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.

Ending the churn

A splintered system and lack of teachers have created instability for Detroit schools. Now, leaders are craving solutions.

Social studies teacher Aaron Ames learned that his former school took summer paychecks back from teachers who quit in August when money disappeared from his bank account.

Like many school leaders in Detroit, Danielle Robinson spent the month of August doggedly searching for teachers.

Robinson is the top Detroit official for Phalen Leadership Academies, a nonprofit charter school network that took over three Detroit schools from another manager in July.

By late August, with the start of school just days away, Phalen still needed 34 teachers to staff Murphy, Stewart and Trix elementary schools.

And there wasn’t much time.

“We did $5,000 retention bonuses,” Robinson said. “We did  $5,000 signing bonuses. We did $1,000 referral bonuses … We needed to make sure we had enough teachers because that’s a huge thing for students when they come back — a permanent teacher in the classroom. ”

Phalen’s challenge was extreme — a problem exacerbated by management changes and by the dissolution of the state-run recovery district that had been overseeing the three schools. They’re now overseen by a Detroit district unsure of its plans for charters.

But the schools’ scramble for teachers is hardly unusual in a city where liberal school choice laws, a decentralized school system and a shrinking pool of available teachers have so destabilized the teacher labor force that many school leaders say they’re constantly looking for new educators to hire.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this in my career,” said Mark Ornstein who heads the seven-campus University Prep charter school network in Detroit. “There’s just not enough people to fill the number of vacancies …. We’re all seeing more and more teachers leaving in the middle of the year.”

So many schools are looking for teachers — in August, September and throughout the year — that educators can wait for bonuses and enticements to grow before accepting an offer. And every time a teacher takes an offer and leaves, that creates a vacancy likely to be filled by a teacher from another school. That other school then has a vacancy to fill.

As teachers leave, students suffer. Research shows that teachers hired during or just before the school year are less effective than those who’ve had more time to prepare and to properly learn their school’s curriculum.

Experts say the teacher churn is driven in part by the fierce competition between schools in Detroit that has intensified as charter schools have expanded — they now comprise nearly half of the city’s schools — and as more suburban schools actively recruit city kids. Parents often enroll in multiple schools while weighing their options and schools are left to guess how many students they’ll have and how many teachers they’ll need.

“It’s another consequence of this hyper-competition that has been created by our charter school programs and laws here in Michigan and it’s really working to the detriment of everybody involved,” said Mike Addonizio, a professor of education policy at Wayne State University.

“The schools are competing for students,” he said. “The students will dictate the revenues and that dictates their budget and therefore their ability to hire staff … And if a school is plagued with high teacher turnover, that makes it difficult for students. Outcomes won’t be good and as that information becomes public, those schools don’t do well in school choice decisions and enrollment will drop.”

Some Detroit schools are now pushing back on teachers who quit mid-year by putting financial penalties into teachers’ contracts that discourage them from leaving, but advocates say real solutions will require major changes.

Among them: improving conditions in schools so that teachers want to stay and creating partnerships between district and charter schools to minimize instability.

“In other states, schools set their budgets and know their enrollment so much further ahead that they can come to a [spring] job fair and know exactly who they need to hire,” said Karey Henderson, the director of the Metro Detroit Charter Center who was the assistant superintendent of a 10-school Michigan charter network called Global Educational Excellence.

In Michigan, enrollment “doesn’t really get fleshed out often until Count Day [in October],” Henderson said. “Teachers are nervous and they’re applying around …. We would be trying to train new teachers but then a public school would get more kids and need more teachers and our teachers would get a call … We would have to start out the year with long-term subs in the classroom.”

Then, if parents see a substitute in the classroom, they might move their child to another school — and the churn continues.

Much of the attention this year has focused on the difficulties facing Detroit’s main school district as it works to fill scores of vacancies  in its 106 schools, but the problem is playing out somewhat differently in charter schools where teachers tend to be younger and are more likely to change jobs — or to the leave the profession entirely — from one year to the next.

