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Week in review: Too many candidates, not enough information

Attendees at last night's CitizenDetroit School Board Candidate Forum hear from candidates Sonya Mays and Ryan Mack in a "speed dating round" on how they would ensure transparency and robust community engagement if elected. (Courtesy CitizenDetroit)

With 18 days until polls open in Detroit, local schools advocates are starting to turn their attention to who will serve on the board of the new Detroit Public Schools Community District. This will be the city’s first school board with any real power (though not complete power) following years of state-appointed emergency managers. But with more than 60 candidates on the ballot, voters might have trouble figuring out whom to support.

"Am I supposed to know these people? Nothing came in the mail about these people here."Maulana Horton, Detroit voter

 

Read on for some guidance, plus the rest of the week’s headlines. Thanks for reading!

Sifting the ballot

In the race to select the first seven-member Detroit school board, endorsements have started rolling in from the Detroit News, the Michigan Chronicle, and the state teachers union.

Candidate forums are being held around town including one that was expected to draw hundreds of Detroiters last night. And news organizations plan to publish reports soon to help voters sift through their options.

Not all of the candidates are doing their part, however. Only 25 of the 63 candidates filled out the candidate questionnaire on the district’s website. When a pair of TV reporters selected 20 candidates to investigate, they found that only seven had campaign websites (one of which didn’t work).

The Free Press hasn’t endorsed in the school board race yet, but the paper is urging voters to support a tax hike that will steer an additional $385 per student to schools in Detroit and other Wayne County districts. Only district schools will benefit, however, which has charter school advocates grumbling.

The Wayne County proposal is identical to one that voters rejected in 2014 and could be a tough sell. For more information on how the Wayne measure will affect Detroit schools, the district posted answers to several questions.

In Detroit schools:

  • In the New York Times, a law professor writes that the federal right-to-read suit filed by Detroit students will be “the opening chapter in a long legal saga.” The question, he says, is whether “a state can constitutionally provide a vast majority of its students with an excellent or at least adequate education while a minority of students receive an education that denies them the chance to acquire … minimum skills.” He adds: “The simple fact is that these schools are a disgrace.”
  • Graduation rates are up in Detroit. But one critic notes that those numbers aren’t very useful. “We are graduating kids who are illiterate and who can’t read their diploma,” he said.
  • A report from a local advocacy group calls for an expanded focus on preschool and other efforts to support children before they fall behind in school. “Our systems are underdeveloped and disconnected,” contends the report.
  • An author and education reformer asserts that Detroit needs a “home-grown education leader and change agent.”
  • An advocate for teacher quality argues that the solution to Detroit’s teaching shortage isn’t welcoming uncertified teachers, as some have suggested, but higher standards.
  • A parent blogger explains why she chose to keep her children in Detroit Public Schools.
  • A local college president is calling for a community-wide push by parents, teachers and residents to “keep the focus on the children” and fix Detroit schools.
  • Five hundred area high schools learned about plumbing, masonry, and carpentry at a Construction Academy event this week.

Across the state:

  • Public spending on private school students is up 51 percent from three years ago.
  • State lawmakers are pushing back on a federal proposal that would require Michigan to prove it spends the same amount on schools that get federal poverty funding as those that don’t. New federal laws are designed to make sure that states aren’t using those federal funds as an excuse to shortchange high-needs schools.
  • Forty-five Michigan schools picked up grants to upgrade their cafeterias and kitchens.

In other news:

  • Members of a Detroit high school’s cheerleading squad have been suspended after a fight was captured on video.
  • The Michigan Supreme Court will convene at a local school.

More from Chalkbeat:

  • Here’s what it feels like when you’re in charge of testing in a Colorado school district and your daughter wants to opt out.
  • Tired of waiting on state test results, one urban school system is considering giving its own exam.
  • Memphis school officials have kicked off a series of community meetings to prepare to close or merge schools.

Week In Review

Week in Review: A final push to fill classrooms before the start of school

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

With the start of the school year now just over two weeks away, pressure is mounting on schools to hire enough teachers before classes begin. That pressure is especially intense for new Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who has been trying to fill hundreds of vacancies ahead of his first full year as the district’s leader. The new contract approved by the school board this week could help by raising salaries, but the district is still listing nearly every teaching category as an area of “critical need.”

As teachers prepare to return to class, some may be thinking of ways to talk to their students about last weekend’s violent attack on demonstrators protesting white supremacists in Virginia. Chalkbeat has been gathering ideas from teachers about how to help kids through these difficult conversations. Check them out — or add some of your own ideas.

Also, this newsletter is available as a weekly email that can be sent directly to your inbox every Friday morning. Please sign up here.

The final countdown

  • As it tries to recruit enough teachers, Detroit’s main district is using several new tactics. Among them are job fairs like one yesterday that drew 150 candidates. Another job fair is scheduled for Aug. 31.
  • The Detroit News urged Vitti to take his time to make sure the people he hires are up to the task.
  • The head of the city teachers union says the teaching shortage is the direct result of recent state policies.
  • The teachers’ new contract was approved by the school board on Tuesday. If it wins final signoff from a state financial oversight board, first-year teachers in Detroit could soon make more than their peers in Grosse Pointe and other suburbs.
  • The school board Tuesday also approved a $28 million settlement with a contractor as well as an agreement with the Highland Park School district to educate some Highland Park students — as long as the school board of the tiny district agrees.
  • If you missed the board meeting, you can review contracts, hiring decisions and other actions considered by the board by clicking here. For the first time in recent memory, that information will now be posted online days of ahead of scheduled board meetings.
  • Among teachers joining the Detroit district this year are 11 who’ve come from Spain to teach Spanish.
  • Teachers are not the only target for recruitment. The district is also trying to recruit students, hosting a free day at the Michigan Science Center tomorrow for district families, as well as a special “Slow Roll” bike ride, among other events.

