To close or not to close?

As the threat of closure looms, this Detroit charter school says it’s worth a second look

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Students line up at Michigan Technical Academy, which is on the list of 38 Michigan schools that could be forced to close in June.

On paper, the Michigan Technical Academy looks exactly like the kind of school state officials are planning to shut down.

The charter school in northwest Detroit has posted test scores in the bottom 1 percent in the state in recent years, and fewer than 5 percent of fourth-graders passed last year’s state math exam.

The scores mean the school could be shuttered under a new law designed to rescue students in long-struggling schools from a culture of failure. The school will find out its fate when the state releases its 2016 test-score ranking, which could come out as early as next week. If its scores are in the bottom 5 percent statewide for a third straight year, MTA could well be required to close in June.

But MTA’s supporters say that if state officials charge ahead with plans to take a sledgehammer to every low-scoring school like theirs, they’ll end up destroying even schools that are turning things around.

"The one thing that’s not on our side is time. We have a bullseye on our back but … we feel a sense of urgency. We feel it in our bones."Michaela McArthur,kindergarten teacher

That’s what teachers and administrators say is happening at their 600-student elementary school.

A new principal, a new way of teaching, and a more positive culture have given teachers a reason to believe their school is on the upswing. They just might not get a chance to prove it.

“The one thing that’s not on our side is time,” said kindergarten teacher Michaela McArthur. “We have a bullseye on our back but … we feel a sense of urgency. We feel it in our bones.”

The school was nearly shut down two years ago by Central Michigan University, which granted the charter that allows the school to operate.

The university was alarmed by low test scores and other problems, said Brad Wever, Central’s director of public policy and external relations. But when officials there considered where the school’s students would go next, they realized that neighboring schools had similarly low scores.

“We looked at all the options in the surrounding area to say, ‘What would happen to these kids if MTA was no longer to exist?’” Wever said.

Instead of closing the school, Central decided to change it. It replaced the school’s board. The new board brought in a team of school turnaround specialists from a New Jersey-based nonprofit management company called Matchbook Learning, which in turn introduced a program called Spark that uses computers to help teachers tailor lessons for individual students. Matchbook hired Phillip Price, a 62-year-old veteran principal who has led school turnarounds in Detroit and other cities.

Michigan Technical Academy Principal Phillip Price started at the struggling Detroit charter school in 2015. "Give us three years," he said. " We’re going to change this school."
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Michigan Technical Academy Principal Phillip Price started at the struggling Detroit charter school in 2015. “Give us three years,” he said. ” We’re going to change this school.”

“Believe me. Give us three years … we’re going to change this school,” said Price who took over as principal in September 2015. “I can’t change what people did before we got here, but we can change it now and that’s what we’re doing. We’re making a difference.”

Teachers and administrators say the recent changes at MTA have made their school a different place than it was during the years that produced the low scores.

“Since Mr. Price got here, it’s been a completely different school,” said Kristen Duran, 34, a second-grade teacher in her 11th year at MTA.

Before, she said, the school was clearly troubled.

“The curriculum changed a lot. There was teacher turnover, policies changed … We didn’t have a set direction,” Duran said.

But now things seem to be on the right track.

“Mr. Price has totally turned around the culture of the building,” she said. “The kids know what is expected of them … He’s here to make sure that our students learn and that we’re learning too. Teachers are valued more than they had been. We work as a huge team. Everybody pitches in at all times to help each other.”

But that teamwork has not yet translated into higher test scores.

The school’s 2016 M-STEP scores dropped slightly last year, with just 11 percent of third-graders testing proficient on the math test last spring compared to 13 percent the year before. (Scores also fell across the state, where 45 percent of third-graders passed the proficiency bar, down from 49 percent the year before.)

School leaders say the scores don’t mean students aren’t learning — just that they started very far behind.

“The M-STEP tests grade-level proficiency,” said Sajan George, Matchbook’s founder and CEO. “The M-STEP says, ‘OK, fourth-grader, we’re going to give you fourth-grade material.’ So if we take a kid that was starting at a first-grade level and get them to a second-and-a-half-grade level on M-STEP, they are marked ‘not proficient’ so they look like they’re in the worst tier and the school is failing.”

Most MTA students were two or three years behind when Matchbook took over, George said. “So the first year of the test, the second year of the test, the school is not going to look like it’s doing anything.”

