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.”

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised more than $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Other groups such as Americans For Prosperity work outside the reporting requirements altogether by spending money on “social welfare issues,” rather than candidates. The conservative political nonprofit, which champions charter schools and other school reforms, pledged to spend more than six-figures for “a sweeping outreach effort to parents” to promote school choice policies in Douglas County. The fight over charter schools and vouchers, which use tax dollars to send students to private schools, has been a key debate in school board races there.

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

Another union-funded group, called Brighter Futures for Denver, has spent all of its money on consultant services for one Denver candidate: Jennifer Bacon, who’s running in a three-person race in northeast Denver’s District 4. The Denver teachers union, which contributed $114,000 to the committee, has endorsed Bacon. The statewide teachers union also contributed money.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, the incumbent running in District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $625,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a slate of candidates that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more information about Americans for Prosperity’s Douglas County plans. 

what is a good school?

New York policymakers are taking a closer look at how they evaluate charter schools

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Erica Murphy, school director of Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in New York, oversees students in a fourth-grade English class.

New York is rethinking how it judges whether charter schools are successful and deserve to remain open — a discussion that comes as some top education policymakers have asked tough questions about the privately managed schools.

The state education department currently decides which of the more than 70 charter schools it oversees can stay open based largely on their test scores and graduation rates, though other factors like family involvement and financial management are also reviewed. A set of changes now being considered could add additional performance measures, such as the share of students who are chronically absent and student survey results.

Policymakers also discussed whether to change how they calculate charter-school student enrollment and retention.

The move — which got its first public discussion Monday during a Board of Regents meeting and is expected to become a formal proposal in December — would bring charter schools in line with a shift underway in how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the board has moved away from using test scores as the main metric for evaluating schools and will begin to track absences and eventually suspensions.

Since the state’s current system for evaluating charter schools was last revised in 2015, the board has added several new members and elected a new leader, Betty Rosa. Several members at a previous board meeting questioned the enrollment practices at a charter school in Brooklyn.

At Monday’s meeting, some suggested the schools attain high test scores partly by serving fewer high-needs students — and that the system for evaluating charters should take this into account.  

For instance, Regent Kathleen Cashin implied at Monday’s meeting that some charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students. Their motivation, she said, “is not pedagogic, I’ll tell you that.” She suggested that, in addition to tracking how well charter schools retain students, the state should survey parents who leave those schools to find out why.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Rosa suggested Monday that it’s unfair to compare charter schools that serve few high-needs students to traditional schools.

Charter schools receive autonomy from many rules, but in return they agree to meet certain performance targets — or risk closure if they do not. The state judges charters based on a variety of metrics, everything from their enrollment figures to how they respond to parent concerns. However, test scores and graduation rates are “the most important factor when determining to renew or revoke a school’s charter,” according to state documents.

Even if the state adds new measures that move beyond test scores, those will still hold the most weight, according to state officials.

The state is also considering whether to change how it measures charter schools’ enrollment and retention targets. Currently, schools must set targets for students with disabilities, English learners, and those eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch. If they fail to meet those targets, they must show they are making yearly progress towards meeting that goal.

During the state’s presentation, officials also floated the idea of a “fiscal dashboard,” which would display charter schools’ financial information. They also said they may compare charter high school graduation rates and Regents exam scores with those of the districts where they’re located, instead of using only the state average or their targets as a comparison point.