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Week in Review: Where are the children?

PHOTO: Francesca Berardi

In a city that desperately needs quality schools, there are few things more confounding than knowing there are great programs in Detroit that can’t fill their seats. A story from our partner, the Teacher Project, this week highlights some of the reasons that low-income families struggle to find Head Start programs, even as the programs struggle to find enough kids.

“Where are the children? … I am becoming a walking billboard. I carry flyers everywhere.”

Laura Lefever, director, Children’s Center Head Start

That story builds on a Chalkbeat report from last spring about hundreds of Head Start vacancies caused by teacher shortages and the challenge of bringing classroom space up to code after years of deterioration and neglect.

Also this week, the debate around the Detroit charter school that critics say is using a “sneaky” enrollment method to create diversity went national when the Atlantic picked up our story on the school, generating heated comments from readers. Please take a look — and read on for the rest of the week’s headlines.

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District in transition

Bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes is leaving his Transition Manager role with the Detroit Public Schools Community District at the end of the month. He says he’s leaving the new school board with a balanced budget — but many challenges. Here’s what Rhodes and Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather told the state legislature this week:

  • They’re holding twice-weekly training sessions for the new board members who were elected last month.
  • Detroiters could see more school corruption cases as the district’s Inspector General pursues “several matters … that may result in further criminal investigations and charges,” Rhodes said.
  • Rhodes is urging the new board to give Meriweather a permanent post: “She has done an extraordinary job,” he said. “Her insight into the educational process and what it takes to achieve success in an urban district is amazing.”
  • Rhodes called on the legislature to “continue to insist on prudence” in the district’s financial affairs but said: “I also urge it to consider that educating children who live in poverty … is more challenging and therefore more expensive.”
  • Meriweather says the $617 million the state spent this summer to create a new debt-free district has helped educators focus on improving education but warned that improvements will take time. “It will take us eight to 10 years to get there,” she said. “We have a lot of work to do.” (That comment prompted a pro-charter school website to assert that charters are a better option.)

Division on DeVos

The impact of Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s pick for U.S. education secretary, on Michigan schools got a closer look this week. Here’s what analysts here and across the country said:

  • The Free Press editorial page editor blames DeVos and her advocacy for the poor state of charter schools in Detroit and Michigan. “I’m certain she’ll try to make the nation’s charter landscape look more like the chaos we face here in Detroit, and less like it does in (higher performing) states like Tennessee or Massachusetts,” he wrote in a column that the Washington Post reprinted.
  • Bridge Magazine wrote that “DeVos’s dogged commitment to policies that have yielded, at best, mixed results in Michigan raises questions about what lessons she would take to Washington, as well as about her willingness to listen to viewpoints outside her free-market ideology.”
  • Education Week offered this timeline of DeVos’ influence on state education policy, and Politico called Michigan’s charter school results “so disappointing that even some supporters of school choice are critical of the state’s policies.”
  • But a DeVos supporter said criticism misstates Michigan’s charter record. And Crain’s says DeVos will “shake up the status quo,” though it added: “if choice expands with federal dollars, DeVos should heed some lessons from Michigan.”
  • NPR visited the successful DeVos-founded charter school that trains students to become pilots or pursue careers in aviation or engineering fields. “I think the word choice says it all,” the school’s principal said. “The philosophy of our school from Dick and Betsy, obviously, is to provide opportunities for all kids. So the word opportunity and choice to me go hand in hand.”

In other Detroit news:

  • The main Detroit school district is still hiring teachers, especially those certified in math, science, and languages.
  • A columnist praises the schools in the state-run recovery district but says signs of progress have come too late to save the district.
  • Michigan State University is expanding its educational offerings in Detroit with music classes and a training program that prepares educators to teach in an urban setting.
  • After a brief delay, the bribery trial of a former DPS principal began with testimony from an FBI agent who said the principal admitted to taking $40,000. The principal planned to tell jurors she used the money on her school, but a judge scratched that defense.
  • The heads of two major foundations appeared on TV to explain why they’re investing heavily in early childhood education in Detroit.
  • Students at a dozen local schools are participating in the national “Hour of Code” today.
  • Members of two Detroit high school football teams are learning the importance of “digital etiquette” to protect their reputations online.
  • Detroit’s main district threw a parade to celebrate the two city football teams that won state championships.
  • This Detroit high school won $20,000 worth of sports equipment.

