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.

In the classroom

This Memphis teacher wanted to make learning physics more engaging, so he created a website. Now it’s used in 40 countries.

PHOTO: Jack Replinger
Jack Replinger poses with his students at The Soulsville Charter School.

Three girls explode into laughter and cheers as they roll a small cart across the table, successfully getting a rubber band to launch the cart just fast enough to knock a washer off the back of the cart, but not quite fast enough to knock over two washers.

These high schoolers might look like they are just playing with toys inside their Memphis classroom, but they are actually in the middle of a physics lesson. That’s by design.

In his 12 years as a teacher in Memphis, Jack Replinger has worked on perfecting physics lessons that are easy to break down, accessible to students who may not be on grade level in reading and math, and, above all, fun for his students at The Soulsville Charter School in south Memphis. But he’s got another huge aspiration as well: to bring his increasingly popular physics website to as many students and teachers as he can, and to as many countries.

“I was trying to teach the way I had been taught,” Replinger said of his first years in the classroom. “It was boring and a bit of a disaster. Over winter break my second year of teaching, I blew up everything I had learned and said, ‘OK, I’m going to slow this down and move away from teaching long equations.’ That’s when I really started to enjoy teaching.”

Replinger came up with the idea three years ago to take his lessons, which were handed out in his classrooms as thick, paper packets, and turn them into an interactive website, for his students. It’s called Positive Physics. Software engineer Anthony Fizer, who played pick-up basketball with Replinger, helped him get the site running in 2015 and continues to work on the site. Now, more than 6,000 students in 585 schools across 49 states and in 40 countries have used the free website to learn physics. Replinger grew the site’s reach through his postings in teacher-focused Facebook groups and on other social networks.

“I originally wanted to make this because I wanted a website where my students would work that had interesting problems and also didn’t punish them if they are behind in grade level,” Replinger said. “But I think it’s clear it’s hit on a need for teachers elsewhere.”

The website thus far has been mostly self-funded, though he has solicited small donations from friends, family, and via PayPal, and has received some help from the Soulsville Foundation. Replinger said he is now working to find outside investors to keep the website going into the future.

Replinger came to Memphis in 2007 from Seatle as a Teach For America educator, and he was recently named as the winner of the Barbara Rosser Hyde Alumni Leadership Award, a $5,000 award recognizing leadership among the program’s alumni in Memphis.

When Replinger started teaching at Kingsbury High School as part of the teacher training program, he said he struggled to engage his first classes of physics students. He said so much of his first years of teaching was writing problems and grading, that he had little time to design labs such as the rubber band cart experiment. Part of his goal for the website was to prevent other early career educators from going through the same slog.

“For me, this is a chance to say to other teachers, ‘Let me write the problems for you so you can focus on labs,’ he said. “It takes the burden off newer teachers so they can focus on the fun and creative stuff.”

Anna Krueger, a teacher at Hamilton High School, said that the site has taken a “huge load off of my shoulders,” while also guarding against cheating since each student gets different numbers to work with on the same type of problems.

“I feel like this prevents cheating really well and simultaneously encourages teamwork,” Krueger said.

Jack Replinger Soulsville Charter School
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
In his 12 years as a teacher in Memphis, Jack Replinger has worked on perfecting physics lessons.

For Replinger, he said the most rewarding part of the site goes back to how it impacts his students. The high schoolers can pace themselves and try homework problems as many times as they like without punishment.

He said one student story stands out as an example of how the site can boost confidence among his high schoolers.

“I had a student last year who saw herself completely not as a math person,” he said. “But she spent a lot of time practicing on the site, and she would even start on homework problems before I had assigned them. She started the class by getting a D on the first quiz. She ended it by getting As at the honors level.”

At what cost

Adams 14 looking for grants first, as it prepares to pay for an external manager

First grade students practice reading in Spanish in their biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary School in Adams 14. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

About to embark on a search for a manager to run its district, Adams 14 officials have been looking at how to pay for that external management.

Although the state ordered that the district hand over management to a third party, following years of low performance, the order doesn’t come with money. Many community members have been wondering where the funds will come from.

Sean Milner, the district’s executive director of budget, operations and construction, said the best guess district officials have right now is that external management could cost $600,000 per year.

The cost of the contract isn’t yet clear. It’s hard to even estimate the cost since Adams 14 is the first district the state Board of Education has ordered to seek outside management.

The actual cost won’t be pinned down until after a group is selected and a contract is negotiated. The district will call for proposals requesting to know the qualifications of interested outside groups, but those will not include the cost of their work. The Colorado State Board of Education must vote to approve the selected manager before the district proceeds with a contract.

It’s possible the district will get help, at least to cover a portion of the management costs.

Adams 14 officials already applied to the state for a grant of up to $200,000 per year. There are no guarantees that Adams 14 will get that money, as they are competing with other districts that need help improving.

Colorado Department of Education officials would not comment on applications under review, but said that districts like Adams 14 that are following State Board directives receive priority for what the state calls Transformation grant dollars.

Officials are also searching for other grants to cover another $200,000. If they are successful, that could leave about $200,000 for the district to cover.

District officials said they hope that by shifting money they might be able to free up enough money from the general fund, without having to make large budget cuts. Work on the budget for 2019-20 is just beginning.

And if need be, district officials said they have informally received the school board’s verbal approval to use some of the district’s $14 million reserves.

So far, officials have looked at other districts that have gone through similar contracts in Indiana and Massachusetts. Those districts are larger than Adams 14’s 7,500-student-district. In their estimates, Adams 14 officials are also considering there may be extra costs associated if a selected partner isn’t local. The possibility also exists that Adams 14 may choose a public entity such as a school district, (Mapleton has already expressed interest), and those contracts could cost less.

Community members have asked if certain district positions, especially that of the superintendent, will duplicates the job of the external manager. Board member Bill Hyde wondered at a public board meeting earlier this year if the district would be paying twice for the same work.

Just earlier this year, the Adams 14 school board raised Superintendent Javier Abrego’s annual salary to $169,125.

The school board, which retained ultimate authority to hire or fire anyone in the district, may have to consider district positions as it finalizes the 2019-20 budget. Or the external manager, once on board, could make recommendations about staffing.

The state order requires that the district’s contract with an external manager start by July, but district officials are planning for an earlier start, potentially in March or April.

If that happens, the district would amend the current school year’s $130 million budget to use curriculum funds to pay for the outside manager for the remainder of this school year.

Officials said they’re being conservative in new spending, given that whoever comes in to run the district soon might have new ideas about programs or curriculum.

“We’re not stopping anything we have in progress,” Milner said. Some teacher training for curriculum still has to happen, for instance, he said. “But if there were new items to put in place, at this time we’re kind of holding off.”