The new boss

  • Vitti says he draws on his memories as a child with dyslexia as he relates to Detroit children with special needs. He and his wife, who are co-hosting a forum for special education families next week, talked with the Free Press about their experience as special ed parents.
  • One school advocate took Vitti to task for a district Tweet that quoted him saying poverty shouldn’t be an excuse for poor school performance. Those comments are “not helpful,” she wrote. “It puts the blame on those who are victims.”

Courting literacy

Across the state

  • The head of a state association of charter school authorizers says the state’s decision not to close low-performing schools means that “future generations of Michigan students are going to be failed by their schools.”
  • A bill that would require schools to teach African-American history is getting a new push from its sponsors after a weekend of violence in Charlottesville, Va.
  • A News columnist says the “sad reality” of poor educational quality in Michigan is imperiling the state’s future economic prospects. But the state’s top education and economic officials say they’re ramping up efforts to prepare students for good-paying jobs.
  • The state education department will reduce the overall score students need to pass an English-proficiency test.
  • The state’s largest teachers union opposes a new alternative teacher certification program that a private company can now offer in Michigan.
  • Community groups, churches, businesses and other organizations are hosting school supply drives and shopping sprees to help Michigan kids get ready for school.
  • Parents and advocates are worried that a successful after-school program that last year served 26,623 Michigan students could lose funding under President Trump’s proposed budget.
  • While Detroit has dozens of shuttered school buildings now sitting vacant in city neighborhoods, closed Grand Rapids schools are mostly still occupied.
  • A quarter of the teachers in this district missed more than 20 days of school.
  • These are the state’s top private high schools.

 

Detroit week in review

Week in review: A hurry-up-and-wait moment for Detroit’s landmark education lawsuit and more in this week’s school news

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
On his first day as Detroit schools superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, with former interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather, greets principals at a teacher hiring fair at Martin Luther King Jr. High School.

Was this week’s education news big? We won’t know for a long time — at least a month, but possibly years.

That’s after a lawsuit filed nearly a year ago over the conditions in Detroit schools had its first day in court. A judge will rule within 30 days whether the suit can proceed over the objections of Gov. Rick Snyder, whom the suit targets and who argues that the state can’t be held responsible for Detroit’s schools. If the suit does move forward, it’s likely to take years to have any real effects on local schools.

Of more immediate consequences: Michigan got a rare reproach from federal education authorities, teacher vacancies remain, and an outside-the-box strategy to reach poor kids over the summer. Read on for that news and more, and have a great weekend!
— Philissa Cramer, Chalkbeat managing editor

STILL LOOKING: The main Detroit district is still scrambling to hire hundreds of teachers in hopes of being fully staffed for the upcoming school year.

OUTSIDE THE BOX: Libraries Without Borders is turning laundromats into learning spaces this summer. “At the laundromat, there is a population that often has fallen through the cracks,” the group’s executive director told Chalkbeat. “For the most part, especially during the day, you have unemployed adults and very, very young children.”

ABOUT THAT LAWSUIT: Catch back up on the bleak picture the lawsuit paints. Plus, a city teacher and public school graduate responds to the state’s argument that poverty, not state officials, is holding local students back.

NOT SO FAST: The 70-percent reduction in testing that Detroit schools chief Nikolai Vitti announced last week won’t be distributed evenly; high school students will take fewer tests, but students in other grades won’t see many changes. Vitti says he wants to do more over time.

NEGATIVE FEEDBACK: Less than a week after a phone call that state officials said was positive, the U.S. Education Department rejected Michigan’s plan for holding schools accountable. Now the state has to revise and resubmit — but to whom? The federal official responsible for approving the plans is reportedly on his way out.

A MYSTERY: The number of students in Michigan receiving special education services is on the decline. Were students inappropriately being determined to have special needs? Or are students who need services going without them? A parent group says that’s what’s happening.

TEACHER PREP: A tiny local college, Marygrove, will stop offering undergraduate courses; some local schools employees studying education are among the students stranded. A national group offering an online teacher certification program, Teachers of Tomorrow, got approval from the state to start funneling educators into Michigan classrooms.

STUDENT SHIFTS:  A Wayne State University study shows early evidence that as more African American and poor students choose schools in suburban districts, students in suburban districts choose schools further away from Detroit.

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: The new Detroit Children’s Fund picked Jack Elsey, formerly a top official in the state-run recovery district, as its executive directorTonya Allen, head of the Skillman Foundation, has joined an effort to rethink the way schools are funded in Michigan … Get to know Earl Phalen, the head of a growing charter network that has its roots in Indiana and schools in Detroit. … Top Detroit schools official Alycia Meriweather ranks as “the teacher’s favorite” in MetroTimes’ People Issue … And meet Chris Lambert, who’s inspired by God to recruit volunteers to spruce up city schools. (See the sprucing.)

THE DUVAL CONNECTION: Vitti’s former district, Duval County Public Schools in Florida, is gearing up to replace him. According to news reports there, Vitti is also importing one of his deputies from Florida to lead “marketing and rebranding” for Detroit’s schools.

MARK YOUR CALENDAR: Detroit Public Television’s annual teacher summit is next Friday; educators working in prekindergarten through third grade can sign up now.