Across the state:

  • Gov. Rick Snyder on Thursday abruptly ended a push to pull $430 million out of the School Aid Fund to pay income tax refunds but said he might revive it later. “It’s the right thing to do, but it’s not the right time to do it,” his spokesman said. School advocates said the plan would cost schools nearly $300 per student (and a Free Press columnist called it “sketchy.”) Snyder’s office said his next budget will increase school funding.
  • New Michigan teachers and municipal workers will continue to get pensions after legislation to change the retirement system failed (for now) in Lansing. One columnist says lawmakers have declared “war on teachers,” while an advocate says the pension changes would have benefitted teachers.
  • The state teachers union has continued to lose members since right-to-work legislation made membership optional.
  • A statewide coalition of business, civil rights, and community groups is calling on state education officials to prioritize excellence, equity and transparency as they adapt state policies to conform with new federal education laws.
  • The state lieutenant governor called for schools to stop using restraint and seclusion to control children with special needs in non-emergency situations — a practice he called inhumane and barbaric. His call was supported by a columnist who described what happened to an 8-year-old boy with autism with who was locked in a padded room for hours.
  • A school counseling advocate urged parents and business leaders to call their legislators to back a bill that aims to improve college counseling for high schoolers.
  • Graduation rates in Michigan and across the country are expected to drop in coming years.
  • Parents at a suburban middle school dogged by racial incidents gathered for a “peace forum” to promote unity.
  • Calls from residents in a suburban community for a school board member to step down following offensive social media posts is getting national attention.
  • An elite suburban school has landed a $1 million donation.

More from Chalkbeat

  • New York City’s improvement goals for its most struggling schools are in many cases completely marginal.
  • Author Ta-Nehisi Coates has a message for principals: “It’s not all up to you.”
  • Donald Trump’s apparent backtracking on young adults who came to the country illegally as children is adding even more uncertainty for teachers in that category.
  • Indiana’s aggressive efforts to recruit more teachers aren’t paying off.
  • Meet Michael Johnston, the Colorado education policy architect who is eyeing the governor’s office.

Investigations

Two principals out in wake of sex abuse scandal. Two retirees to step up as interims

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

Chicago Public Schools has removed one principal and reassigned another in the wake of a sexual assault scandal that has caused reverberations throughout the district.

After an internal audit of management practices at the school, Simeon Career Academy Principal Dr. Sheldon House was “removed” this afternoon, according to a release from the district. “In particular, the review focused on the school’s response to past events in which volunteers were able to coach athletics without the proper background checks,” said the statement from CPS CEO Janice Jackson. “Unfortunately, the audit found systemic issues in Simeon’s handling of volunteer background checks.”

Simeon, in Chatham, is an athletic powerhouse that has won multiple state titles. Alums of the 1,300-student school include Chicago-raised basketball stars Derrick Rose and Jabari Parker and State Rep. Mary E. Flowers, who graduated from Simeon in 1970. Though the Chicago Democrat graduated decades ago, she said she’s just as outraged as if it had happened while she was in school.

“I am devastated by it, but I’m not surprised about it,” said Flowers, who called for state oversight of the school district. “It’s not enough that they let them (principals) go.”

The district also announced it “reassigned” Sarah Goode STEM Academy principal Armando Rodriguez on Monday pending the outcome of an investigation. The decision followed the removal in June of a teacher after a student alleged possible sexual abuse. “CPS and DCFS are currently investigating to determine if abuse occurred, and the district will provide an update to the school community after the investigation is complete,” said the statement.

Located in Ashburn on the city’s Southwest Side, Sarah Goode STEM Academy is one of a handful of Chicago schools where students can earn dual credits in high school and college. The 860-student school is sponsored by IBM.

Both schools are level one schools, the next-to-highest rating in the district. 

CPS has selected David Gilligan, the retired former principal of the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, to serve as Goode’s top administrator until the Local School Council selects a new principal.

At Simeon, Patricia Woodson has been brought out of retirement to serve as principal until a new administrator is named. Woodson previously served as the administrator in charge of Harlan, Marshall, and South Shore International schools.

The district’s widespread failing to have a system in place to protect student victims was first reported in early June in the Chicago Tribune. In the weeks since, CEO Jackson has announced several policy changes, including a widespread campaign to redo background checks of teachers, vendors, coaches, and volunteers. The district has also turned over its incident investigations to the office of Inspector General Nicholas Schuler.

Reached Monday night, Flowers repeated calls for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, CPS CEO Jackson, and board of education members to step down. She said that state lawmakers were planning another hearing in July.