"We looked at all the options in the surrounding area to say, ‘What would happen to these kids if MTA was no longer to exist?’"Brad Wever, director of public policy and external relations at Central Michigan University

The school’s own data system tells a different story, according to George. MTA uses an exam called the Performance Series to measure student improvement. That exam shows that students are making progress, with the percentage of students at grade level in reading growing from 21 percent to 29 percent between the fall and spring semesters last year and the percent at grade level in math growing from 24 to 36 percent. (While the M-STEP is only given to students in grade 3 and higher, the Performance Series data includes students as young as kindergarten.)

There are other signs that the school is becoming a better place for children to learn. The school has seen its attendance rate improve, and Price said suspensions are down dramatically from 163 the year before he started to fewer than 50 last year while enrollment has been steady. Price credits the lower suspension rate to better teaching.

“When discipline is high, instruction is low,” he said.

This year, by working with teachers on classroom management, Price said he hopes to bring the number of suspensions below 25.

Teachers say they’re on board with the changes so far and are already seeing results. But they know that the threat of closure looms.

“The part that makes me worried and sad is that we know our kids are prepared and our kids are doing a great job,” said kindergarten teacher Michelle Peters, who estimated that 90 percent of last year’s kindergarten students finished the year last spring ready to do first- or even second-grade work. “If we’re not open in two years then our kids will never get to show us on M-STEP what they really know.”

McArthur and Peters both said they worked in several other Detroit schools before starting at MTA last year and have never seen a school run as smoothly as this one.

Teachers get intensive mentoring from two full-time coaches who observe every teacher 40 times throughout the year and give them steady feedback and advice.

They also get extensive training on the Spark system, a massive database of online lessons including interactive games and videos that enable one student to do first-grade work while his classmates work on more advanced lessons.

While older kids at Michigan Technical Academy do their work on laptops, kindergarten and first-grade students use tablets.
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
While older kids at Michigan Technical Academy do their work on laptops, kindergarten and first-grade students use tablets.

Walk into a classroom and some students can be seen dancing along to lessons set to music that are streaming through their headphones. On a recent visit, a group of second-graders were doing a subtraction lesson that came in the form of a catchy jingle about a pirate making his shipmates walk the plank.

When you subtract with a pirate, you always take away,” some students sang while others called out answers or waved fingers showing answers to subtraction problems.

Once the students complete their lessons online — all kindergarteners and first-graders get tablets, while older kids have laptops — they meet with their teacher to make sure they understand the material before demonstrating what they’ve learned with a project that could be anything from writing a poem to building a house out of legos.

“Matchbook actually believes this is the heart and soul of how we turn around a school,” George said. “You can’t take a school that’s been failing for years and in a year get all these kids to grade level. There’s real gaps we have to fill in.

Matchbook Learning CEO Sajan George explains the Spark system his management company uses at Michigan Technical Academy, a Detroit charter school
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Matchbook Learning CEO Sajan George explains the Spark system his management company uses at Michigan Technical Academy, a Detroit charter school

“I can’t speed a kid through and say, ‘Hey, I know you’re struggling with your number sense but let’s try this concept called quadratic equations because it’s going to be on the state test.’”

Central Michigan has been closely watching what’s happening at MTA, Wever said, but it’s too early to know whether the changes will prove successful in the long run.

“We’re cautiously optimistic at this point,” Wever said. “We have folks regularly in the school and they have seen a change in the culture and there appears to be a positive school culture going on with the new principal.”

It’s not clear how many schools with a history of scores as low as MTA’s could make a case that recent changes should spare them from severe consequences like closure.

Supporters of Detroit’s district schools say the creation of a new school district called the Detroit Public Schools Community District means they should get three years to try to improve before facing closure — a legal argument that’s under dispute.

But there’s no similar dispute over charter schools. The Detroit school closure legislation doesn’t include any exemptions for schools that are improving. So if MTA gets its third bottom-five ranking when the 2016 state list comes out this fall, there’s only one way for it to stay open: if the state determines that closing the school would represent an “unreasonable hardship” for students.

That’s essentially what Wever said CMU officials concluded was the case two years ago and little has changed in the neighborhood since then: Most schools in that part of the city have very low test scores.