A recent report from the state education department found that charter school teachers are twice as likely to leave their jobs compared to teachers in traditional public schools. The same report found a higher teacher turnover in Michigan as compared to the national average and put the price tag of replacing a teacher at nearly $10,000.

PHOTO: Michigan Department of Education
A recent Michigan Department of Education report shows that Michigan teachers — especially those who work for charter schools — are more likely to leave their jobs than their peers across the country.

Another state report shows the problem for all schools could get even worse in coming years as the number of people applying for teacher certifications drops precipitously — much faster than the number of students who need a teacher.

School leaders say they’re taking steps to attract more teachers. Detroit school  superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he’s working to build a “teacher pipeline” that would encourage district graduates to go into education, do their training in Detroit and work here when they graduate.

Charter school leaders say they’re making similar efforts.

Grand Valley State University now provides scholarships to education students who do their training in Detroit charter schools overseen by Grand Valley, said Rob Kimball, who heads the university’s charter school office.  

Leaders from Grand Valley charter schools have also been meeting with their counterparts from schools overseen by Central Michigan University to discuss a “coordinated talent strategy,” Kimball said.

“There’s definitely an interest in coming up with a shared solution,” Kimball said. “We need to design a solution to really stabilize the marketplace for teacher talent and to develop a pipeline [for future teachers].”

PHOTO: Michigan Department of Education
A recent report from the Michigan Department of Education warns that number of new teacher certifications is dropping much faster than the number of students in the state.

In the absence of a citywide solution, individual schools are doing whatever they can to fill classrooms.

In the case of the Phalen Leadership Academies, Robinson, the top official, said her schools  applied for emergency certifications to put some people without teaching credentials into classrooms. The new teachers will get extra coaching to help them succeed, Robinson said, but it was a tough choice for an Indiana-based network that prides itself on hiring only highly qualified staff.

“None of our other schools in our network use emergency permits,” Robinson said.

Some charter schools have created bonus systems that require teachers to return for the next school year in order to collect last year’s bonus.

Others — including the University Prep schools — have contracts that don’t allow teachers to get their full summer pay unless they return for the new school year.

Social studies teacher Aaron Ames said he learned that the hard way when he resigned his job at the University Prep Academy Middle School on Aug. 18 to take a position with a different school.

Suddenly, he said, his last paycheck disappeared from his bank account.

“I looked at my bank account one day and saw a negative $900,” Ames said.

University Prep had paid him on Aug. 15 but took the money back when he quit three days later.

Ornstein said his teachers’ contracts begin on Aug. 1. If they resign before teacher training begins on Aug. 21, it means they didn’t do any work and shouldn’t have been paid.

Ames was furious. “It kind of make me want to quit teaching,” he said. “They should find a way to keep teachers honestly instead of trying to punish us for leaving.”

Contract provisions that seem designed to penalize departures are becoming increasingly common in Detroit charter schools, teachers union leaders say.

“At one charter school, the teachers call it the ‘death tax,’” said Nate Walker, an organizer and policy analyst with the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in the main Detroit district and in a handful of city charter schools. “They’re loading up penalties on teachers to try to deter them from leaving so close to the beginning of the school year … but that’s not going to fix the problem because the labor market in Detroit is destabilized and decentralized.”

Walker called for schools to give teachers contracts earlier in the year and to coordinate with each other so that teachers can know they’ll have income and health insurance over the summer even if they plan to change jobs in September.

The current structure encourages teachers to hold on to last year’s job until the insurance for next year’s job kicks in in August or September, Walker said.

“This is a lot easier said than done because of the multi-operator system that we have right now, but if employers were to make the commitment that any time they’ve given someone an offer to work in the fall, they’re also willing to turn on insurance for that employee, that could solve at least part of the problem,” Walker said.

The only way to fix the rest of the problem, Addonizio said, is to address the reasons that teachers leave in the first place.  