“I think the parents voices need to be heard, and I’m looking forward to having some hearings in communities and at the schools…We expect (CPS CEO) Jackson to be there.”

making plans

Controversial integration plan for Upper West Side middle schools changes, but it’s unclear whether more parents will get on board

PHOTO: Rachel Holliday Smith
CEC member Genisha Metcalf speaks at Wednesday’s hearing on a proposal to desegregate Manhattan’s west side middle schools.

Following controversy over a plan to desegregate  Upper West Side and Harlem middle schools, the Department of Education unveiled two alternatives it hopes sit better with parents and educators.

At a Community Education Council hearing Wednesday night, the education department gave an overview of two alternatives to the initial proposal to integrate the district’s 16 middle schools, which angered some parents who were concerned it would shut their children out of sought-after schools.

The major difference between the initial proposal and the new plans is that they factor more than just state test scores into admissions offers — but it’s unclear whether the changes will quell the uproar over the integration effort, which has gained nationwide attention.

In both new plans, the agency aims to level the playing field for middle schoolers in the diverse but highly segregated west side Manhattan district.

In the first proposal, priority for 25 percent of middle school seats in every middle school in the district would be given to students who come from elementary schools with high economic needs and have low scores on both English and mathematics fourth grade state tests.

Out of that quarter of seats, 10 percent would be given to students in a group comprised of the very highest-need schools with the lowest-performing test scores; 15 percent of seats would be set aside for the next-highest need and lowest-performing group of students.

In the second proposal, priority for 25 percent of seats would be given to students based on a combination of their report cards and state test scores.

The hearing was much calmer than one several weeks ago, when a video went viral showing mostly white parents complaining that their children wouldn’t receive coveted middle school spots after excelling on state tests. The furor grew when Chancellor Richard Carranza tweeted the footage with a headline that said: “Wealthy white Manhattan parents angrily rant against plan to bring more black kids to their schools.” He has stood by  his decision to share the footage, saying it “speaks for itself.”

On Wednesday, parents repeatedly told the CEC as well as District 3 Superintendent Ilene Altschul and other education department officials that the proposals, while addressing very high- and low-performing students and schools, leave other students behind.

In education department simulations of how each proposal would work, both plans resulted in double-digit increases in the number of low-performing students offered seats in three high performing schools: J.H.S. 54 Booker T. Washington, P.S. 245 The Computer School and West End Secondary School.

“Great, we’re doing a bigger push for diversity in some of the schools that have been highly sought after that historically fewer parents or students felt like they had as an option, but what are we doing to attract level 3 and level 4 students to [P.S. 180 Hugo Newman College Preparatory School]?” asked parent and CEC member Genisha Metcalf, referring to a school that fell roughly in the middle of the education department models for how each proposal would affect the district’s schools.

“Otherwise, we’re overcrowding four schools,” she added, over loud applause from the audience.

“Here’s the problem: Maybe instead of there being four desirable middle schools, there should be fifteen,” said parent Josh Kross, 41. “This is only going to create more problems.”

About a dozen parents asked questions of the plan during Wednesday’s hearing, asking how the plan would affect students with disabilities (it will not because those students will be prioritized first, regardless of the new plan, the education department said) and students who opt out of tests (students without state test scores will not be considered for the 25 percent of set-aside seats in the diversity plan, Altschul said).

They also brought very specific concerns such as whether or not potential changes to the plan would change the economic makeup of the school enough to threaten its Title I status, a federal designation that gives more funding to high-poverty schools.

“You didn’t have the answers … You didn’t do the math,” said parent Leslie Washington, whose daughter is in fourth grade at P.S. 242.

Though most who spoke up opposed the plan in some form, the proposal did have supporters in the room, including a group of principals and teachers. Cidalia Costa, a middle school teacher at West Prep Academy, said a plan to desegregate the area is “long overdue” to fix a system that’s been flawed for years.

“This plan is not for people who already have an advantage to get more advantage. So, I’m sorry, but I have to advocate for my students because they face a lot of challenges,” she said.

The Department of Education plans to make a decision about the proposal by the end of the school year, and changes would go into effect for the District 3 middle school class of 2019. A public comment period is up through May 29. The CEC is taking feedback through email at d3feedback@gmail.com.

After the meeting, Kristen Berger, chair of the CEC’s middle school committee, said she isn’t sure which proposal would be best. But she’s happy the conversation about measures to desegregate schools in the district is ongoing.

“It is a small fix, but it is a movement in the right direction,” she said of the middle school effort, adding that the group still needs to address system-wide issues including whether “all schools at all levels, elementary, and middle, are of good enough quality.”