Here’s which Detroit schools could be closed, as confusion about their future deepens

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Dozens of Michigan schools could get some tough news Friday as school closures loom

The panic is back.

Struggling Detroit schools that breathed a collective sigh of relief this month when Gov. Rick Snyder essentially offered them a stay of execution from tough new school closure requirements were sent reeling again today after the state’s top lawyer stepped in.

But what happens next in the whiplash-inducing school closure fight remains unclear and seems likely to end up in the courts. Here’s what we know — and what we still don’t.

Wait, what’s going on?

The central issue is a law passed last spring as part of the $617 million rescue package for Detroit Public Schools.

The law requires the state school reform office to shut down every school in Detroit — both district and charter — that landed in the bottom 5 percent on state school rankings for the last three years, except in cases where closure would cause “unreasonable hardship” to students.

Chalkbeat broke the story in August that the school reform office planned to use the results of state exams given in 2014, 2015 and 2016 to make closure decisions, even though the test had changed and schools had been told by another state agency that they wouldn’t face high-stakes consequences during the early years of the new M-STEP test.

It looked like dozens of Detroit schools could be doomed. The bottom 5 percent list hasn’t been published yet for 2016, but 27 schools in Detroit’s main school district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — were on the list in both 2014 and 2015.

Many seemed like they were in danger of closing until Snyder, early this month, said he’d accepted a legal finding that took the schools off the chopping block. Essentially, it meant that since DPSCD schools are now officially in a new district, they should get a fresh start. Detroit schools were told their past scores wouldn’t apply to school closure decision until 2019.

What happened today?

Attorney General Bill Schuette, the state’s top lawyer, issued a legal opinion that DPSCD schools can, in fact, be closed, even though their district is new. Schuette had been asked for that opinion by Republican lawmakers who said the intent of their legislation was to see long-struggling schools shut down. “The law is clear: Michigan parents and their children do not have to be stuck indefinitely in a failing school,” Schuette said in a statement. “Detroit students and parents deserve accountability and high performing schools. If a child can’t spell opportunity, they won’t have opportunity.”

Not only can schools be closed, Schuette said, but he asserts that the law demands it. “The SRO is required to close schools in accordance with state law, unless closure would result in an unreasonable hardship because there are insufficient other public school options reasonably available.”

So now what?

That’s hard to predict. It’s not clear if the attorney general has the power to order the governor or the School Reform Office to use his interpretation of the law. That is also in dispute, said Ari Adler, a spokesman for the governor.

“The governor has said all along that it is his intent to follow law,” Adler said. “As different opinions are presented, he will review them and address them accordingly.”

Snyder may decide to accept Schuette’s opinion and proceed with school closings or he could hold his ground, in which case GOP lawmakers, parents, or advocates could take him to court to force him to close schools. Defenders of public schools also say they’re prepared to take this battle to the courts — so the odds of any schools being closed without some kind of judicial review seem low.

What does the district say?

Not much yet. A spokeswoman from DPSCD issued a statement saying: “We have seen the news release issued by the State’s Attorney General in regards to his opinion about DPSCD future school closures and will need to closely and carefully review the opinion with counsel and determine our course of action.”

What about charter schools?

There are five Detroit charter schools that were on the bottom-five list in 2014 and 2015. Three of them — Hamilton Academy, Marvin L. Winans Academy of Performing Arts, and the Michigan Technical Academy — could all be in danger of closing if they land on the 2016 list as well. Two others, Murphy Performance Academy and Stewart Performance Academy, may not be affected since the law applies only to charter schools that have been open for four or more years. Those schools became charter schools in 2012, but the law is vague about when the clock starts on the four-year period.

What about the Education Achievement Authority?

There were 10 schools in the state-run recovery district on both the 2014 and 2015 bottom-five lists. But the law requiring mandatory school closures only applies to the “community district,” which is DPSCD, and to charter schools. State officials said last month that they planned to close any school in the state that was on the bottom-five list for three years, which could include EAA schools, but the EAA has a murky legal status since its schools are expected to revert back to DPSCD next summer. When asked about the EAA schools’ likelihood of facing closure, an EAA spokeswoman pointed out that state law requires the school reform office to take certain steps such as ordering a redesign plan before closing a school. None of the steps have been taken with any EAA schools, she said. (Those steps aren’t required under the new law that applies to DPSCD and to charters.)

Which Detroit public schools are in danger of being closed?

There were 27 schools on the bottom-five list in 2014 and 2015. A third strike on the 2016 list, which is expected around November 1, could spell trouble for these schools. They are:

Ann Arbor Trail Magnet School

Bow Elementary-Middle School

Brewer Elementary-Middle School

Clark Preparatory Academy

Detroit Collegiate Preparatory High School @ Northwestern

Detroit Institute of Technology at Cody

Durfee Elementary-Middle School

Fisher Magnet Lower Academy

Fisher Magnet Upper Academy

Gardner Elementary School

Gompers Elementary-Middle School

Greenfield Union Elementary-Middle School

Henderson Academy

King High School

King Academic and Performing Arts Academy

Marquette Elementary-Middle School

Thurgood Marshall Elementary Schools

Mason Elementary School

Osborn Academy of Mathematics

Osborn College Preparatory Academy

Osborn Evergreen Academy of Design and Alternative Energy

Palmer Park Preparatory Academy

Pulaski Elementary-MIddle School

Sampson Academy

Thirkell Elementary School

Western International High School

Coleman A. Young Elementary


Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below:

Mergers and acquisitions

In a city where many charter schools operate alone, one charter network expands

Kindergarteners at Detroit's University Prep Academy charter school on the first day of school in 2017.

One of Detroit’s largest charter school networks is about to get even bigger.

The nonprofit organization that runs the seven-school University Prep network plans to take control of another two charter schools this summer — the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies elementary and the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies middle/high school.

The move would bring the organization’s student enrollment from 3,250 to nearly 4,500. It would also make the group, Detroit 90/90, the largest non-profit charter network in the city next year — a distinction that stands out in a city when most charter schools are either freestanding schools or part of two- or three-school networks.

Combined with the fact that the city’s 90 charter schools are overseen by a dozen different charter school authorizers, Detroit’s relative dearth of larger networks means that many different people run a school sector that makes up roughly half of Detroit’s schools. That makes it difficult for schools to collaborate on things like student transportation and special education.

Some charter advocates have suggested that if the city’s charter schools were more coordinated, they could better offer those services and others that large traditional school districts are more equipped to offer — and that many students need.

The decision to add the Henry Ford schools to the Detroit 90/90 network is intended to “create financial and operational efficiencies,” said Mark Ornstein, CEO of UPrep Schools, and Deborah Parizek, executive director of the Henry Ford Learning Institute.

Those efficiencies could come in the areas of data management, human resources, or accounting — all of which Detroit 90/90 says on its website that it can help charter schools manage.

Ornstein and Parizek emphasized that students and their families are unlikely to experience changes when the merger takes effect on July 1. For example, the Henry Ford schools would remain in their current home at the A. Alfred Taubman Center in New Center and maintain their arts focus.  

“Any changes made to staff, schedule, courses, activities and the like will be the same type a family might experience year-to-year with any school,” they said in a statement.