But the School Reform Office declined to comment on how it will determine, in a neighborhood with many low-scoring schools, which ones would qualify for an unreasonable hardship exemption.

If the state decides to close the school, Central Michigan says there’s nothing the university can do to keep it open.

“At the end of the day, we are going to follow the law,” Wever said.

But George said he hopes state officials will visit his school before using three-year-old test scores to shut it down.

“We fundamentally believe that this is going to work,” George said. “I’m hoping there’s an opportunity to make a rational evident case and if there isn’t, then … I think they missed an opportunity to see something happen in Detroit that’s different than what else is out there.”

Closing MTA, George said, wouldn’t solve the deep challenges facing students and schools in Detroit.

“You’re just going to shuffle the deck,” he said. “What happens when the kids from one bottom 5 percent school go to a school that’s in the bottom 15 percent? If they’re not doing a radical turnaround design, that school will automatically be in the bottom five, and it’s like this domino effect.”

Changes

Far northeast Denver gets campus upgrades, but not the traditional high school some want

PHOTO: Seth McConnell/The Denver Post via Getty Images
A seventh-grade biology class at the Montbello campus in Denver in 2017.

Denver students who return this fall to the five small schools on the Montbello campus will find a refurbished library with a dedicated librarian — something they didn’t have this past year.

New stadium lights will mean high school athletes no longer have their after-school practices cut short by the setting sun. Students at the two high schools on the campus will be able to take elective courses at either school, widening their academic possibilities.

These changes will create something closer to a traditional high school experience for students in far northeast Denver. Some residents have been asking for the return of a comprehensive high school in the region. It hasn’t had one since the school board voted in 2010 to close low-performing Montbello High and replace it with smaller schools that share facilities.

The five schools on the Montbello campus are:
  • DCIS Montbello Middle School
  • DCIS Montbello High School
  • Noel Community Arts Middle School
  • Noel Community Arts High School
  • STRIVE Prep Montbello Middle School

The three middle and two high schools on the Montbello campus served nearly 1,800 students this past school year. Nearly all of them were students of color, and 88 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty.

District officials point to higher test scores and rising graduation rates as proof the small schools are working. But some community members disagree, in part because they say shared campus arrangements have created other academic and social inequities. In the past year, parents, athletic coaches, and students have been increasingly vocal in demanding change.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district heard the feedback “loud and clear.” The library renovation and other changes will “bring some real, tangible, and meaningful benefits to our students in the far northeast,” he said.

Community members said they’re a start.

“We like to say we acknowledge what the DPS has done in response to all of this community agitation,” said Brandon Pryor, a Denver parent and football coach who has emerged as one of the strongest advocates for change. “We want to stay away from thanking them because the things they’re doing are the things they should have been doing already.”

School board member Jennifer Bacon, who represents the area, wants to help the community continue its advocacy. She is working to form a committee of parents, students, teachers, and other residents to come up with a vision for what public education should look like in the far northeast — and, perhaps, a model for future new schools in the region.

“You can’t just dangle low-hanging fruit and believe that’s enough,” Bacon said of the district’s efforts to address the concerns. However, she added, “you have to also start somewhere. The fact that we are means that a point was made, and it was received.”

The changes the district is making for the 2018-19 school year stop well short of reopening a traditional high school. Superintendent Boasberg said that while he hears that desire, “our first priority is to invest in the schools that we have.”

The changes include:

Providing “open access to a high-functioning library” for the schools on the Montbello campus, “including a dedicated librarian, for research and study time,” according to a letter Boasberg sent to families after touring the campus alongside community advocates.

All five schools will share a single library and librarian.

This past school year, one of the schools on the campus, DCIS Montbello, used the library as a math classroom during the fall semester, district officials said. When the library reopened during the spring semester, there was no librarian and no computers there. (Students have access to computers in their classrooms, and some schools issue students their own, officials said.)

The library renovation will add itechnology, and update the paint, flooring, furniture, and book selection, district officials said. It will be funded through a variety of sources, including a tax increase voters approved in 2016. Funding for the librarian position will come out of the district’s central budget, not individual school budgets, officials said.

Adding lights to the athletic fields at the Montbello campus and the nearby Evie Dennis campus, which houses a mix of elementary, middle, and high schools. The district is also aligning bell schedules at all district-run high schools in the far northeast.

