in the school and students were given no notice to evacuate because the Osborn fire alarm system failed.
  • Students (at Hamilton) also find bullets, used condoms, sex toys, and dead vermin on the playground, although teachers try to arrive early to clean the playground themselves.
  • At Osborn MST, urine frequently leaks out of the men’s room and soaks the carpet in the hallway, causing the hallway to smell for days.

talking SHSAT

Love or hate the specialized high school test, New York City students take the exam this weekend

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
At a town hall this summer in Brooklyn's District 15, parents protested city plans to overhaul admissions to elite specialized high schools.

The Specialized High Schools Admissions Test has been both lauded as a fair measure for who gets accepted to the city’s most coveted high schools — and derided as the cause for starkly segregating them.

This weekend, the tense debate is likely to be far from the minds of thousands of students as they sit for the three-hour exam, which currently stands as the sole admissions criteria for vaunted schools such as Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech.

All the debate and all the policy stuff that’s been happening —  it’s just words and there really isn’t anything concrete that’s been put into place yet. So until it happens, they just continue on,” said Mahalia Watson, founder of the website Let’s Talk Schools, an online guide for parents navigating their school options.

Mayor Bill de Blasio this summer ignited a firestorm with a proposal to nix the SHSAT and instead offer admission to top middle school students across the city. Critics say the test is what segregates students, offering an advantage to families who can afford tutoring or simply are more aware of the importance of the exam. Only 10 percent of specialized high school students are black or Hispanic, compared to almost 70 percent of all students citywide.

For some, the uproar, coupled with a high profile lawsuit claiming Harvard University discriminates against Asian applicants, has only added to the pressure to get a seat at a specialized school. Asian students make up about 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, and families from that community have lobbied hard to preserve the way students are admitted.

One Asian mother told Chalkbeat in an email that, while she believes in the need for programs that promote diversity, the SHSAT is “a color blind and unbiased” admissions measure. Her daughter has been studying with the help of test prep books, and now she wonders whether it will be enough.  

“In my opinion, options for a good competitive high school are very limited,” the mom wrote. “With all the recent news of the mayor trying to change the admission process to the specialized high schools and the Harvard lawsuit makes that more important for her to get acceptance.”

Last year, 28,000 students took the SHSAT, and only 5,000 were offered admission. Among this year’s crop of hopeful students is Robert Mercier’s son, an eighth grader with his sights set on High School of American Studies at Lehman College.

Mercier has encouraged his son to study for the test — even while hoping that the admissions system will eventually change. His son plays catcher on a baseball team and is an avid debater at school, activities that Mercier said are important for a well-rounded student and should be factored into admissions decisions.

“If you don’t do well on that one test but you’ve been a great student your whole career,” Mercier said, “I just don’t think that’s fair and I don’t think that’s necessarily a complete assessment of a student’s abilities or worth.”

recruitment and retention

School districts counting on public support for higher teacher pay to pass new tax increases

Teacher Christina Hafler and her two-year-old daughter Emma join hundreds of other educators at a rally outside the State Capitol to call for increased eduction funding on April 16, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Most school districts asking voters to approve local tax increases for schools this November have one thing in common: They are promising that money will go to raise teacher pay.

Polls show voters are inclined to support increasing teacher pay this year, following several high-profile walkouts across the country where teachers shared their struggles with working multiple jobs, and paying out of their own pocket to outfit their classrooms or help feed hungry students.

“Right now you got a pretty clear majority of people saying, teachers deserve more,” said Keith Frederick, who conducts polls for school districts and other government bodies to determine if they should put requests on the ballot. “Voters are very interested, these days anyway, they’re interested in their community schools, higher teacher pay.”

Many officials from those districts say the pay they offer simply isn’t keeping up with nearby districts, meaning a harder time recruiting and retaining teachers. Salaries and employee benefits take up the largest chunk of school district budgets.

School districts in Aurora, Jeffco, Westminster, Douglas County and Sheridan are among the districts making a local request this November. Ballots have been mailed out this week, and voters will start to decide if the request is worth a local tax increase.

Statewide, teacher pay in Colorado ranks below national average.

But measuring how competitive teacher compensation actually is among districts can be complicated. Surveys and studies show that salaries alone do not account for what keeps teachers in their job or what makes them leave. And how teachers get paid in some districts is complicated, based sometimes on their evaluations, or performance of their students, or school, or the difficulty in filling the job they’re in.

Then there are other work conditions that can be considered benefits. The school district based in Brighton moved this year to a four-day school week after failing to pass several tax measures. Although the change will only result in small savings, the district claims it’s a new way to attract teachers without having to raise pay.

But looking at state data for last year, most districts that have the highest starting salaries or average pay for teachers, including Cherry Creek, Boulder, and Poudre, also have the lowest teacher turnover.

Average teacher pay and teacher turnover rates

 

DISTRICT Average Pay Percent Teacher Turnover
Thompson $49,572 16.8 %
Poudre $54,140 9.7 %
Douglas County $53,080 13.4 %
Elizabeth $40,471 23.2 %
Littleton $66,399 9.5 %
Aurora $54,742 26.2%
Cherry Creek $71,711 10.1 %
Sheridan $49,535 35.9 %
Denver $50,757 20.3 %
Jeffco $57,154 14 %
Westminster $58,976 19.1 %
Adams 12 $59,511 12.8 %
Boulder $75,220 10.33 %
Pueblo 60 $47,617 18.3 %
Pueblo 70 $49,328 13.6 %

*Source: Colorado Department of Education. Districts in bold have a tax request tied to teacher pay on this November’s ballot.

None of those three districts are requesting local tax increases this year, but their neighboring districts, including in Douglas County, Elizabeth, Jeffco and Thompson, are.

The contrasts between districts can be large. In the neighboring Poudre and Thompson districts, the difference in the average pay is about $5,000, and the difference in starting salaries is even larger. Higher-paying Poudre has a teacher turnover rate of less than 10 percent. In lower-paying Thompson, the turnover rate is about 17 percent.

The Thompson district is requesting a $13.8 million mill levy override to raise teacher pay, and to purchase new books and technology. The district is also requesting a $149 million bond for building maintenance, security improvements and a new school.

Some of the districts requesting tax increases this year have failed to win voter approval before, including Thompson, Westminster and Jeffco. Although several factors including the political culture of the districts influence the vote, highlighting what voters value — like boosting teacher salaries — might improve the chances of voter approval.

Although most of the local tax measures don’t face organized opposition, criticism of a statewide tax measure for schools might impact other questions down the ballot. Critics of the statewide school measure have said that districts are not under obligation to use the money to pay teachers more, and worry that new money could go into administrative costs instead.

Some districts are trying to create assurances for voters.

Aurora Public Schools agreed to language in its contract with the teachers union that requires the district to set aside at least $10 million from new mill levy revenue, if approved, to give teachers a 3 percent raise starting in January. Remaining money would go into creating a new teacher salary schedule.

The Jeffco school board passed a resolution that commits a certain percentage of new tax revenue for teacher pay. The tax measure also includes language prohibiting use of that revenue for administrative budgets.

Even if districts do use the money for increasing salaries, most districts likely have to negotiate with their employee unions to decide just how to do it — whether it’s raising base salary, giving across-the-board raises, or creating new systems that reward certain teachers.

Several school boards across the state also passed resolutions committing to certain items that would get funding first if voters approve the state ballot request for new school funding. One common, top priority among those is improving salaries.

Denver’s school leaders said they would use the largest portion of the proposed new state revenue for teacher salaries. Negotiations there have been heated, as district leaders insist the state measure needs to pass in order for the district to come closer to meeting the union’s demands.