“The best thing that a school or a school district can do to combat the teacher turnover problem is to improve working conditions in the school,” Addonizio said. “For new teachers, their compensation might mean something, but more than anything, they want some mentoring, assistance from veteran teachers. They want some help.”

Henderson said schools need to find a way to start working together — instead of just poaching teachers from each other.

“Get everyone in the room,” she said. “I know everyone is protective over how they manage their schools and run their H.R. but if you get enough H.R. people together in the same room, I think you can come up with a solution.”

disaster ready

Here’s how New York City schools are preparing to serve students impacted by Hurricane Maria

Just weeks after Hurricane Maria traced a deadly path across the Caribbean, The New American Academy Charter School in Flatbush, Brooklyn got a call.

It was a family member looking for a school for two young relatives after their home on Dominica was wrecked, along with most of the small island.

Before long, the students were enrolled in kindergarten and first grade. The school quickly gave the family a scholarship for after-school care and provided free uniforms — even including new shoes, socks and underwear.

“They lost everything,” said Lisa Parquette Silva, the school’s headmaster. “As soon as I heard these two students needed a place, it was not a question.”

New York City is preparing to potentially welcome an influx of students fleeing Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands after the powerful hurricane struck in September, knocking out power grids and flattening homes. The leaders of the country’s largest school system insist they are ready for whomever comes.

“We are going to do whatever we can to support and accommodate them,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a recent press conference, “starting with our public schools.”

Hundreds of thousands could flee Puerto Rico. As home to some of the largest Caribbean communities on the mainland, New York City is a logical place for many of those people to land. They are likely to bring with them an untold number of children who need to enroll in schools — though officials say it’s hard to know how many until they actually arrive.

Already, the Orlando school system reported enrolling almost 300 students from Puerto Rico as of last week. In Miami-Dade, the number was around 200, according to The 74.

In New York City, schools have not yet seen a significant uptick in enrollment, officials said. The few students who have arrived have landed in Bronx and Brooklyn schools, they added.

Serving those students will likely require a host of extra resources. The Miami-Dade school system is expecting to spend $2,200 for every student the district takes in, according to the Wall Street Journal.

New York City schools chancellor Carmen Fariña said the city has sent representatives to Puerto Rico to understand how the situation there could impact schools. Meanwhile, the education department has begun to survey principals here to find out which schools have space to take in new students — and assured those schools that they would get extra funding. Guidance counselors are being trained to meet storm survivors’ unique needs.

“Money will be allotted to those schools to be able to service those children,” Fariña said at the press conference, “understanding in many cases there may be extra support needed for families and trauma.”

The state education department recently put out guidance for schools, saying children who have fled a disaster are likely protected by federal law for homeless students. Under the law, districts can waive documentation requirements for school enrollment — which the city is doing at its Family Welcome Centers — and students are eligible for free meals.

Nicholas Tishuk, executive director of Bedford Stuyvesant New Beginnings charter school in Brooklyn, said he is already fielding calls from people who are looking for schools as they consider whether to bring over family members from Puerto Rico.

The independent charter school recently packed a van with donated lanterns, batteries and water to be shipped to the island. School leaders have also put the word out that they are ready to enroll students impacted by the storm.

If the school runs out of space, Tishuk hopes it can still serve as a clearinghouse to put families in touch with other local options.

“A school can be a very powerful place to get extra resources,” he said, noting that New Beginnings has a bilingual staff that regularly collaborates with social-service agencies. “Even if it’s not our school, you should reach out to a school that can help you connect to those resources.”

Schools that take in displaced students will most likely have to offer bilingual classes and provide counselors who can support children who have been separated from their parents and are living in the city with relatives.

Eve Colavito, director of schools for DREAM charter school in East Harlem, said one of the most important things schools can provide is stability. The pre-K through ninth-grade school enrolled a middle school student from Puerto Rico this week.

“Our goal initially,” she said, “is to make school as normal and predictable as possible for them.”