That will enable student athletes from the various schools who play as a single team under the banner of the Far Northeast Warriors to start practice earlier. Football coach Tony Lindsay said that this past year, the schools’ bell schedules were all over the place. The school with the earliest dismissal time let students out at 2:45 p.m.; the latest dismissed them at 4:15 p.m.

A bus went from school to school, collecting the athletes, who wouldn’t arrive at the field until 4:45 p.m., he said. That posed a major problem in the fall, when it gets dark by 5:15 p.m.

The district is paying for the lights at the Evie Dennis campus with money from the 2016 tax increase and using reserve funds to pay for the Montbello lights, officials said.

Hiring an athletic liaison to help students meet the academic eligibility requirements to play sports for Denver Public Schools and qualify for college scholarships.

When Lindsay coached football at a traditional high school in south Denver, he required his players to attend a 45-minute study hall before practice so they could keep up with their homework. But the disparate bell schedules and lack of field lights didn’t allow him to do the same in the far northeast. As a result, he said, some athletes fell behind. Others left for larger, more traditional high schools in other parts of Denver and in surrounding districts.

“They didn’t want this mess,” Lindsay said. “I don’t blame them, but I’m hurt by it. I live out there. That’s my community.”

The liaison will connect student athletes with tutoring and other academic support, officials said. The position will be funded by the district, not the schools.

Expanding the number of available electives for some students. High school students at DCIS Montbello and Noel Community Arts School will be able to take elective courses at either school. According to district officials, those could include Advanced Placement, college-level, and foreign language courses, as well as band, orchestra, dance, and theater.

Many of the changes for next year are related to athletics. That’s because some of the strongest advocacy has come from the football coaches and their players, who showed up at school board meetings this year to speak publicly about the needs in the far northeast.

Lindsay, Pryor and others also participated in a series of community meetings run by Denver Public Schools over the past year and a half. The meetings started as an effort to ask residents in the region what they want in their schools. They ended in a heated debate about whether to reopen a traditional high school. The idea prompted backlash from leaders of the small schools that replaced Montbello High, as they initially saw it as a threat to their existence.

That conflict seems to have cooled, but those who want a traditional high school aren’t relenting. Narcy Jackson, who also participated in the meetings and runs a mentoring program for student athletes, said the changes the district is making don’t go far enough to address inequities.

“They give, like, a crumb,” Jackson said. “That’s supposed to suffice.”

District officials argue that students in the far northeast are getting a better education now than they did before the phase-out of Montbello High, which began in 2011 and ended in 2014 when the last class graduated. In addition to the two small high schools on the Montbello campus, there are six other small high schools and three alternative high schools in the region. They are a mix of district-run and charter schools, and all but one have fewer than 600 students.

Average ACT scores in the far northeast increased from 15.7 point out of 36 in 2011 to 17.7 in 2016, district data shows. That number does not include scores from the alternative schools.

The five-year graduation rate rose from 69 percent to nearly 88 percent. The district prefers to use a five-year graduation rate, rather than a four-year rate, because officials believe in allowing students to stay longer to take free college courses or do apprenticeships.

In addition, high school enrollment in far northeast schools has nearly doubled, from 2,056 students in 2010 to 4,069 students in 2017, district data shows. Officials see that as a sign families are increasingly satisfied with their local schools.

Pryor, the parent and football coach, sees things differently. Test scores are increasing, but he said they’re still not where they should be. ACT scores lag behind the district average. At DCIS Montbello, only 11 percent of 9th graders met expectations on last year’s state literacy test. As for the graduation rate, “that’s not an indication of kids doing better,” Pryor said.

“They’re just passing them through,” he said, “creating an illusion that they’re serving our kids better, but they’re not.”

He’d like to work with other community members to design a brand-new high school. He hopes to start by visiting schools around the country that have been successful in educating black and Latino students. He said he appreciates that Bacon, the school board member, wants to keep the conversation going beyond the changes the district is making next year.

“We’ve identified problems,” Pryor said. Now, he added, “it’s time to work on solutions.”

Incentives

Aurora’s school district is testing out a stipend for hard to staff positions

Math teacher Kelly Hutchings, in her class at Boston K-8 school in Aurora on March 3, 2015. (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school district may experiment with paying some teachers and staff about $3,000, to see if the district can attract more candidates, fill more vacancies, and retain more employees.

The pilot plan has $1.8 million set aside for next school year to to attract and retain as many as 400 employees in hard-to-staff jobs. But in the long run, Superintendent Rico Munn said, the stipends could save Aurora money.

“This is a force multiplier,” Munn said. “If we can fill those positions ourselves, we can decrease our overall expenditures.”

Aurora’s stipends:
  • Nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists, and speech pathologists are eligible district-wide.
  • Special education teachers, secondary math teachers, or secondary science teachers are eligible at any of 20 targeted schools.
  • For employees who made an early commitment to return this fall: $3,000
  • For returning employees who don’t make an early commitment to return: $2,500
  • For new employees: $2,500

Right now, when the district can’t fill certain critical positions, Munn said it must rely on contracting with agencies that help fill those jobs. There is an added cost paid to the agency.

The district’s school board is voting on the proposed budget on Tuesday. Officials say the money for the pilot program was set aside from a one-time increase of revenue the district received in the spring.

“We are really trying to be more strategic around how we recruit, retain, and develop our staff,” Munn said.

Over the past year, Aurora officials have focused on improving recruitment and retention. For instance, the next year’s budget proposal includes a request for about half a million dollars to send more principals through a University of Virginia training program.

This pilot, which the union opposed, would offer a stipend to all district nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists, and speech pathologists. Special education teachers, secondary math teachers, or secondary science teachers would be eligible if they work at any of 20 targeted schools.

The district selected schools that had higher turnover rates for these teachers than the district’s three-year average of 29 percent.

The stipend would be the same among jobs, but would vary if someone is a returning employee, or a new employee to the district.

In reviewing eligible positions, Munn said the district considered the number and length of existing vacancies, the number of applicants for those jobs, and how often the district had to seek help from an outside agency to fill them.

The district did not release detailed data on vacancies.

But in the case of nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists, and speech language pathologists, Aurora officials said they resorted to an outside agency to fill 27 vacancies in the 2017-18 school year. That’s out of approximately 160 employees serving in those jobs that year.

Munn said that the district will track data on fill rates, number of applicants, and vacancies to see if the stipends make a difference.

“I think we’ll certainly have the data come August,” Munn said. “If it’s not successful then we stop talking about it. If it, is then we start looking at in what circumstances.”

Several other school districts in Colorado and across the country provide stipends for hard-to-staff positions. Denver schools, for instance, offer incentives and bonuses for various duties, including working in a hard-to-serve school through their ProComp model. Research findings on the model have been mixed.

National research has found that hard-to-staff and performance bonuses can attract more candidates and increase retention, but knowing whether quality candidates are the ones staying is harder to say.

Julia Wigert, president of the Colorado Society of School Psychologists, said stipends could be one way to attract more candidates, especially if they reward those who have additional credentials, but said there are other important factor that might help.

“We believe the most effective way… is to offer a competitive salary along with supporting a comprehensive role for school psychologists,” Wigert said.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union, said he is concerned that the program creates inequities “for people who do the same jobs in different buildings.” He added that union leadership has done surveys of teachers and staff in the past and has found that money is not one of the top considerations for choosing to take a job.

In the case of Aurora, the results of the pilot, if successful, could be one consideration in the district decision on whether to ask for a tax increase this fall, or could also affect district negotiations with the union to create a new plan for paying teachers.

While Munn said he isn’t planning to advocate for basing salaries on performance or positions, he added that nothing is off the table.

Wilcox had said he seeks a more consistent way for teachers to get raises based on years of service and increases in education.

The list of 20 schools where some teachers will be eligible for stipends:

  • Aurora Central High School
  • Aurora Hills Middle School
  • Aurora West College Preparatory Academy
  • Boston P-8 School
  • Clyde Miller P-8 School
  • Columbia Middle School
  • Dalton Elementary School
  • Iowa Elementary School
  • Jamaica Child Development Center
  • Jewell Elementary School
  • Kenton Elementary School
  • Lyn Knoll Elementary School
  • Meadowood Child Development Center
  • North Middle School Health Sciences & Technology Campus
  • Paris Elementary School
  • Sixth Avenue Elementary School
  • Tollgate Elementary School
  • Vaughn Elementary School
  • Vista PEAK Preparatory
  • Wheeling Elementary School